Review of the Day: Endymion Spring
If you should turn to your beloved children and ask them, “Well, kids. Where would you like to go on Spring Break this year?”, do not be overly surprised if they should scream in unison, “OXFORD!!!”. I hate to break it to you, but these days Oxford is coming off in children’s literature like the coolest place on the planet. First Philip Pullman put his mark on it with the, “His Dark Materials” series. Now newbie middle reader author Matthew Skelton is putting his own distinctive brand on that most notable of halls of knowledge. A fantasy with the good grace not to put “Book One” on its cover (even though it is), Skelton’s newest tale is a sweet ode to the written word and an exciting tale of intrigue, damnation, and the book to end all books.
He didn’t find the book. The book found him. When American expatriate and teenager Blake moved to Oxford, England with his annoying little sister and scholar mother he expected to be bored. What he did not expect was to be bitten by an ancient crumbling novel with the words, “Endymion Spring” on the cover. Intrigued by his find, Blake suddenly finds increasingly strange things happening to him. He receives a little paper dragon that seems to have a mind of its own. His sister is acting quieter and more withdrawn than usual. By the time he understands what he’s gotten into, it’s far too late. Blake’s fate is tied in with that of the original Endymion Spring, a boy apprentice to the great printer Gutenberg himself. Leaping between the past and the present, this tale draws together scholars of every age, the lure of power, and how one book can change the entire world. Magic and research combine in a terrifying mix.
The book that “Endymion Spring” is going to find itself compared to the most won’t be anything “His Dark Materials” related, but rather Cornelia Funke’s highly popular, “Inkspell”. But of the two books, “Endymion” comes out the better. Skelton’s writing is crisp and to the point. Plus, any fellow who can pull off as tense a library chase sequence as is found here has my undying admiration. The two storylines that leap back and forth throughout the tale are easy to keep apart, partly because one is written in the first person and the other in the third. Interestingly enough, however, Skelton is far better at realistic drama and action than he is out-and-out fantasy. The magical elements of this book are fine and all, but when we finally learn why the book is as important as it is it comes off as disappointing. Better to keep the magic mysterious and strange rather than bog it down in muddled explanations. The prose, by and large, is good. Only once in a while does Skelton slip up and put in something silly like, “He suddenly comprehended the concept of infinity”, or sentences along those lines.
Characters and settings comes across strong and clear in this story. Oxford was dealt with a loving hand by Pullman, but Skelton seems to have a much deeper affection for the campus. His careful explanation of what each building is, the history of this or that library, and the beauty of the skyline itself somehow never becomes dull. As I mentioned before, don’t be surprised if your more bookish kids start hankering for it. The characters are also well-drawn. Blake’s mother has the unenviable part of the antagonist, and sometimes she does come off a bit shrill. Still, her presence allows the present day story to feel firmly grounded in reality. You really want our heroes to succeed, but at the same time you’re biting your fingernails to keep them out of trouble. I was rather amused that one of the book’s potential villains was committing the mortal sin of suggesting that digitization was the wave of the future. Heaven forfend! And while the villain is as clear as crystal from page one, at least that person will be a surprise to the child reader who didn't see their malevolence coming.
Skelton has a firm hand on his material, but he comes off as in love with too many elements. In the book’s Historical Note at the back he mentions how he stumbled across the intriguing Gutenberg/Fust/Faust connection and worked it into his novel. But while Skelton is good at including everything from historical images to dragons that appear in trees, sometimes he goes a little too far. For a moment or two, it looks as if Skelton might really work the Faust story into his narrative in some way. Unfortunately, that detail never really sticks. Faust gets bandied about here and there but never makes any contribution to the tale itself and instead serves as a distraction from the larger action. Similarly, Skelton once heard a story of Laurens Coster and a beech tree that he, in turn, transformed into a tale of tree dragons and blood. I would argue that while his ode to Coster is admirable, the actual selection is awkward when discussed in the book. Skelton is juggling too many references, odes, and tributes. If he could have just removed one or two, it would have done his novel a world of good.
A little predictable, yes. I doubt any adult reading this book won’t see that Blake and his sister are bound to be friends or that Blake is bound to have a dramatic climax so as to not get in trouble with his mom. But kids reading the book would only feel this way if they’ve read hundreds of fantasies of this type. On the whole, those who are not reluctant readers should enjoy it thoroughly. It’s well-written, interesting, and with such an honest love of both books and the places where one can read them that it makes for a truly enjoyable experience. Fun.
On shelves August 22nd.