I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
Ever since their parents vanished a year and a half ago, eleven-year-old Sabrina Grimm and her seven-year old sister Daphne have been escaping from bad foster homes. And in the opening scene of Michael Buckley's The Fairy-Tale Detectives (2005), the first novel in his popular Sisters Grimm series, the girls are taken by their pinch-faced case worker Ms. Smirt to Ferryport Landing, NY, a quaint town without movie theaters, malls, or museums, to live with a dead woman. It develops that the woman, their grandmother Relda Grimm, is alive and well, and among the things the girls will soon discover is why their father lied to them that she was dead and what happened to the girls' mother and him.
They will also learn that nearly every fantastic being and artifact that ever appeared in any fairy tale, legend, or myth really existed and did the things that have been written about them, so that, for instance, a collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales is a history book and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow a true story. We don't encounter such things in real life today because when the age of fairy tales was ending around the start of the 19th century and fantasy beings--Everafters--were being persecuted, they moved to America, where with the help of Wilhelm Grimm they settled in the mostly unsettled woods and fields of Ferryport, thinking to find there an unmolested haven. As time passed and more normal Americans began moving to Ferryport, however, persecution loomed again, so some Everafters tried to wage a pre-emptive war on humanity, but were prevented by a Baba Yaga spell limiting all Everafters to the five square miles of the town for as long as at least one Grimm descendent remains alive. So for 200 years the Everafters have kept a low profile, mostly hiding their magical natures and items, and the Grimms have been playing detective troubleshooters to defuse any problems arising between fairy folk and humans.
That premise permits Buckley to use any fantasy character (including Snow White, Little Bo Peep, Glinda the Good Witch, the Three Little Pigs, the Queen of Hearts, Gepetto, Ichabod Crane, and Mowgli) or item (including Excalibur, Cinderella's fairy godmother's wand, magic beans, and "the" magic mirror) he chooses. It's part of the trend in movies like Shrek (2001), books like Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) and TV shows like Once Upon a Time (2011-) to combine figures from various fairy tales, myths, and legends (often in our own world, often revised so that, for example, traditional villains become heroes and vice versa) to revivify such stories and their characters and to make them more relevant to today's readers. And it's fun to meet fantasy characters from beloved childhood tales rubbing shoulders in a new story.
But such stories may turn into inconsistent anything goes affairs, as when Relda Grimm tells her granddaughters that not all fairy tales are true, saying "For instance, a dish never ran away with a spoon," but why or where Buckley draws the line is fuzzy. Similarly, if fantasy stories are true histories of real events, how could characters who got killed in them appear alive now, like the Hansel and Gretel witch and Grendel? Worse, a diminishing of magic, a numbing of wonder, and a mundaning of fantasy may kick in the more disparate familiar characters are tossed together in a story, especially when, instead of fantastic effect, an author pushes page-turning action (as when the sisters ride on Aladdin's flying carpet--complete with a "kamikaze" dive, a car chase, and a moment when the rug "screeched to a halt"), and gives fantasy characters banal personalities and relationships (as when Beauty and the Beast bicker over being late for a ball), all of which is too much the case in The Fairy-Tale Detectives. The mystery genre itself is about solving rather than evoking mystery, and if fantasy characters are real, what happens to fantasy?
Kvetching aside, The Fairy-Tale Detectives is enjoyable. Although Buckley's writing mostly lacks poetry, magic, and wonder, it is exciting, funny, and vivid, and has some heightened moments, like when the sisters walk through the mirror, and some great lines, like "You would hug the devil if he gave you cookies," or "Who could tell what a woman who had swords hanging over her bed was capable of?" The sisters are spunky (if a little too snappy), loyal, vulnerable, and strong, and their growing realization that they may finally have found family and home is moving. Other characters like Relda Grimm and Mr. Canis (her lupine border, bodyguard, and friend) and Elvis (her 200-pound, slobber-tongued Great Dane) are appealing. I liked Puck, the 4,000 year-old self-proclaimed Fairy Prince and Trickster King who has decided to stay in the form of a twelve-year-old boy till the sun burns out. And Prince Charming makes a fine mayor: arrogant, snide, and power-hungry.
The reader L. J. Ganser's appealing voice and energetic manner are fine (especially for Sabrina and Daphne), with one exception: he's unconvincing and inconsistent with foreign accents like Relda Grimm's slight German one and Prince Charming and Jack the Giant Killer's thick English ones (especially when Jack says things like, "You can't keep a bloke like me down, can you? Nosiree-bob!").
Finally, although Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland on a Ship of Her Own Making (2011) is more magical, being written with rich, poetic, and wonder-filled prose and peopled with characters of the author's own devising rather than with ones plucked from classic fantasy stories, kids must love The Fairy-Tale Detectives, and adults who like (sub)urban fantasy, everything-fairy-and-the-kitchen-sink stories, and exciting, funny, page-turning kids' books should like it too.