The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen by Jess Lourey
Those of you who know me will understand books like The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen by Jess Lourey are not my usual reading fare. This is both a book intended for the young adult market and it’s self-published (available from Amazon). Under normal circumstances, either of these factors would predispose me to ignore the title. But I’m something of a fan of the author’s fiction for adults. She writes rather good murder mysteries. So I thought I would look at how she approaches a different market. Before starting to read, I confess the fact she had not found a conventional publisher for the book is disconcerting. When someone with talent and a track record of now nine published books, fails to place a book through her agent, this suggests either that there’s something wrong with the book or the publishing industry is irrationally turning its back on a good book. With that thought in mind, I begin to read.
The obvious point of comparison for this book are the Thursday Next and associated novels by Jasper Fforde. These are great fun with the older Ms Next able to use a Prose Portal to enter the fictional worlds of both existing great novels and new books still being written. A part of the humour is the self-awareness of the characters in each book and the ability to rewrite the text — for example, the ending of Jane Eyre is changed. Jess Lourey develops this trope by allowing her protagonists to change anything they want in a book they visit but, if they do, this destroys the book and all the characters in it.
Because this book is explicitly YA, it has two children as the protagonists: Ania, aged eleven, and her blind brother, Spenser, aged nine. As a form of homage to To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, we start off in Alabama during the Great Depression where, with the disappearance of their mother, they are being cared for by their supposed grandmother, Gloriana (think Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene). They travel from one book to another with the help of the enigmatic Gilgamesh, who pilots a magical room in the shape of a garden toadhouse (it miniaturises the travellers who then take exactly nine minutes and eleven seconds to resume their usual size, a potentially dangerous delay if you look like food to a passing predatory bird or animal). They acquire a ten-year-old “stowaway” called Tru — it’s a reference to Truman Capote. Ania has the Enigmata on her hands, i.e. she has a Gort imprinted on to the flesh of each hand. The Gort is the twelfth letter of the Ogham alphabet — sometimes called the Celtic Tree Alphabet — and places us firmly in a fantasy story drawing on Irish faerie mythology in general and the Tir Na Nog in particular. To get to this land, heroes needed luck or a helpful guide. Our heroes have to play the book version of the video game, solve clues, and find three “treasures” hidden in plain sight inside classic novels.
The mandatory evil enemy is Biblos Skulas (or Βίβλο σκουλήκας which translated from the Greek means Bookworm). This appears to the children to be a giant man, i.e. he follows in the footsteps of Piers Anthony’s “adult conspiracy”, first introduced to the world in Crewel Lye, as the adult who devours rather than savours books. He will stop at nothing to capture Ania, killing Gloriana in the first section of the book. Indeed, later on, Ania meets refugees from other books. Many have been tortured by Biblos in the hope they will reveal where our heroes have been hidden. Although it’s not the fault of the children, this does not prevent the survivors from being somewhat bitter.
There’s a great deal of adult sophistication on display in this book. For example we meet Kenning in Ellipses. But instead of descending to the level of punning adopted by Piers Anthony (increasingly excruciating as the Xanth series has progressed), this author is embedding knowledge in the work. If readers are curious, there’s an entire world awaiting exploration both in the language she uses and the books she draws from and propels her protagonists into. For those of you into the technical side of writing, this is a work of intertextuality, extensively revising the work of others to fit into this story.
We first trespass into The Time Machine by H G Wells where we avoid direct interaction with the time traveller. His machine has been pulled inside the sphinx, so all they have to do is get the door open. Except, of course, it’s not that easy and requires a brief diversion into the Indian epic, The Ramayana. Then needing medical attention, we pass through A Tale of Two Cities on to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson. You should have the message by now as we jaunt off to the Sinbad books.
The syntax is relatively rich and, in vocabulary terms, is probably ahead of the lower end of the young adult market. This is good. Younger readers should be stretched. Showing them the range of words and their meanings helps them to grow. Choosing to make the book longer also indicates an older age. I’m not sure where this leaves us in terms of market. It flirts with unpleasant truths but sees our small band of heroes making steady progress, although not without some struggles, which makes it suitable for younger readers. It gently explores some potentially significant moral issues and, in conceptual terms, plays with some interesting metaphors that would be relatively incomprehensible to most young people. I’m therefore left with an ambivalence. I think it falls between the two stools. It has elements that certainly fit into the YA niche, but in terms of language, concepts and length, it’s tending to adult fare. Except it lacks the “meat” to be an adult book. It pulls its punches too much as it stands. Given that this is the only book written so far in the trilogy, I class it as an interesting failure. But there’s real potential as a dark fantasy for adult readers in the mechanisms of creating, amending and ending books. Rewritten this could become something powerful. The backstory as to the origin of Biblos points the way.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.