Let’s talk lazy fantasy writing. It exists. It’s out there. And when you find yourself reading some 30+ middle grade fantasies in a given year there are certain tropes and themes that appear so often they wear a rut in your frontal lobe. Most of them are innocuous enough, but there’s one that really sets fire to my dander; prophecies. Ugh. I cannot STAND prophecies. Essentially they’re just a way for the author to provide foreshadowing in as annoying a way as possible. Further points are detracted if the doggone prophecy rhymes. There are very few ways to upset the prophecy conundrum. You might be able to get away with one if you’re as good as Harry Potter but I’m not surprising anyone when I say that most just sorta slap `em in there willy-nilly. Which is perhaps part of the reason Brian Farrey’s The Vengekeep Prophecies is as much of a relief as it is. You want prophecies? Fine. Then let’s come up with a concept that sort of turns the whole idea behind them on its head from a book that says with perfect simplicity, “Fate is a lazy man’s excuse for avoiding curiosity.” With great humor and dexterity Farrey creates a new fantasy world where magic is kept in check, only popping up once in a while to bite our heroes on the bum. Fast and funny, this is one of those rare 400-page novels where I wouldn’t cut so much as a sentence or a paragraph if it meant making the story any shorter.
It’s tough being the black sheep in a family OF black sheep, but such is the lot of Jaxter Grimjinx. It’s certainly an honor to be next in a long line of thieves, con artists, forgers, fleet-fingered pilferers, etc. It’s significantly less of an honor to be a clumsy klutz unable to pick even the simplest lock. But what he lacks in dexterity Jaxter more than makes up for with his love of herbs capable of undoing every protective magic they come across. Then it happens. In the village of Vengekeep it is customary to reveal once a year a tapestry that will predict the coming year. Produced hundreds of years ago by prophetic twins, Vengekeep relies on these prophecies. So imagine the horror of the townspeople when they discover that this year a horrific series of plagues and disasters will be visited upon them and their saviors will be those no good Grimjinxes. Of course they will be. The Grimjinxes found a way to fake the tapestry this year and they envision it as brilliant cover for their daring exploits. But that’s all before the stories on the fake tapestry start coming true. Suddenly, it’s up to the least reputable citizens in town to save everyone. And it’s up to Jaxter to ultimately undo the damage his family has wrought.
When I think of the great conmen of fantasy literature I tend to draw a blank. I know they’re out there in droves in the adult literary sphere, but on the children’s side they’re a touch harder to come by. Sure there was The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner and Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge but those were individuals. Whole families of shysters, tricksters, and con artists? That’s an original notion that gives a person pause. And though admittedly there were times when the Grimjinx clan resembled nothing so much as a mildly moderated Addams Family (it’s the feisty grandma that does it), in the end they’re a nicely fleshed out family unit.
In fact, that’s one of the nicest things about Farrey. No matter how small a character or how bit a part, he fleshes out even the most minor of supporting characters. And Jaxter, as the main character, is even more beautifully created. He could easily come off as some medieval Batman with his pouches standing in for a utility belt, or maybe a slightly grimier Sherlock Holmes with his ability to notice hundreds of details about a person in a single glance. Instead, there’s a nice complexity to his character. He loves his family (who are admittedly very lovable) but he’s torn. He’s been raised to believe in this great grand heritage of cons and yet his heart really lies with research. He tries to tell himself otherwise and nearly succeeds until the moment much later at the end of the book where he says, “I was much better at fooling myself than I was at fooling everyone else.” Best of all, I always appreciate those writers that create heroes with special skills or interests that help to save themselves or the ones they love in the end. Jaxter has those very skills tenfold and save people he does.
Funny book too, come to think of it. Lots of fantasies try to weave in a little humor here and there, but so few actually succeed in being funny. That’s probably partly because humor is so subjective. What I find hilarious you might find gauche or gross. But I think it’s fair to say that a good large swath of kids reading this book would find it honestly amusing. How can you not like a book (or characters) where wise warnings are purposefully waved off with a pointed, “Sorry, Son, what was that? I was too busy ignoring you.” I also admit to loving the little Grimjinx words of wisdom that pepper the chapters. They’re fairly spot on some of the time, putting a wry twist on lessons we’ve heard before but not in this particular light. “If you must steal from a wise man or a foolish one, steal from the wise. You’ll leave him with something he’ll value: a lessen.” “Keep your enemies close, your friends closer, and let them fight it out.” “Accusations are merely the envy of the unenlightened given form.” Good stuff.
I ran a bookclub for kids until not too long ago and one thing those smart kiddos loathed was the dreaded number on the spine. For some of them, they couldn’t properly enjoy a book if they felt it was just the first in a long series. And The Vengekeep Prophecies, truth be told, really is the first in what I believe to be a trilogy. That said, there is only one minor hint that there is more to come when you reach the story’s end. By that point every dangling thread has been tied up, every loose plot point woven back into the story’s whole. Then Jaxter’s younger sister goes and hints that she’ll tell him something in the future. Aside from that (a note that will undoubtedly go by many a young reader) this is a standalone first novel that fulfills its promises and yet leaves you wanting more. In other words, the best kind of fantasy there is. You can bet I’ll be reading that sequel someday. Whenever it wants to appear.
Like This? Then Try:
- Fly By Night by Frances Hardinge
- The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
- The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
First Lines: “Even weeks later, I heard rumors that I had ruined the Festival of the Twins. Which was complete rubbish. I was nowhere near the Festival grounds at the time. I was too busy escaping from a house fire. That I’d caused. Accidentally.”
Notes on the Cover: Brown. Brown brown brown brown brown brown. Say it together with me children – What is the one cover color kids eschew faster than gin-soaked broccoli? Brown. As a children’s librarian it really doesn’t matter how well I talk up a book. Once they get a glimpse of that brown cover it’s all over. The saving grace is that in this case the brown is only roughly half of the book jacket, so maybe if you strategically hold the book across the brown as you talk it up (I’m trying to do it right now and it TOTALLY does not look awkward) you could swing it that way. In any case, I pray that when the book goes to paperback (as well it should considering how magnificent and shining the text is) we’ll something a little less tan and a little more lively in its future. Heck, even the flames here look brown. Flames! I ask you. As it happens, the author likes it more than I do.
Other Blog Reviews: The Book on the Hill
Watch author Brian Farrey as he explains a bit more about the book. Gets extra points for using the phrase Chosen One Schmosen One.