Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Sisters Grimm

The Fairy-Tale Detectives
by Michael Buckley
Recommended Ages: 10+

Book 1 of The Sisters Grimm introduces us to Sabrina and Daphne, sisters age 11 and 7, who have been at the mercy of New York City's Child Welfare program since their parents disappeared 18 months ago. They have moved from one cruelly inappropriate foster home to another, Sabrina protecting her younger sister but growing increasingly cynical in the process. And now, a grandmother they were told was dead has come forward, offering them a home.

Sabrina doesn't care to be taken in - in any sense of the term - by someone she regards as an imposter, if not a certifiable loony. Granny Relda lives in a bizarre house in the small, upstate town of Ferryport Landing. There are too many locks on the doors, too many books with weird titles, too many impossible colors and flavors in the food -- plus, the old biddy claims they are descendants of the Brothers Grimm, who wrote not fairy tales but histories. And so the Sisters Grimm are hereditary guardians, problem-solvers, and detectives serving the many characters from those histories who live in Ferryport Landing.

Yes, clearly, Granny Relda is crackers. Sabrina decides to escape as soon as possible. The ridiculous thing is that her first chance comes when an actual giant kidnaps Granny Relda and her friend Mr. Canis, right in front of the girls. Sabrina's life is suddenly changed by the realization that all the old lady's outrageous stories were true. And now it's up to her and Daphne to save their family.

It won't be easy, given that many of the Everafters - as the fairy-tale denizens call themselves - are hostile to the Grimm family. It's hard to tell whom to trust; and Sabrina isn't a naturally trusting girl. Can they rely on Mayor Charming, who is quite honest about wanting to get rid of the Grimms? How about the local sheriff and his deputies, who (most appropriately) are the Three Little Pigs? Can they trust Jack the Giant Killer to help them stave off an invasion of giants? The ever-youthful Puck, king of mischief-makers, doesn't think so - but he's not so reliable himself.

This is only the beginning of a terrific series that blends characters from folklore with modern-day mystery and family drama. It's full of humor, thrills, plot twists, and snarky satire targeting people (from social workers to law enforcement personnel) who aren't cut out for their jobs. And given the adorable openness of little Daphne, combined with the closed-up shrewdness of Sabrina, there seems to be plenty of room for family conflict and character growth in the books to follow.

The Unusual Suspects
by Michael Buckley
Recommended Ages: 10+

First, before I discuss this second book in The Sisters Grimm series, I want to defend myself against any possibility of being charged with plagiarism. My Magic Quill column has a chapter, originally posted in March 2007, titled "The Unusual Suspects." I didn't get the idea for that title from this book, which was published at about that time and which I only got around to reading at the tail-end of 2008. I suspect that this book, along with several similarly-titled books and stories by various authors, took its name by a twist on "the usual suspects," a phrase first popularized by Claude Rains' character in Casablanca. That's certainly what I was thinking in March '07. Great minds think alike. Lots of them, evidently.

As for author Buckley, any charge of plagiarism would be futile. He has stolen his characters from a wide range of folklore and fantasy classics, from the fairy tales of Grimm and Andersen to the works of Baum and Carroll. He has cast his net so widely that one could accuse him of nothing worse than what Clive James said of J. K. Rowling: "ransacking a sorcerers' warehouse stocked with all the magic gear since Grimm's first fairy tales."

Most of that gear seems to be stored behind the magic mirror that lives in Granny Relda's spare bedroom. Also living under her roof are the last descendants of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Sabrina (11) and Daphne (7), who are both trying in their own way to adjust to their new living situation; and let's not forget Puck, an eternally-boyish fairy prince with an impish sense of humor and, when he chooses to reveal them, a pair of huge pink insect wings.

When Sabrina and Puck lock horns, you can often spot the spectre of puberty hovering nearby: some of it has to do with being at the age when girls and boys start to pay attention to each other. Which makes for a nice distraction, now and then, from the grim urgency of the case they are working on. As fairy-tale detectives, it's up to the Grimm family to police the Everafter population of Ferryport Landing, New York. And it's never needed more policing than now, what with a teacher at the local elementary school being eaten by a monster. Somehow this is connected with the way all the kids keep falling asleep in school, the discovery that several Everafter couples sold their babies, and the principal's peculiar power to control people and animals -- he is the Pied Piper of Hamelin, after all.

Throw in appearances by seemingly every fairy-tale character from Baba Yaga to Snow White - don't worry; I haven't mentioned the one that really matters - and you've got a comedy crossed with a mystery, seasoned with a dash of horror, a pinch of romance, and a generous dollop of subversive irony. I mean, who is ever going to see fairy tales the same way after seeing a pig (a literal pig) in a sheriff's uniform, a charging swarm of carnivorous rabbits, and a shrewish social worker making cow-eyes at a school guidance counselor? If you find these images provocative, you will find more and more of them as the series continues.

Besides the big case, this story also finds our main heroine dealing with a more personal problem. Since her parents disappeared, Sabrina has compensated for her harsh circumstances by developing a habit of distrust. Now that her world has been turned upside down, now that she knows fairy tales are real and that her parents were involved in them, now that she knows Everafters are behind her parents' disappearance, and many more despise the Grimm family - well, can you guess where this is going? Sabrina begins to have a little problem spelled H-A-T-E. And dealing with that problem raises this story from frivolous entertainment to the level of well-rounded, human storytelling a child can learn from and love.

The Problem Child
by Michael Buckley
Recommended Ages: 10+

When Wilhelm Grimm emigrated to upstate New York with a shipload of Everafters - the real, live characters from his histories-cum-fairy tales - not everyone made a smooth transition. A few, in fact, became dangerously disturbed. In this third installment in The Sisters Grimm, these fiendishly insane Everafters break loose and begin terrorizing the population of Ferryport Landing.

