Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cornelia Funke

Dragon Rider
by Cornelia Funke
Recommended Age: 10+

It was the insistent (not to say “shrill”) feedback from you loyal readers that forced me to push The Thief Lord ahead of its slot in my reading-and-reviewing schedule. But even though I immensely enjoyed that book, I balked at paying out full hardcover price for the author’s other books, including Inkheart and Dragon Rider. No amount of cajoling on your part could change my mind.

What got me to bend, at last, was the cover art by Don Seegmiller. This is really an inspired cover, one of a few illustrations (along with Gris Grimly’s cover for The Cockatrice Boys by Joan Aiken) that has made it impossible for me NOT to buy the book. I couldn’t hold out any longer!

The cover shows us a beautiful, silver dragon in flight, under a full moon and starry sky, over a snowy mountain range. It is not only a beautiful dragon; it is also one that looks very gentle and good-natured. On his back are not one but two riders: a little boy who looks like he’s having the time of his life, and a large catlike creature that seems to be coping as best she can. I already know these characters so well, without having even opened the book! What’s more, I can’t WAIT to open it.

Such artists must be STOPPED!

That having been said, I don’t know what else to tell you about the book. I don’t want to spoil your fun. Just look at that cover art and tell me that you don’t want to read it! Go on, take your best shot!

All right, I’ll tell you a little bit about it. The dragon’s name is Firedrake, and he is flying away from the sheltered valley in Scotland where he has lived his whole life, because humans are about to turn it into a reservoir. Somebody has to find another safe place for dragons to live, and no one but Firedrake will do it. So off he flies, searching for a semi-mythical valley in the Himalayas called the Rim of the World. He takes with him his faithful brownie friend Sorrell, who likes to munch on mushrooms and can do amazing things with spit. They pick up a homeless boy named Ben in a big European city (possibly Hamburg, where the author lives). Together, and with the help of several other friends they meet along the way, they face all kinds of dangers and meet all sorts of “fabulous creatures,” including (but not limited to) dwarves, a basilisk, and a djinn with a thousand eyes. They also endure betrayal, face a monstrous enemy, and learn that rats have a lot of hidden talents. Like Harry Potter, Ben finds himself at the center of a mysterious prophecy, and also overcomes a great many difficulties by the power of love.

So that’s it in a nutshell. A big, 206-word nutshell. But you still don’t know the half of why, from front cover to back, this is SUCH a fun book to read!

by Cornelia Funke
Translated by Anthea Bell
Recommended Age: 12+

For five reasons I am excited to be writing a review of this book: (1) It’s going to be a “major motion picture” soon; [UPDATE: The film is still coming soon.] (2) It’s the first part of a trilogy whose second book, Inkspell, is about to be published; [UPDATE: It has been published, and I own it but haven't read it yet.] (3) It’s by the same author as Dragon Rider and The Thief Lord; (4) The paperback just hit the shelves of bookstores in the U.S.; [UPDATE: As of June 2005, that is.] and (5) A million people have sent me messages insisting that I read it RIGHT NOW. But apart from that, I’m glad that I can share it with you because it’s an excellent book.

Before I sing the praises of Cornelia Funke, I must sing of Anthea Bell, who translated this book from its original German. In my “day job” I have come across a lot of translated material, and you can almost always tell it was translated. Something of the original is always lost in translation, and there is always just enough awkwardness in the syntax to remind you that the translator is trying hard. Anthea Bell’s translation is one of the few exceptions—so effortless, so smooth, so idiomatic that you can hardly believe it wasn’t written in English to start with. To put a point on it, the translator is invisible. Bravo!

In fact, the translation is so good that it left me wondering whether the quotes from all my favorite books, which head each chapter, were chosen by Funke or by Bell. Most of them were originally in English. And I also wonder whose idea it was to make the setting so vague—there’s a lot of talk about “the north” and “the south,” and although American readers will probably picture most of the story as taking place in Mexico, I’m pretty sure Frau Funke has Italy in mind.

