Review of the Day: Here Be Monsters!
I’ll begin by confessing my ignorance regarding this book’s title. When I first picked up, “Here Be Monsters!”, I was unaware of where this sentence came from. With some quick research I consulted a reliable source (reliable source = my husband) and found that this was the term written on uncharted waters on old maps. Should a ship fail to return from some portion heretofore undiscovered on the map, the mapmaker would whip out that old phrase, “Here Be Monsters”, to warn future adventurers. I mention all this because I think author Alan Snow is a genius. For wild, wacky, unimaginable fun paired with ridiculous horrors, “Here Be Monsters!”, cannot be beat. Impossibly British and a riveting read, this is probably one of the best books to swim across the Atlantic this year. I can honestly say that neither you nor your children will ever come across a book quite like this again.
How to begin? Well, there once was a boy named Arthur who lived underground with his grandfather. This kind of life has its problems, of course. To get food, for example, Arthur must climb out of the underworld and use his grandfather’s leather-winged technology to fly about the town scavenging for food. One night Arthur gets wrapped up in the affairs of some particularly shady characters. Long ago the evil Cheese Guild held the town of Ratbridge in its iron fist. Since then, the guild supposedly died out after the Great Cheese Crash. On this day, however, Arthur spots some former guild members hunting slow moving wild cheese (a cruel sport) just outside of town. Before he knows what’s happened to him the nasty Archibald Snatcher has stolen Arthur’s wings and all holes to the underworld have been blocked up. Fortunately for our hero, he joins up with a motley crew that includes a retired lawyer, several boxtrolls (trolls that wear boxes), a cabbage head (pretty much what it sounds like), and a crew of former pirates who have turned to a life of laundry. With their help, Arthur must defeat the evil not-so-defunct Cheese Guild from committing a horrible revenge on the town of Ratbridge.
But that little description doesn’t even begin to cover half the amusing and interesting things spotted through out the book. I haven’t told you how the fashionable ladies of Ratbridge all have buttocks of different shapes and sizes (hexagonal being the most interesting). I haven’t mentioned an insidious plot that involves tiny underground dwellers and how they became so small. There was no mention in my summary of the crows who love to play music but are horrendously poor at it. And what about the tribe of underground women raised by rabbits who are simply referred to as (wait for it...) The Rabbit Women? Snow packs in these new facts, funny stories, and droll little details with a frightening efficiency. And whether or not you are familiar with your Dumas, kids and adults alike will love meeting the poor Man in the Iron Socks, imprisoned under the former Cheese Hall. To say nothing of his whalloper!
Imagination is one thing. How an author goes about telling his story is another. And Snow, to his credit, has a wonderful grasp on not only this new little world but also the funny details that make it up. Honestly, how can you resist a book in which the scariest detail in it is the loathsome Fondue Pit. I hope you aren’t too attached to Wild English Cheese (described in a summary at the beginning as, “being rather easier to catch than a dead sheep”), because their fate is rather ... um ... melty. I loved Snow’s dialogue too, of course. Actually, sometimes it was so much fun that I had difficulty reading this book on the train for fear of cackling loudly and scaring my fellow passengers. But how on earth can you read a sentence like, “Coming on hoity-toity with her new hexagonal buttocks”, (said, I imagine, in a voice akin to the ones the Monty Python actors would do when they were dressed as women) and not laugh? One liners are Snow’s specialty. When you read the sentence, “I don’t think the police are going to put up with members of the local laundry letting off cannons in the streets”, it just makes you want to read more. Through this book your children can learn what blunderbusses and leviathans are. Plus any children’s book that can name drop Tristram Shandy has my instant love.
I was also impressed by how sweet Snow’s creatures were. The boxtrolls are described as very shy (hence wearing boxes all the time) but particularly mechanically adept. A boxtroll named Fish takes to Arthur instantly and though it can’t speak, it is a good friend to the kid. When a tiny boxtroll appears in the shop, it’s given some nuts and bolts to make it happy. And when the little boxtroll is upset, it hugs the bolts tightly for comfort. The cabbageheads are also shy, so much so that they usually hide behind the boxtrolls. But there’s something about benign and friendly underlings like these that give the book the extra dab of sweetness to counter the villains’ nasty plans.
Snow’s language is half the fun. The other half is more than mightily provided by his illustrations. Every single page sports a pen and ink illustration, some taking up entire pages and some tiny portions here and there that illustrate any given point. At the beginning of each chapter is an meticulous and incredibly detailed illustration of the story to come. Then, flitting at the top of each chapter, is a series of silhouettes showing what the characters will be doing. The fact that the silhouettes change with every chapter impressed me right from the start. There’s also a rather intense selection at the beginning of the book taken (apparently) from Johnson’s Taxonomy of Trolls and Creatures. Should you find yourself forgetting what a trotting badger is (hint: not good) or you’d like to know the personality of your average fresh-water sea-cow, it’s all here. Just don’t let the wordiness of it turn you off at the start. You can always skip it and come back to it later when you’ve met creatures like the boxtrolls.
If British children’s book imports are to be believed, the hot topic amongst the kiddies right now are guilds. And guilds, should anyone ask you, are inevitably bad. There were evil guilds in Frances Hardinge’s fabulous, “Fly By Night”, and there is the remarkably nasty guild in “Here Be Monsters”. Actually, I consider these two British books to be some of the finest imports to grace our shores this year. Should you want a good rousing story to read to your kids tonight, or even just a great book for those children who like a healthy dose of fantasy in their diet, “Here Be Monsters!”, is the answer to your prayers. A wonderful, fabulously imaginative, remarkable funny (and other descriptors of varying praise) book.