This outbreak of trouble just happens to coincide with the return of Sabrina and Daphne Grimm's Uncle Jake, a man whose very existence has been erased from the memories of most people in town. Why? Because his rash arrogance led to the escape of the very bad-guys who have now wreaking havoc again - to say nothing of Grandpa Grimm's death.

The villains in this case are somehow involved with the Scarlet Hand, the shadowy group of anti-Grimm Everafters who kidnapped the girls' parents. So they are doubly motivated, as fairy-tale detectives, to get to the bottom of this case. Solving it may help them find their parents.

Once again, the bad guys aren't the only problem Sabrina and her family have to contend with. Uncle Jake has to work through his guilt to feel worthy of his mother's forgiveness. Both he and Sabrina struggle with an addiction to magical objects - being "touched," as Baba Yaga calls it. And what happens to Puck leads directly to another family crisis, and the succeeding adventure titled Once Upon a Crime.

What makes this series of fairy-tale mysteries work so well? Perhaps it is the author's precise sense of balance. Somehow he keeps brewing these rich concoctions, with chilling mystery, family drama, rib-tickling spoof and eye-popping magic all at their proper strength. If it was any more serious, it wouldn't be so much fun for kids of all ages. If it was any less, it wouldn't make you care so much about its characters - even the off-center ones. Buckley writes with wit and compassion, but above all he spins a yarn in which one can easily get caught up.

Once Upon a Crime
by Michael Buckley
Recommended Ages: 10+

Sabrina and Daphne Grimm finally have their parents back - in body, at least. No one knows quite how to wake them from their magical sleep. But the Grimm family of fairy-tale detectives has a more urgent problem. The fairy prince Puck - sort of an adopted member of the family - has been gravely injured and needs the attention of others of his kind. This means that Granny and the girls must take him out of the safe haven of Ferryport Landing, which for hundreds of years has been home to many of the Everafters (fairy tale folk) who came to America with Wilhelm Grimm. They must take him to the land of faerie, or what's left of it. Oddly enough, it turns out to be a restaurant in New York City.

Now if you thought characters from Grimm's Fairy Tales were trouble, wait till the fairies from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream get involved. These days, the Everafters outside of Ferryport Landing have grown increasingly scattered, and Faerie has all but disappeared. What remains of it is a mafia-style empire, topped by King Oberon and his embittered wife Titania. This is why ex-sheriff Hamstead's romance with a fairy's main squeeze reads like the plot of a verismo opera. It also means trouble for Sabrina, when Puck's levitating coccoon chooses her, rather than his long-ditched fiancee, to be his guardian while he heals. (If you've missed the hints of a developing romance here, you may also have missed the Ron/Hermione ship. Ooh! Low blow!)

Things get serious when Oberon is fatally poisoned. Suddenly Puck is the King of Faerie, when he is least able to do anything about it. Meanwhile, Sabrina is struggling to understand new discoveries about her mother, who turns out not to have had such a fairy-tale-free lifestyle after all. Does she really know the people closest to her? Long reluctant to accept her calling as a fairy-tale detective, Sabrina wrestles with this question while searching for clues in dwarf-infested subway tunnels, Scrooge's psychic seance parlor, and Macy's Department store, where the robotic Christmas displays are supervised by... ha, ha, you'll have to find out for yourself!

In spite of all the suspects and clues, you may be amazed to find out whodunit. In fact, part of what gives the climax of this book its punch is the fact that there are really two crimes in it, and two bad-guys afoot, each promising Sabrina a chance to apply her growing skills as a detective, and her already considerable powers as a swashbuckling girl-hero. Cringe at the spectacular dangers involved in multiple climaxes, including (but not limited to) a scene that poses the question: What if King Kong was a giant robot? But don't worry. Sabrina lives to fight crime another day!

Magic and Other Misdemeanors
by Michael Buckley
Recommended Ages: 10+

Here is the fifth book in the captivating fairy-tale/mystery series titled The Sisters Grimm. This one finds Sabrina (11) and Daphne (7) still trying to figure out how to waken their parents from a nearly two-year-long magical sleep. But the mysterious society known as Scarlet Hand, which kidnapped Henry and Veronica Grimm in the first place, is not yet finished making trouble. In fact, the girls hardly seem to have any time to work on the problem of their parents, now that a new crime wave has broken out in the Everafter sanctuary of Ferryport Landing, New York.

Certain Everafters - the real, living, immortal people whose life stories inspired the great fairy tales - are stealing magical items from others. A wand, a clock, and a vial of water from the Fountain of Youth have been stolen, and whoever has them is using them for some unknown purpose. As a side effect of this ill-gotten magic, rifts are opening in the fabric of time. The past and the future are getting mixed up, giving the girls a glimpse of an awful future when the Scarlet Hand is running rampant and only a few hopeless defenders are left... and, in a blast from the past, putting an ancestor of the Grimm sisters in jeopardy, and all his descendants with him. With an avaricious new sheriff and a loathesome new mayor breathing down their necks, it looks as if there may be no future for the Grimms -- or for the many Everafters helped by their detective work.

So this series comes to its daring and thrilling treatment of Time Travel. Hearts, homes, and lives are at stake. But in spite of the big fantasy concept and the serious stakes involved, it remains a kid-friendly mystery with lots of humor and a good deal of romance (some of the tragic variety). We find out something new about the seemingly ageless fairies. We encounter dragons, witches, talking mirrors, diabolical villains (notably including tax collectors), and even a feline exterminator who is terrified of mice. And at the end, we experience the shock of seeing a character switch sides. More on that is sure to come in Book 6, titled Tales from the Hood.

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