Sunday, August 14, 2016

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls

The League of Beastly Dreadfuls
by Holly Grant
Recommended Ages: 11+

Anastasia McCrumpet thinks she's an average, or possibly below-average, freckly 11-year-old with tragic flatulence and a passive-aggressive hamster. But a couple of batty old ladies, in collusion with her monobrowed school secretary, apparently deem Anastasia worthy of kidnapping. They lure her out of school with a crazy story about her parents being gravely injured in a freak vacuum-cleaner mishap, then lock her up in Room 11 of St. Agatha's Asylum for the Criminally Insane - a moldy Victorian institution, full of portraits of monobrowed women wearing the same eyeball-styled pinky ring as her kidnappers. They feed her a miserable diet of Mystery Lumps, force her to collect leeches in the adjacent bog, and warn her to avoid the teenager she has seen digging holes on the grounds with a birdcage padlocked to his head. They claim he's their gardener, and a biting lunatic.

Actually, the boy with the birdcage turns out to be even stranger than that. As weird happenings follow Anastasia around the creepy corridors of St. Agatha's, she gradually learns that the so-called gardener is a Shadowboy named Quentin, who was caught trying to rescue his younger brother Ollie from the old biddies' clutches. Prim and Prude belong to a secret society that calls itself the Watchers, and they have evil plans for any child they catch who exhibits abnormal powers - such as the Shadowchildren, who can umbrate (turn into shadows), and who also have a poisonous bite. Their weaknesses are silver and mirrors. The hags, armed with plenty of both, are just waiting for Ollie to shed a layer of skin that can be used to make a kind of invisibility cloak. But the three children don't have even that long to plan their escape.

Using only the items conveniently left lying around by the previous tenants of the asylum, Anastasia and her new friends must figure out how to get out of the asylum. Besides locks, mirrors, a remote-controlled gate, and an electrified fence, they will have to sneak past the old ladies' sharp-eyed vigil, a pack of vicious guard poodles, and (gulp!) some kind of Creature that supposedly enjoys the taste of children's hearts. With help coming from an unexpected quarter, the escape may be both easier and more complicated than they first planned - but Anastasia will be left facing the big question: What is so special about her? What would the Watchers want with her?

This debut book, richly illustrated by Josie Portillo, is Book 1 of a series that continues, so far, with The Dastardly Deed. It has a good deal of the vocabulary-building, fourth-wall breaking, omniscient-third-person-narrator-who-occasionally-speaks-in-the-first-person business that came in with Lemony Snicket and Pseudonymous Bosch and, at least in children's fiction, seems to be here to stay. The writing sparkles with offbeat word choices, inventive names for persons and books, chilling atmospheres, and a sense of humor ranging from black comedy to cheesy gags. As story structure goes, the moving pieces are so strange and whimsical that at times its progress is unpredictable, delivering a satisfying blend of what-must-inevitably-happen with entertaining surprises. The fact that it leaves a lot of threads untied is, of course, a necessary evil, since there needs to be a reason to keep reading the series. The book is well enough stocked with the laughs, shivers, puzzles, and reasons to care about its main characters, to ensure that you read on.

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