Friday 17 February 2012

Book Review | The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

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A long time ago magic faded away, leaving behind only yo-yos, the extremely useful compass-pointing-to-North enchantment and the spell that keep bicycles from falling over.

Things are about to change. Big Magic is on the rise, and King Snodd IV of Hereford has realised that he who controls magic controls almost anything.

One person stands between Snodd and his plans for power and riches beyond the wildest dreams of avarice: meet Jennifer Strange, sixteen-year-old acting manager of Kazam, the employment agency for sorcerers and soothsayers. With only one functioning wizard and her faithful assistant 'Tiger' Prawns, Jennifer must use every ounce of ingenuity to derail King Snodd's plans. It may involve a trip on a magic carpet at the speed of sound to the Troll Wall, the mysterious Transient Moose, and a powerless sorceress named Once Magnificent Boo.

But one thing is certain: Jennifer Strange will not relinquish the noble powers of magic to big business and commerce without a fight.


To date, the closest Jasper Fforde has ever gotten to disappointing me was with the tease on the last page of Shades of Grey, wherein he promised not one but two sequels in the series, then roundly announced the first of them for 2013.


Even now, a year and a half on from Shades of Grey's publication, the wait for Painting By Numbers seems impossibly long. But in the interim, behold: this whole other series.

And it's not to be sniffed at. The Last Dragonslayer was a terrific bit of whimsy, all droll dragons and indentured orphans, yet in the same moment it was more than that. It was an accusatory index finger leveled in the general direction of genre fiction as we understand it; an introduction to fun in fantasy; and an argument, memorably made, that self-seriousness is not necessarily a necessity when it comes to swords and sorcery.

Needless to say The Last Dragonslayer also left the door wide open for more stories set against the brilliantly bureaucratic backdrop of Kazam, which is to say one of only two surviving magic-for-hire outfits still operating in the Ununited Kingdoms. Currently managed by the accidental last dragonslayer herself, Jennifer Strange - late of the Sisterhood of the Blessed Lady of the Lobster and still only sixteen years young - Kazam has fallen on hard times... has the entire magical community, actually. Or rather the remnants thereof, So when the corrupt King of Hereford, the fourth in a long line of approximately four Snodds, contrives a contest between Kazam and its only serious competitor, Industrial Magic - recently re-branded as iMagic, of course - it's a real winner takes all affair, because the loser will lose everything, up to and including limbs, and possibly lives.

To make matters worse, circumstances - or perhaps something more substantial - seem set on roundly wrongfooting Jennifer and the murder of retired magicians she looks out for. When Kazam's most powerful licensed magician turns to stone whilst performing a bit of routine wizardry, it's only the first in a series of unfortunate events to befall Jennifer and her friends, and at the worst possible moment, such that one begins to wonder: could someone, or something, be out to get them?

Why yes!

Hilarity abounds again in The Song of the Quarkbeast, if not in quite such quantity as it did in The Last Dragonslayer, then not far off its high magical mark. Bouncing around as it does from one scene to the next with the reader's attention in tow, albeit "in an affectionate, non-malicious, hardly-hurting-you-at-all sort of way," it hops and skips with seemingly little rhyme or reason; that is unless we're looking at set-up for The Return of Shandar, and I think perhaps we are. Thus, this second novel in the series has a decidedly episodic quality, but not to the extent that it's an insurmountable issue, and indeed, in the endgame, thing comes together marvelously.

Fforde has such a light touch that he makes this sort of thing look easy, when it's assuredly not, and even at its most distracted, The Song of the Quarkbeast is hugely entertaining. Warm but wan, British, and yet brilliant, it is what you might describe as a "sarcoluminescent" novel: so funny that it emits a noticeable glow... particularly in the ebook edition, which is rife with exclusive footnotes, including one which delves deeper into the subject of sarcoluminescence. There is a priceless revelation lifted wholesale from Star Wars, and such gems as "for every evil genius there must be a ludicrously beautiful woman apparently doing very little at his side," which had me in such spasms that I had to stop reading for a moment.

Like The Last Dragonslayer, Shades of Grey and the Thursday Next novels, this book is certainly representative of an acquired taste, and as Fforde asserts in another footnote - on the arguable excellence of camel's ears as a snack - "an acquired taste" is usually shorthand for something "extremely nasty."

But no. Not in this case. Particularly considering that it's the middle volume in what purports to be a trilogy, The Song of the Quarkbeast is surprisingly delicious in and of itself. It is to be consumed in a single sitting, very much in the mode of a Quarkbeast, who'll devour a tin of dog food - can and all - in moments, and immediately ask for another.


The Song of the Quarkbeast
by Jasper Fforde

UK Publication: November 2011, Hodder & Stoughton

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  1. Fabulous! thank you for reminding me I need to get into this series :) I adore the Thursday Next novels..wasn't quite so sure about Shades though..but I mean to try it again sometime..

  2. I love Fforde, but I really wish he'd write Shades 2 already. :(

  3. bloomin' lazy authors know nothing of the pain of waiting! ;) (Scott Lynch springs to mind!)

  4. I'm with you, Severian. These side orders are fine - good-natured and lots of fun in their own right - but make mine a second Shades of Grey, if I may.

    You really should give that one out another go, Nibbles. It's incredible - and so, so funny - once you settle into its weird and wonderful rhythym. I know I'll never forget a glass of milk and a smack! :D

    But I stopped waiting for new Scott Lynch a long time ago. I'm sure it'll happen, and it's looking like sooner rather than later at this stage, but I didn't love The Lies and certainly not Red Seas enough to justify a re-read, and here and now I think I'd need one to appreciate The Republic of Thieves.

  5. I actually liked Red Seas more than Lies, but I guess I'm in the minority. Though I love anything with a pirate theme, so I'm not sure how big a factor that was. :)
    (also the reason why I'm so hyped for Risen 2, it's going to be amazing)

  6. Again, I'm in kinda the same boat: I tend to adore anything with ships in it, and the sea. Pirates I could take or leave, I guess, but in retrospect Red Seas really should have done it for me more than it did.

    So Risen 2, is it? Tell me more! That's not a game on my radar at all...

  7. An exploration heavy semi-open world RPG (divided into islands, due to console restraints). Their world are usually pretty dense in terms of interesting locations and don't really have huge, empty "filler" pieces of land (*cough*Elder Scrolls*cough*). Not big on hand holding either.
    But, I don't know if I'd recommend it to you if you'd play it on console. The first game was absolutely horrible on the 360.