Monday, March 28, 2011

Review - Search for the Flaming Chalice by Robert Shaw Kesler

Short review: Three martens find a shiny purple stone and go searching for a place they know how to find in a slapstick adventure.

Find a purple gem
Go to Toveria, find a
Place you knew before

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Member Giveaway program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: In Search for the Flaming Chalice, three anthropomorphic martens named Carmen, Alger, and Gilbert uncover a mysterious purple stone, set off on a journey to a mysterious land, to search for a mysterious flaming chalice, in order to defeat a mysterious bad guy. Oddly, one of the three was born in the mysterious land, and they know exactly where to find the flaming chalice, and who the bad guy is. The only thing they don't know is what the purple stone is for, which turns out to be the one thing that was supposed to be a specific message to them. Needless to say, the story has some serious consistency problems.

The first question I wondered was, why martens? Those who ask this question will be disappointed as so far as I can tell, there is no real reason why the author chose to make the protagonists of his story a bunch of relatives of weasels and polecats. Unlike other stories like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Wind in the Willows, or Watership Down where all of the animals are anthropomorphized, or even Alice in Wonderland where the talking animals are more or less unique, the society of this book seems to be basically the same as if you took human society and simply replaced all the people with martens. There's no real problem engendered by this choice, it just seems pointless.

As noted before, there are some weird continuity problems in the story. Once the three friends uncover the mysterious purple gem, Carmen decides they must go to Toveria, which the other two immediately identify as a fictional fairy land. Carmen, however, is from Toveria, which struck me as strange given that no one in this small community she was supposedly living in ever seems to have inquired as to her background. If a land is so foreign as to be a considered a fairy tale, having someone from that land living among you seems to me to be something that would have come up once or twice. Also, strangely, though the story is titled Search for the Flaming Chalice, Carmen knows where the Flaming Chalice can be found from the get-go, which makes the title somewhat misleading.

The villain of the story is Attila, an evil sorcerer. He is aided by two somewhat incompetent goon sorcerers, who he quickly disposes of, demonstrating that Attila is a short tempered and somewhat stupid villain. The goons are not disposed of before they are able to engage in a little bit of slapstick Keystone Cops-like scenes with the three protagonists. These sort of "hot potato" scenes (with the purple gem filling in for the potato) crop up a couple times in the story, which turns out to be a problem. In a filmed version of this sort of scene, it is zany, quick, and funny. In a written version, the time it takes to read all of the passing the potato, running about, chasing each other and so on takes up a page or two of space, which really makes the scene drag. In the end, Attila's lack of support staff (save for a badly damaged mindless monster) serves to defeat him. Despite being the heavy of the novel, Attila is mostly unconvincing as a real threat because despite his ill intent and bluster, he is basically too stupid to take seriously. The mindless monster he assumes control of is too easily evaded in silly ways to make him seem dangerous either.

The story strangely seems to be both overly long and severely truncated. In story, the journey takes the better part of a year, but much of the traveling time the companions undergo is glossed over. This makes the events seem to come at the reader quick and furious, but then a reference will be made to the passing months, which created an oddly confusing tone to the story. The book also includes some references to other literary works, but they are so oblique that a list has to be included at the end to let the reader know they are there. Granted, this is a book aimed at younger readers and this seems to be intended as a teaching tool, but I've read every work referenced, and I would have missed about half of them entirely had they not been footnoted.

Overall, this book has the kernel of a decent story for younger readers, but there are so many oddities that just jump out at the reader that one is constantly pulled out of the narrative to wonder why the author made that particular choice. This, coupled with a rather poorly defined villain results in a book that is simply not good enough to really recommend to the readers it is aimed at. It seems clear that the author really wants the book to be a modern day Wind in the Willows with a dash of silly humor and literary education thrown in, but it simply falls well short of the mark.

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