Kingfisher (2016), by Patricia A. McKillip

3 August 2017

Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars trilogy is perhaps my favourite fantasy series of all times. Not sure if it quite beats Lord of the Rings, but if not it is awfully close. In my early teens, I waited and waited and waited for the next volume to come out… Imagine my surprise then, when Patricia A. McKillip’s Kingfisher showed up in an advertisement for digital editions of fantasy novels. I thought it must be old, and I had just missed its existence until now, but when I got to the reference to cell phones, I had to check the publication date (as you can tell from other posts, I often don’t do that). 2016! So then I had to reassess my response to the text and I figured out what had been disturbing me about it.

In Kingfisher, McKillip shows us the threads of three main characters’ lives, and twists them ever closer together until the final moments, when readers—but not necessarily the players— are shown the answers they have been seeking.

Pierce Oliver is the younger son of a knight and a sorceress who fled the capitol—and her husband and elder son—while pregnant. Pierce has known no other life than cooking with his mother in their isolated home on Cape Mistbegotten. When he meets four knights who carry the shadows of the mythical creatures they were hunting, Pierce has inherited enough of her magic to see the shadows (but not enough to avoid being trapped later in a magical snare). We are immediately plunged into a fantasy world, but the information we are given is not expanded upon; we can merely store it away in isolation, waiting for the moment when it will become meaningful. (This is the first of two issues I had with the story: too many threads of narrative are presented separately to hold in mind before they are woven together into a coherent storyline. Or maybe that’s just me…)

Carrie, chef at the Kingfisher Inn a little to the south of Cape Mistbegotten, is troubled by secrets that no one will discuss. Her father spends his time chanting and roving, seemingly touched in the head by past trauma.

Something had happened. She was uncertain what; everything had changed before she was born. For all the vagueness in everyone’s eyes when she asked, the good fortune might have vanished a century before. Not even her father could come up with a coherent explanation, and he had been there, she knew. (Chapter 2)

Slowly—too slowly for this reader—Carrie begins to unravel the past that haunts the small community at Chimera Bay. That her father, Merle, is a shape-shifter, becoming a wolf and howling his sorrows into the night, only complicates her search for understanding.

Prince Daimon, “as the youngest of Arden’s five children, and illegitimate to boot, … enjoyed a certain amount of lax attention, an absence of scrutiny from his father as long as he did what the king asked” (Chapter 7). This gives Daimon the leisure to pursue his obsession with the captivating Vivien Ravensley—who seems to be both part of the life of the capitol city and yet not—and to resolve the issue of his heredity, partly grounded in his father’s pragmatic world (our world), partly in the mystical land of his mother.

The action of the novel revolves on the axis that is the Kingfisher Inn. Knights quest for a vessel that may or may not exist, that is sacred to the ruthless god Severn or to the life-giving river goddess Calluna in another interpretation of the myth, that can only be recognized by a worthy knight. Kingfisher is, of course, the legend of the Fisher King, but only loosely and far more tangled than the simple Arthurian legend (in any of its many versions). The journeys of “kitchen knight” Pierce (Perceval) and Carrie, daughter of a shape-shifter, and Daimon, heir of both Severn’s and Calluna’s realms, provide the pieces of the puzzle that ultimately fit together to form a whole. From a more prosaic perspective, the quest is a failure; for the reader who has seen the magic, a success. War between the two magical powers is averted, and Holy Grail is returned to its rightful place in the mystical procession. That none of the characters appear to understand how their several stories have led to the restoration of magical balance is a nice touch, I thought, and leaves the reader feeling far more satisfied than might otherwise be the case.

This resetting of legends in the modern world is not uncommon—Tam Lin, for example, is an often retold narrative—but McKillip cannot seem to temper her epic narrative voice, and that which makes reading her Riddle of Stars trilogy so powerfully immersive an experience jars against the inclusion of cell phones, of tuxedoes and chandeliers and mixed pepper aioli, of motorbikes and pickup trucks. Perhaps a deeper knowledge of the legend of the Fisher King would have helped my understanding as I travelled through the narrative, but I’m not sure that should be necessary.

What redeems Kingfisher from all negative consideration is McKillip’s unquestionable talent with characterization. The multitude of characters is balanced, each constructed perfectly to fulfill his or her narrative role. We feel always that we know exactly as much about each person as we should, and that anything else we need will be given us in due time. So in exactly the way the narrative structure is awkward, the characterization is superior. I might have been confused for the first half of the novel, but my interest in the people carried me through the confusion and strengthened my satisfaction in the end.

Neil Flambé and the Bard’s Banquet (2015), by Kevin Sylvester

7 February 2016

Sylvester - BardNeil Flambé (or should I say Kevin Sylvester) strikes again. We know him (Neil, not Kevin) as an arrogant, self-assured 15-year-old chef with a penchant for trouble. He is plagued by unwelcome mysteries, such as a piece of paper preserved in an ancient jar of honey that finds its way into his kitchen. Frustrated, he explicitly refuses to engage; all he really wants is to “just run the restaurant, in peace for a change” (6). Readers know, of course, that this will not be his fate.

Neil has been commissioned by Lord Lane to use the case of honey to make an exquisite meal—which Neil is of course confident he can do—but in the making of the meal, he is forced to open the ominous jar of honey, revealing a poem in Elizabethan script, a cypher to unravel. Neil hands the paper over to Lord Lane and washes his hands of the situation. Readers know, of course, that this will not be the end of it. When Lord Lane goes missing, Neil—as the last person to speak with him—is called to help. Accompanied by his cousin Larry, and eventually his girlfriend Isabella, he and his unerring sense of smell set off to England. The usual gripping and humorous adventure ensues, revolving around British culture and history, especially the history of the Elizabethan theatre: William Shakespeare, Will Kemp and his nine-days Morris dance, and the rivalry between the two men.

