Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Review - The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder by John Bellairs and Brad Strickland

Short review: Johnny's friend Fergie gets himself into trouble in the faux feeling fifties and Dixon and Childermass have to save him.

Fergie finds a book
The promises all power
But grants death instead

Full review: After John Bellairs died, Brad Strickland took over writing in Bellairs' popular Johnny Dixon and Lewis Barnaveldt series, first completing stories that Bellairs had either begun or outlined, and then branching out to create his own adventures. The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder is one of Strickland's first independent attempts to write a book about Johnny Dixon and his close friend the crotchety Professor Childermass. Unfortunately, the book has an almost "paint-by-numbers" feel, in which all of the elements of a Dixon-Childermass mystery are present, but they all seem to be strung together almost by rote.

The story is fairly straightforward. Dixon's best friend Fergie Ferguson discovers a strange book in the local library which promises to grant him everything he wants. Of course, this being a Johnny Dixon book, there is a catch, and it comes in the form of an evil necromancer bent on living forever by stealing Fergie's youth to do so. The story makes Fergie a viewpoint character rather than Johnny, perhaps so Strickland could distance himself a bit from the characters so well-developed by Bellairs. But this weakens the book, since all of the characters are connected with Johnny as their nexus, not Fergie. As a result, there is a bit of distance between Fergie and the usual cast of characters that inhabit a Johnny Dixon mystery, which makes it more difficult to sell Fergie's growing isolation, since he starts off thematically isolated from so many of the book's characters already.

Bellairs' books are all set in 1950s America, with the Johnny Dixon books taking place in the new England region. Strickland follows this model, but while Bellairs made the setting and the stories in it seem natural and effortless, Strickland's efforts seem contrived and forced. All of the usual elements are there: Professor Childermass uses his fuss closet, they eat gooey chocolate cake, Childremass' nose is described as looking like an overripe strawberry, Father Higgins is called in to provide theological firepower, and so on. But all of them are introduced in such a manner as if Strickland had a big checklist and wanted to make sure he filled in all the boxes. This gives much of the story a mechanical feel as it ticks through all the required elements of a Johnny Dixon mystery, all the while not being particularly mysterious.

Thanatos, the villain of the story and an evil necromancer, is modestly interesting, taking over young men, stealing their youth to power his continued existence, and then repeating the process. (As an aside, given that this book was published in 1997, one wonders if Xanatos, the villain in the animated television series Gargoyles which ran from 1994 to 1997, served as the inspiration for Thanatos' name, although to be fair, Thanatos is the name of a Greek deity associated with death). He has some interesting tricks - a mouse that has been alive forever, attacks by a swarm of mummified bugs, and so on. But a lot of his schtick is pretty standard "evil sorcerer" stuff, and he is a fairly wooden villain, with little motivation for his actions other than "stay alive forever" which is pretty bland as villainous motivations go. The climax of the story is something of a cliche too, as Thanatos more or less has a Wicked Witch of the West style demise.

The Bell, the Book, and the Spellbinder is another demonstration that Strickland is just not as good at writing a Bellairs style story as Bellairs was. While Bellairs' portrayal of a small town in Massachusetts in the 1950s feels authentic, Strickland's efforts set in the same setting feel artificial. This, coupled with a fairly bland villain and a weak viewpoint character drags this book down. Strickland's writing is decent, so the book remains readable, but it isn't particularly notable, and compared to the Bellairs books that preceded it, it is something of a disappointment.

Previous book in the series: The Hand of the Necromancer
Subsequent book in the series: The Wrath of the Grinning Ghost

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