Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Mark Lamb

Farperoo, Vol. 1
(The Dark Inventions, Part 1)
by Mark Lamb
Recommended Age: 13+

I want to plunge right into praises for this book, for several reasons. First, and just to get it out there in public so no one can say I hid the facts from you, I didn’t have to pay for this book. A kind and enthusiastic bookseller sent it to me all the way from the U.K. (Thanks, Nigel!) for me to review. Not to encourage or discourage any authors or publishers who are thinking of making the same offer, I need to add that I only accept such an offer if it sounds like a book that I want to read—and I will be honest about what I think of it!

Second, this “Volume 1” of the Dark Inventions is the beginning of a powerful new fantasy for young readers. It has a bit in common with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and it also reminds me of the Wolves Chronicles by Joan Aiken. Set mostly in a ghastly, seaside town in a bizarro-England, for which the weather, crime, industrial pollution, corruption, and unethical journalists make Grimston-on-Sea an amazingly apt name. A weirdly talented girl named Lucy Blake—whose gifts include “inventing” (also known as LYING)—soon comes into focus. Both of her parents disappeared and/or died under mysterious circumstances, and she lives in her ancestral house with a conniving, lampstand-shaped stepmom, a spineless, jingle-writing step-stepdad, and a stepbrother whose name (Tarquin) pretty much tells you everything you need to know about him. She has a friend named Toby Lindstrom, who is pretty ordinary — not particularly brave, not very good at keeping secrets—but solidly loyal. She has another friend named Fenny who vanishes in broad daylight, on a crowded boardwalk, at the beginning of the story. And everyone else, more or less, is her enemy.

That includes some pretty powerful people. By the end of the book, she has made a couple more friends (notably a “private dick” named Bentley Priory), but lots more powerful enemies including the police, the press, a law firm, the staff of a psychiatric hospital, any number of people and things in a world called Farperoo, and last but not least, an eeeevil angel named Raziel. And why shouldn’t Lucy have enemies? She has the power to move between several worlds. She can conjure tons of salted-in-the-shell peanuts out of thin air. She is in possession of a book that existed before the world was created. AND she has the power to alter, create, or destroy reality simply by telling lies...erm, I mean inventions.

So on the “Pro” side of getting this book: it is a daringly imaginative fantasy, full of thrills, chills, and laugh-out-loud humor; it is attractively illustrated by Matthew S. Armstrong; and, judging by the size of this book, plus certain hints that there may eventually be several more like it, you could pass a lot of wonderful hours reading this tale. The author has a very individual style and a clever way of paying out information, though at first its “differentness” may be a bit offputting. And there’s no denying that the book is solidly bound.

HOWEVER, I must also mention the “Con” side: the binding again. This book is huge—thick, wide, tall, and heavily bound. I believe it is self-published, which may explain all this. Maybe an advantage of publishing commercially is that you get a lighter stock of paper, less offensive-smelling ink, and an overall product that sits more comfortably in the hand. This book gave me wrist cramps! But I’m not just kvetching about the weight. The page format is like one of those big, dull textbooks you had in high school or college, with really wide paragraphs that cost more effort to read than the narrower format found in most fiction.

My overall verdict is that the book is worth reading even if it is a little hard on the arms and eyes—but I do hope future editions are formatted better. Also, I can’t help noticing (because of my theological training) that the author’s ideas about angels and demons are a little goofy, if not disturbing. But it is also clear that the worlds (even the “real world”) in this story are fictional, fantasy worlds where more than just the spelling of things like “Ingulesh” and “Latinn” is likely to be different from our own. I think you will enjoy visiting this world, and I predict that you will be hopelessly “hooked” by the ending.

Farperoo, Vol. 2
(The Dark Inventions, Part 1)
by Mark Lamb
Recommended Age: 13+

Author Mark Lamb was kind enough to send me an “advance review copy” of Farperoo, Volume II – and I blew it. Since I don’t want to waste space in this column making excuses, all I will say is that I hope Mr. Lamb will excuse me for taking so long to review his book. There were a whole series of ridiculous circumstances and I’m sure you’d all love to hear the story, but then you would suspect me of inventing things and that’s the job of Lucy, the heroine in the Dark Inventions series.

At first, I thought Farperoo, Volume I was the first of 5 parts of the Dark Inventions series. [EDIT: I believe the titles of the subsequent parts will be Phinisterre, Darkenteria, Varekai, and Harmegiddo]. It wasn’t until I received Volume II and Mr. Lamb’s accompanying letter that I realized that the first part was, itself, divided into at least 3 volumes. So the first thing you should note about this series is that it is planned on a vast scale. It is also vastly complex, taking place in several strange worlds and peopled by multitudes of characters, many of them profoundly weird. There are angels (some of them evil), dementor-like demons, giant killer scarab beetles, a mermaid, a talking living ornithopter, a sorcerer, a rabid journalist, a demented emperor, a talking puppet, a handbag with eight legs and teeth, a spirit of death, and at the center of it all, a girl named Lucy who is coming to terms with her power to tell stories that come to life, and to travel between parallel worlds if not create them.

Lucy has lots of enemies, and her small group of friends is in an increasingly difficult spot as this story progresses. She is being pursued from world to world by mind-destroying fiends and a vengeful angel named Raziel. Her path takes her to scenes of violence, destruction, and squalor, and possibly to the end of a whole world. And of course, when this volume ends, there is much more adventure to look forward to.

This is definitely a tale for a compulsive reader to enjoy. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it all at one time, but neither can I blame author Lamb for that, nor do I want to go into my excuses for taking so long to read this book (but holiday travels and moving houses were involved, hint, hint).

On the other hand, I may have been better motivated to read this volume in a handful of sittings, if once again – see my review of the first volume – the oversized page format were not so taxing to my eyeballs and my attention span. Yes readers, of all the things to complain about, I will again pick on the physical layout of the book. I kept finding myself wanting to pick up a narrower book instead, even though I enjoyed the many original fantasy elements of Lucy’s adventure. So even when I was officially “reading” this book, I was also reading (and finishing) quite a number of other books. And the more I dilly-dallied, the harder it was for me to “track” the many characters, events, and plot threads that could have made this book such a richly satisfying experience.

I enjoyed Matthew S. Armstrong’s full-page illustrations. Lamb’s storytelling created its own rich gallery of images as well. At times, though, I was a little challenged to picture the events and characters in my mind’s eye, or to hear their dialogue in my mind’s ear. Perhaps, again, this is due to the gaps in my attention span, and perhaps, again, the book design bears some blame. Perhaps it is merely because I share a habit of laziness with many other compulsive readers, a trait Mr. Lamb should take into account as he targets our type of audience. Or perhaps it is a sign of the respect Mr. Lamb has for his readers, that he trusts them to be able and willing to do some work, to pick up on subleties, and to join a marvelous tale in mid-stride, filling in some blanks with their own imaginations and waiting trustingly for him to fill in others as the story goes along.

UPDATE: I recently heard from Mr. Lamb, who offered me an advance peek at Farperoo, Volume 3. I guess all is forgiven! Whew! Also, if you are interested in learning more about Dark Inventions and what its different parts are all about - saving me the trouble of explaining it - visit the official site. It's really quite interesting. The illustrations above are ruthlessly swiped from it.

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