As for the story, it nestles comfortably into the tradition of the classic stories it quotes from. Readers of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, or of Michael Ende’s Neverending Story, may recognize the basic idea. For in Inkheart, it is possible for “real” people (from our world, that is) to cross over into the world where characters in a book live. And the characters in the book, in exchange, can cross into our world. The magic in this unique story comes not from the book itself, or from a diabolically clever gadget, but from the voice of certain people reading the book out loud—any book will do, as long as it is well-written. Some people have the gift of making the words come to life, painting the scenery with their voice, transporting their hearers (in their mind, at least) to a magical world, making them see and hear and smell and feel the things the book describes. And some people—very few, thank God—take it a step further: when they read aloud, objects and creatures and even people sometimes disappear from one reality and appear inside the other.

One of those people is a bookbinder named Mo, who lives alone with his adored and adoring daughter, Meggie. Mo and Meggie both love to read books, but Mo never reads to Meggie aloud. She wonders about this sometimes. Then one dark, stormy night a suspicious stranger visits Mo, and the next day they are on the run from their home. A villain is after them, a villain who came out of a book called Inkheart, and whose heart is as black as the title suggests. The villain is named Capricorn, who has been stealing all the copies of Inkheart in the world and wants to steal Mo as well, because Capricorn believes that Mo has the power to read him and his vile henchmen back into the book they came from.

I will say no more about the plot, except that it is suspenseful, filled with colorful characters—some of them flamboyantly evil, and the rest of them complex and fascinatingly flawed—and that a lot of really deadly peril lies in store for Meggie and her friends as she tries to find a way to “set the story straight.”

I am really interested to know where the sequel takes these characters (the ones who survive, anyway), after the excitement and drama of this book. Truly this is a book for people who love books, about people who love books. It will come alive as you read it almost as if the characters had stepped off the page...a thought that makes me shiver, though I cannot tell whether it is from pleasure or from dread...

The Thief Lord
by Cornelia Funke
translated by Oliver Latsch
Recommended Age: 10+

Many "Book Trolley" readers have begged me to read and review this best-selling adventure, and I am glad that I did. It is a beautiful book, filled with a deep love for children, and compassion for those children who do not have loving parents to protect them and provide for them. It is also filled with the unique beauty and ancient dignity of the floating city of Venice.

The story begins with a private detective named Victor Getz taking on a new client. The client is a wealthy woman from Hamburg named Esther Hartlieb, who wants him to locate the two orphaned sons of her sister. Aunt Esther's late sister had always fascinated her children with stories about the magical beauty of Venice, so she is sure the boys are there. They have run away together, evidently because Aunt Esther only wants to adopt the younger boy - angelic, five-year-old Bo - but not his devoted older brother, Prosper. In spite of an instinct telling him he can understand why the children would want to run away from Aunt Esther, Victor accepts the job.

The boys, as Victor eventually learns, have joined a handful of orphans and runaways living in an abandoned movie theatre. There a mysterious figure calling himself "the Thief Lord" provides for their needs, apparently from the loot of his crimes. Besides Prosper and Bo, there is a strong-willed, bookish girl known as Hornet, a hot-blooded young pickpocket named Riccio, and a dark-skinned young fisherman named Mosca. The five children have shelter and food, thanks to the Thief Lord, who is only a boy himself - his real name is Scipio.

But then Scipio accepts a business proposal from the untrustworthy antiques dealer who buys their loot, a red-bearded scoundrel named Barbarossa. Barbarossa invites them to join with a mysterious man calling himself Conte (the Count) in a scheme to steal a seemingly worthless object from a lady's house. The Conte promises to reward them richly, as if the wing is the key to his heart's desire. And though the children find out that Scipio is not who he has always said he is, they try to carry out the heist anyway.

Everything goes wrong, the lady of the house (Ida Spavento, by name) and the detective Victor Getz become involved, and so do an island called Isla Segreta which is supposed to be cursed, and a magical merry-go-round that turns adults into children and children into adults. Everyone gets doublecrossed, lost, found, endangered, and saved.

Do Barbarossa and Aunt Esther get their comeuppance? Will the secrets of Isla Segreta be revealed? Will six poor children (and two lonely adults) find the happiness they deserve? If I gave you any more information, I would spoil the answers for you. And I wouldn't want to cheat you of a suspenseful, event-filled, tender-hearted adventure amid the streets and canals of the most magical city in the world.

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