I love reading and listening to books, especially fantasy, science fiction, children's, historical, and classics.
Garth Nix's novel was already a wonderful read: exciting, scary, funny, moving, imaginative, and vivid, with great characters (like Sabriel, Mogget, and Touchstone), inventions (like the River of Death and its Nine Gates, the Abhorsen, the Bells, and the paperwings), descriptions (like when dead "Hands" are edging closer to Sabriel and company like starving rats approaching a passed out drunk's meal), scenes (like the reservoir climax), dialogue (like almost anything Sabriel, Touchstone, and Mogget say to one another), and themes (like the sensual joy of life and the natural inevitability of death).
But Tim Curry enhances all of the book's virtues via his powerful, witty, and emotional reading of it. Curry's enthusiasm for and understanding of the text are engaging, and he effectively changes his voice for characters ranging from an evil undead villain and a hidebound headmistress to a conflicted Touchstone and a strong but panic-prone Sabriel. And I love his Mogget! Superior, mysterious, and, well, catty, with feline sibilants purring or snarling out the sides of his mouth.
In short, Tim Curry reading Garth Nix makes for an irresistible and thoroughly enjoyable listen.
In Garth Nix' Lirael: Daughter of the Clayr (2001), the second novel in his Abhorsen trilogy, Touchstone and Sabriel are now the King and Abhorsen (anti-necromancer) of the Old Kingdom lying north of the Wall that separates their land of magic and pesky undead from the world of machines and countries in conflict (reminiscent of our early 20th century world). And things are not well in their Old Kingdom. An unknown "Enemy" is manipulating Necromancers into attacking villages with bands of undead "Hands" and "Shadowhands," while at Red Lake something ominous is happening that even the clairvoyant women of the Clayr are unable to see.
All fourteen-year-old Lirael wants is to gain the Sight like the other girls and women of the Clayr. Her black hair and brown eyes already mark her as too different the others, while her father is unknown and her mother abandoned her when she was a little girl. And each year on her birthday Lirael has grown older without gaining the Sight while increasingly younger girls have come into their own. Luckily, she is given a job as Third-Assistant Librarian in the nautilus shell-like ancient library of the Clayr, which suits the increasingly anti-social and magically curious girl. But poor Sameth, the teenage son of Touchstone and Sabriel, is pulled out of his elite boarding school south of the Wall and returned to the Palace at Bellisaere, where everyone expects him to train to succeed Sabriel as Abhorsen, when he is physically and mentally unable to even touch the Book of the Dead. Instead, he prefers fabricating magical "toys," like a nifty flying, mosquito-eating frog. Both young people are good young adult fantasy Ugly Ducklings: they believe that they are flawed and cannot fit in and yet are really gifted in ways destined to become appreciated.
Despite his young protagonists' morose moods, Nix writes his novel with humor and imagination. He has carefully constructed his magical world, in which most of the Free Magic that randomly pulses everywhere is ordered by the Charter, a seemingly infinite set of marks a bit like Chinese characters which adepts write on paper or in the air to make magic. Necromancers bypass the Charter to tap into Free Magic to do unnatural things like transform dead people into cannon fodder minions, while Charter Mages access it to protect the Kingdom, and the sole Abhorsen walks into Death (leaving his or her frosty body behind in the world) and then rings any of a set of seven bells to force the undead back down through the gates set in the river of Death till they reach their proper state.
Nix has great fun with that setting, imagining various nearly sentient magical books, constructs, sendings, spells, and artifacts. The most enjoyable such magical things in the novel are a pair of droll and mysterious talking "pets," the hungry, spunky, and loving Disreputable Dog, and the sarcastic, cynical, and sleepy white feline Mogget, both of whom are much more than they appear to be. The great thing about it all is that Nix often describes the magic with magical prose, vivid, sensual, and sublime, to evoke a sense of wonder, beauty, and terror (which are nearly absent from YA magical fantasy like the Harry Potter series).
Take, for example, the time Lirael loses control of a spell and "She tried to scream, but no sound came out, only Charter marks that leapt from her mouth towards the golden radiance. Charter marks continued to fly from her fingers, too, and swam in her eyes, spilling down inside her tears, which turned to steam as they fell." Even when nothing magical is happening, Nix may summon magic, as when Lirael is exploring the Library and finds herself in "a vast chamber, bigger even than the Great Hall. Charter marks as bright as the sun shone in the distant ceiling, hundreds of feet above. A huge oak tree filled the center of the room, in full summer leaf, its spreading branches shading a serpentine pool. And everywhere, throughout the cavern, there were flowers. Red flowers. Lirael bent down and picked one, uncertain if it was some sort of illusion. But it was real enough. She felt no magic, just the crisp stalk under her fingers. A red daisy, in full bloom."
And at his best, Nix writes suspenseful scenes that develop his world and characters and excite the reader, as when Lirael meets a stilken (a woman-shaped Free Magic entity with silver eyes and arms as long as her legs ending in the claws of a mantis), or when his heroes sail beneath a mile-wide bridge-city and are targeted by a crossbow bolt shooting assassin and a fiery Free Magic and swine-flesh construct masquerading as human.
When I read Lirael several years ago, I found it overlong and burdened by mopey characters, but I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the audiobook version, largely thanks to the virtuoso reading of Tim Curry. He deftly balances on the Edge of Too Much, reading with infectious relish lines by foul necromancers gloating over how they're about to kill you or Disreputable mongrels getting ready to sink their teeth into your calf to snap you out of your funk or snarky magical cats asking for fish after just failing to help save your skin. And isn't there a hint of Dr. Frank N. Furter in his Mogget?
Sabriel is a fresher and more self-contained book, whereas Lirael really makes part one of a duology completed by the third volume in the "trilogy," Abhorsen. But fans of imaginative and dark young adult magical fantasy and of Tim Curry should enjoy this book.
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.