Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #256: The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

I had an intro all planned here, about how middle books of trilogies are usually lumpy and disappointing at the best of times, and that Jasper Fforde clearly knew that, and made the middle book of this trilogy quick and zippy, to get through any potential rough patches quickly and make it to the big finish.

But I did a quick check of the third book in this series -- The Eye of Zoltar, coming in early October if you're American and available since April if you're British -- and it promises further books to come, so there goes that theory; this isn't a trilogy to begin with. (And then I checked, and found out that The Last Dragonslayer, the first book, is just about exactly the same length as this one.) So I'm left with just a simple fact: The Song of the Quarkbeast, the second adventure of Jennifer Strange, teenage foundling and both property and manager of Kazam Mystical Arts Management (one of the only two magical firms left in this sadly depleted world), is notably shorter than the book that follow it. And that's a very, very common thing: series, like people, tend to get wider in the middle as they go on. So we're just left with a book that's a sequel to something, and that already has its own sequel in turn, by a fine and sprightly writer, who reliably delivers both humor and serious thought in his books.

Fforde imbues his novels for young readers -- this series is officially for Young Adults, though his Nursery Crime books are mostly excellent for teens, and the Thursday Next books would only be dull to younger readers who are annoyed by the massive numbers of literary allusions -- with an everydayness somewhat different from his "adult" novels. With the Next books, events tend to escalate quickly, and build on each other, from early in the book. But Jennifer Strange's adventures gear up more slowly and consistently, like an old car being nursed up to speed on a highway. All of Fforde's books get to the high-speed, massive-danger climax eventually, of course -- he's great at building tension in deeply authentic ways for his individual fantasy worlds -- but the Kazam books get there in a somewhat different way.

Quarkbeast follows directly on the heels of Dragonslayer; it's only set a month or so afterwards. Kazam and Jennifer are settling back to regular life after that great upheaval, and the initial burst of increased magic from that climax has ebbed back down closer to what they were used to. But magic is clearly growing after generations going the other way, and  there's starting to be talk about when and how the magical technology -- microwave ovens, computers, cellular phones, medical scanners, for example -- will and can be rebuilt and turned back on. So there are opportunities, as there always are when something is growing.

And opportunities tend to attract opportunists -- such as Conrad Blix, aka the Amazing Blix, slimy and scheming head of Kazam's rival iMagic. Blix sees big moolah -- literally, the currency in this series is "the moolah" -- in the resurgence of magic, and has gotten in with the local King Snodd IV, who is ambitious and ruthless and has all of the other signifier of the Evil King. (Luckily, he only rules the relatively small Kingdom of Hereford, one of roughly a hundred small principalities that make up the Ununited Kingdoms.) And so Blix maneuvers Kazam into a magical contest: the two agencies will rebuild a bridge together, from both ends, and the one that gets to the middle first will swallow up the other and its head will be Snodd's new Court Mystician.

Kazam has a clear advantage in the number and quality of magicians over iMagic, so the contest should be no problem -- but that assumes Blix will be honest, which of course he isn't. And so the plot climbs upward that helix as it goes on, with things getting worse and worse for Jennifer and Kazam each chapter, until it seems that there's no chance that they could win.

But Fforde is a dependably entertaining writer, which means he knows how to deliver the ending his audience wants. I won't tell you how Jennifer saves Kazam -- and possibly the entire Kingdom -- this time, or even how her Quarkbeast (which, you may recall, died in the first book) becomes involved. Because The Song of the Quarkbeast is zippy and sunny and thoughtful and delightful and quirky in the ways of all Fforde's work, so you might as well read it yourself and find out the fun way. You definitely don't want to leave this to just the teenagers.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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