5.09.2012

Currently Reading: Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic EyesThere is an old saying about how easy it is to “take candy from a baby.” This saying is utterly false; anyone who has tried to take anything from a baby knows well what sort of crying, kicking, and general commotion will ensue. It is very easy, however, for babies to take things from us. Despite being blind, young Peter had no trouble sniffing out fruit stands and vegetable carts to steal from. He would toddle where his nose led him and innocently cut his teeth on whatever food he wanted.

Author: Jonathan Auxier

Synopsis: Sightless young Peter Nimble has known nothing but thievery, but as a thief, he’s an expert—he can pick pretty nearly any lock in existence. Unfortunately, his talents land him a position as slave under the direction of a hard thiefmaster, so he has also known nothing but misery. When an odd stranger with zebras and a box of something magic comes to town, however, Peter finds himself accepting a quest which will demand his very specific skills in the work of restoring a rightful kingdom and discovering his own destiny.

Notes: Auxier’s debut tale works in the tradition of Brian Jacques’ Redwall and Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga. Lively, swashbuckling, action-filled and frequently humorous, it’s an admirable and unique little story that, like the abovementioned, starts off a bit episodic but has a beautiful eucatastrophic ending.

Jacques and Peterson are far from being the only possible influences, however. I'm going to quote from a Goodreads reviewer named Betsy, who picked up even more than I did:
[T]his quirky fantasy novel... calls to mind Pinocchio (dogfish anyone? the notion of a "real boy" finally at the end), great battles in which the underdogs miraculously triumph (Helms Deep comes to mind), Peter Pan (not the least of which reminders includes a prominent fishhook in action and the title character's name), Oliver Twist (poor chap taken in by master thief), anthropomorphic animals with noble or ignoble hearts (too many to name here, but the feel of Narnia comes to mind),.... There's another striking Narnia reference at the end, but I don't want to spoil anyone's fun.
All of those connections are present, but Narnia is perhaps the most obvious. Auxier's narrative includes endless little asides to the readers, often very humorous and sometimes poignant, not far removed from Lewis' manner of storytelling for children. Peter, who shares his first name with a Narnian High King, is a lot like Shasta/Cor in some ways: a little boy raised rather badly, whose ideas of the right thing to do are stunted but good at the root. The book itself lacks some of the finesse of Lewis' work, in being a little over-long and over-wacky in places, but still carries bits of the same humor and joy.

As with most middle-grade boy books, the emphasis is on the adventure rather than the intimate feelings of the characters. Ten-year-old boys are likely to be all over that, but it meant a bit of a slow start for me. Somewhere in the middle, though, the tale finally got my attention, and I began to be able to picture the amusingly designed Sir Tode, care very much what happened to Peter, and wonder what the heck those ravens were really up to.

Intimate feelings may not play much of a role, but the characters do develop quite nicely. Peter went from interesting to lovable. I could describe the trajectory of others, but not without spoilers; suffice it to say that he has some very likable friends.

The worldbuilding is a bit overly complex and difficult to picture, but unique and clever, particularly in its humor. Auxier weaves amusing information into his fantasy story, bits of which may or may not have been made up (I still haven’t discovered for certain about some things. It’s true that prevention of scurvy requires ascorbic acid, and that this has been a particular problem for sailors, but “Vitamin Sea?” Is that true, or just funny? For once, Google isn’t helping much.) Like the information, the scenes and situations blur in and out of realism; Peter’s purloining powers are beyond legendary, and magic plays a handy role in his escapades.

The art is worth noting; the author himself did the line drawings at the chapter headings, and they make good companions to the text: simple and appealing, with lots of character.

A couple of threads never get a full explanation, but overall, Auxier works out the climax and resolution of the story beautifully. Middle-grade fiction is one of the few places where a reader can still consistently hope for a totally satisfying adventure, without angst or painful twists, and Peter Nimble participates safely and cleanly in that style. It’s a great little read, and I suspect it’s likely to please young lads—especially if they're looking for something to read after finishing all the Redwall books.

Recommendation: Read it for adventurous, quirky, magical fun and a sweet ending.

EDIT: Forgot—shame on me—to thank Jana for the recommendation, as well as for loaning me the book. :)

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