The narrative is rife with Sylvester’s trademark punnery and clever names (such as Arthur Gawain, the Oxford scholar) but also brings in new layers of allusion for precocious readers: for example to Harry Potter (97), the Lassie series (131), and the obscure cult film Green Eggs and Hamlet (213). Neil’s slovenly attention to his schooling is represented differently, as well. Not only does Larry show him up with his eclectic knowledge, as usual, but in numerous situations Neil’s lack of knowledge of basic highschool content—most notably Shakespeare’s plays—excludes him from the action. Being forced to recognize this failing grate, and his discomfort is a strong advocate for better study habits; I would not be surprised if curious readers leave this novel and go directly to Shakespeare in some form (Manga Shakespeare is actually very good. As Isabella’s friend Rose dryly observes (as she gains entrance into an exclusive archive), “Academic accreditation opens doors. Stay in school, kids.” (129).

What stands out most in this fifth book in the series is Neil’s development as a young man. Reading over past reviews, I note that in each novel, we’ve watched as Neil grows that little bit more mature, beginning to recognize the value of others—and others’ abilities—in his life. In The Bard’s Banquet, we see a monumental change: Neil moves beyond a recognition of the social contract, and the flutterings of emotional connection to others, to actual behavioral change. He says “please”—twice in a row, shocking his cousin (14); he contritely recognizes the validity of Jones’s criticism of his inflated ego, and sincerely apologizes (165); and he commends Isabella for her prowess: “complements never flowed easily, unless he was talking about his own food, so this was new” (113). A greater emotional epiphany comes when Larry saves him from potential death (not that they haven’t been here before), and Neil breaks down. This scene is a moment of poignancy amongst the adventure and humour: “It’s cool, cuz. … I’ve been waiting for a little emotion to break through that gruff cheffy exterior,” Larry tells him reassuringly: “There’ve been glimpses before, but this is good. Don’t hold back any more” (206). The sixth book in the series, Neil Flambé and the Duel in the Desert is due out next month (March 2016); I am greatly looking forward to seeing how Neil continues to develop as a character.

Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure (2013), by Kevin Sylvester

21 October 2013

Sylvester-Tokyo“The Chefs gave him a mission: to keep the world safe and well fed. … He became the greatest Chef of them all…” (5). Kevin Sylvester’s fourth installment of the Neil Flambé Capers—Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure—opens suitably with a foray into the world of manga. The short excerpt from Neil’s cousin Larry’s new online manga, The Chef, sets us up for Neil’s adventure in Japan, where his cousin Larry’s reported death leads Neil to grapple with illegal fishing practices and a maniacal competitive chef.

The pathos that news of Larry’s death produces is honest and heartfelt. Although we know that Larry can’t be dead—Sylvester wouldn’t do that to us… would he?—we tear up with Neil as he slices onions with Larry’s knife, contemplating Larry’s joie-de-vivre and laissez-faire attitude. This is a growing moment for Neil Flambé, as much as his humbling jail-time in The Marco Polo Murders (2010), or his eye-opening visit to the slums of Mexico City in The Aztec Abduction (2010). When Neil discovers an alteration in The Chef that only Larry could have made, he optimistically sets out to find his cousin and solve the mystery he knows is brewing like the finest Saki: warm and subtle, with a sharp bite at the end.

The search for Larry sets Neil up against the environmentally unethical chef Matsumoro Nori. Accompanied by Sylvester’s usually droll punnery, we travel with Neil to Japan, where he engages in a culinary competition that is straight out of James Bond, with poisoned ingredients and losers as shark bait. Between the numerous gastronomic removes of the competition, Neil and his friends collaborate on solving the mystery of Larry’s disappearance. The clues Neil receives, the cultural knowledge and wordplay required to solve them, and Sylvester’s inimitable humour make Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure a gripping, chuckle-inducing adventure. Such a delicate balance between humour and suspense is seldom achieved by other authors; it is not surprising that Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure is up for two awards this year.

The Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading awards are adjudicated by young readers, so winning a Silver Birch award must be extremely gratifying for an author. Sylvester is no strange to such gratification, though: Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders won the award in 2011; Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abduction was runner-up in 2012; and Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse was in 2013.

The Children’s Book Centre John Spray Mystery Award will be announced tomorrow (22 October 2013), which is why I have had to rise up out of my slough of inarticulateness and get this review written and posted tonight! Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure is up against four other books, all of which were written for an older reading audience. The best of these—Devil’s Pass by Sigmund Brouwer—will certainly give Neil Flambé a run for its money… I am not sure whether to be disturbed by the imbalance of having a humourous adventure book for 8-12 year olds set up against YA realist mysteries, or impressed that Neil Flambé should be included in such a collection. I suspect I will subscribe to the latter opinion if it wins, and almost certainly the former if it does not. So best of luck to Neil Flambé on his latest adventure out in literary-award-land. May the best chef win.

The Tale of Despereaux (2003), by Kate DiCamillo

14 July 2013

DiCamillo-DespereauxKate DiCamillo is the author of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (2006) as well as Because of Winn Dixie (2009), both of which are delightful, and have been lauded as such in both the academic and public spheres.  Despereaux won the Newbery award, and is touted as associated with the Cinderella trope.  This is a fiction.  While it does concern a mouse helping a princess, there are no elements of the Cinderella tale itself in the story.  It is a pleasant enough story, in itself, but the authorial tone is both colloquial and antiquated, in ways that are jarring and patronizing.  I don’t know what a child would feel, but I found it difficult to read despite the originality of plot and the pleasant character of Despereaux himself.