Wednesday, March 19, 2008

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

I always feel a bit apprehensive when a musician decides to try his (or her) hand at writing. It’s one thing to pen short snippets of lyrical verse. It’s another to hold a reader’s attention over several hundred pages. Fortunately, singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson’s On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness more than entertains, despite a few literary failings.

The Igiby family lives on the outskirts of the sleepy hamlet of Glipwood on the continent of Skree in the world of Aerwiar. The three Igiby children -- Janner, Tink and Leeli -- spend their days helping their widowed mother Nia with chores and their peg-legged, ex-pirate grandfather Podo keep the pests out of the garden. All is not well in Skree. Years ago, a Nameless Evil arose, sacked the high court of Anniera and conquered the entire Skreean continent. Now scaly terrors called Fangs occupy Glipwood, oppressing the populace and abducting children in the Black Carriage. The only things as terror-inspiring as the hordes of the Nameless Evil (which happens to be named Gnag the Nameless) are the toothy cows roaming the nearby forest. Well, completing the reams of paperwork required to procure a hoe from the local garrison is pretty terrifying, too. And we shouldn’t forget the ferocious warrior kings of Torrboro and their frightening affection for fluffy kittens …

If this sounds to you like a cross between The Lord of the Rings and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you’ve hit the nail on its proverbial head. Dark Sea of Darkness revels in heroic high fantasy on one hand and wacky absurdism on the other. The pairing works well. Who didn’t want more comic relief while venturing through Middle Earth? Instead of Adam and Eve, or somesuch serious-sounding pair, being the first inhabitants of Aerwiar, we get Dwayne and Gladys. We meet Mayor Blaggus, who is as unctuous as his name suggests, and Peet the Sock Man, the town idiot who likes to insult the parentage of street signs and wears stockings over his hands. We are treated -- in the loosest use of the word -- to recipes for the Fang delicacies maggotloaf and booger gruel. Some of the best bits are footnotes Peterson uses to reveal backstory. A favorite from a section on the Igiby children’s studies, called T.H.A.G.S.: “Three Honored and Great Subjects: Word, Form, and Song. Some silly people believe that there’s a fourth Honored and Great Subject, but those mathematicians are woefully mistaken.”

Despite its inventiveness, Dark Sea of Darkness contains more than a few first-novel mistakes. The worst is unexpected shifts in point of view, which seriously disrupt the narrative flow. If this happened a time or two, it would be excusable. However, one three-page chapter features over a half-dozen changes in the viewpoint character, and a switch from Janner’s perspective to that of Tink’s spoils a climactic encounter with the Black Carriage. It’s amazing that an editor didn’t notice them. Other problems are less egregious, but still niggle. There’s a fair bit of overly expository dialogue and description, and the only purpose Leeli serves for much of the book is to be swiped by some baddie and then rescued.

Not that the novel’s intended audience (which is children) will particularly care. They’ll be too caught up in the adventure and humor to notice. Adults might be willing to forgive them, too, once they get to the ending. Let’s just say that when Peet’s socks come off, he goes from pitiful wretch to righteous avenger in an instant. Also, this is the first in a series. Let’s hope the second installment fixes the faults of Dark Sea of Darknesses. That would be a truly compelling read.

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