Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #269: The Eye of Zoltar by Jasper Fforde

It's a real treat to watch a skilled writer flash his cards once and then pocket them: he's secure in the knowledge that you saw and noticed them, and you know that those few specific and casually-dropped references will pay off in the end. And seeing a writer do it in a book for young adults is doubly nice, since it shows that writer has faith in his young readers; even if they haven't read as many books yet as their grizzled elders, they can pick up the hints and piece it all together.

The third book in Jasper Fforde's "Chronicles of Kazam" series, The Eye of Zoltar, has those pleasures and more. It follows The Last Dragonslayer and The Song of the Quarkbeast and will have at least one more book to complete the series -- not to put too fine a point on it, but Zoltar has more of a stopping point than an ending. It's not a cliffhanger -- anyone near a precipice is either safely away or assuredly fallen to their doom -- but it clearly calls for another book.

Things seem to be relatively normal as this book opens: Kazam Mystical Arts Management is left as the only magical company in the Ununited Kingdoms, after the failed schemes of their rival, the Amazing Blix, in the previous books. Sure, Kazam's interim manager, Jennifer Strange, has to quickly organize an expedition to capture a dangerous Tralfamosaur and send it off to the wild neighboring Cambrian Empire, but that goes off relatively smoothly. She does have to sacrifice her beloved Volkswagen Beetle as the bait that lured the Tralfamosaur, but Kazam's headquarters Zambini Towers has dozens of working vehicles in its basement that she can use instead.

Unfortunately, the Cambrian Empire has a thriving business in ransom -- practically the only thriving business in the Cambrian Empire, besides danger tourism -- and the Once Magnificent Boo (in her youth, one of the great wizards of the world; since the theft of her wizidrical index fingers, a misanthropic expert on nasty beasts) has been kidnapped while trying to settle the Tralfamosaur.

Even worse, the greatest wizard of all time, the Mighty Shandar, is unhappy with Jennifer, because she upset one of his greatest achievements. Centuries before -- Shandar spends most of his time in stone, to prolong his life, and only emerges to work -- he took a very lucrative job to rid the world of all dragons. Jennifer foiled that plan in the first book; there are now two young dragons, who will grow and eventually reproduce. But Shandar has a proposal: if Jennifer finds the Eye of Zoltar for him -- a powerful dark magical talisman lost for ages -- he'll forgive the transgression. If not, he'll have to attack the dragons, and anyone who tries to stand in his way -- such as Jennifer and the entire staff of Kazam -- will be destroyed along the way.

By an amazing coincidence, the only clue to the Eye's location is also deep in the Cambrian Empire. So Jennifer sets off in an old tanklike Bugatti Royale, armed with a letter of credit and everything everyone knows about the Eye, which is practically nothing. With her are Perkins, a wizard who's just passed his exams and who might be her boyfriend if things ever settle down, and Laura Scrubb, the brain of the spoiled Princess Shazza placed into the body of her handmaiden for a while so she can learn a little humility and useful skills.

The Cambrian Empire is a dangerous wilderness, populated primarily by squabbling ransom-happy tribes and a wide variety of extremely deadly fauna. It's also cut off almost entirely from the outside world: all air traffic (including birds) is shot down at the border on orders of the Emperor, and no news from beyond the borders is allowed in. But Jennifer's hard-bitten and experienced guide -- who is approximately twelve -- declares that she can give their team 50% odds of survival: a good half of them will make it out alive.

And then things get really hairy....

The Eye of Zoltar is a slight departure in style for this series: the first two book were like an escalating juggling act, with complications piling on top of each other until a final crisis threatened everything. This time out, Fforde uses a more linear one-damn-thing-after-another plot, as Jennifer's expedition gains and loses members and fights through more travails and dangers than can be described here. But all along, there are those little hints -- a close reader will be able to guess what else is going on at the same time, and how it all fits together. I wouldn't recommend any reader start the series with this book, since it depends heavily on the earlier ones -- and the impatient should probably wait until the next volume is out as well. But it's a heartfelt, funny fantasy novel for teens with a great main character, a quirky world, and a deep sense of how the world isn't fair but can be made better by hard work and clear sight. And, as usual, I mean "for teens" to mean anyone who ever was one, or is close enough to being one.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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