Fuse #8

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Review of the Day: The Palace of Laughter

The other day I faced a shelf full of beautiful ARCs just waiting to be plucked and reviewed by yours truly. Two of the books I was given to read were written by well-established authors with lots of titles to their names. I then started to search for a third book and my eye alighted on “The Palace of Laughter”. Even in its Advanced Reader’s Copy state, it was beautiful. From the cover, a winged girl and a spunky boy smile out, an eerie light catching both their faces. Around the sides golden curlicues and almost Art Nouveau flourishes draw the eyes even closer. I was hooked and took it home in spite of its 418 page bulk and previously unknown author. When I put it on my coffee table later I found that every adult who saw it, whether interested in children’s literature or not, couldn’t help but reach out and pick up the pretty pretty book. Of course, a lovely cover does not a good book make. In fact, the fancier the packaging the more likely that what you’re gonna read is going to disappoint. So it was with the greatest of surprise that I found that not only was the book a good read, it was an interesting one. I’m not about to nominate it for any major awards or anything, but should you happen to find your ten-year-old reading it like it’s nobody’s business, definitely consider giving it a peek yourself.

Miles Wednesday, orphaned, homeless (save for a barrel), and hungry is facing a tiger. A real honest-to-goodness tiger. A tiger, moreover, that can speak. Miles isn’t sure why the tiger is there and when it leaves he has even less of an idea of where it came from. Nonetheless, it isn’t long after this wild encounter that Miles sneaks into the local traveling circus to view its star performer. She looks like she’s six-years-old, has wings like an angel, and is named Little. Miles rescues Little from the insidious circus folk when he finds that she is being held against her will. It turns out that Little is a song angel, and her fellow song angel, Silverpoint, is being held prisoner by the insidious circus owner the Great Cortado, in a place referred to only as The Palace of Laughter. Now it’s up to Miles and Little (as well as the motley crew of people they befriend along their way) to save the angel and figure out what exactly is taking place at The Palace that is sucking the life and energy out of anyone who visits it.

Oh, I should mention the clown-factor. Are you afraid of clowns? Are your children afraid of clowns? Cause if they’re not, they’re about to be. If the Anti-Clown Defamation League ever gets their oversized mitts on this puppy there will be serious consequences to pay. I’m kidding. There is no Anti-Clown Defamation League (though it’s only a matter of time before one crops up). I myself have never harbored a huge fear of clowns. I find them creepy, sure. Who doesn’t? But not scary or something I have nightmares about on a regular basis. In this book though the villains employ a kind of clown-addled treatment on large swaths of people. The result is a nightmarish sequence that had me shaking in my boots for days on end. Until I reached this part of the book I was respecting Berkeley’s writing but nothing he’d put to paper really got my attention full-force. Then I reached page 263 and all hell broke loose. From light-hearted romp to blackest nightmare ever concocted clown-wise in a children’s book, “The Palace of Laughter” won my respect by horrifying me. Undoubtedly it will have the same effect on your children.

Reading this title was a touch and go battle for a while. On the one hand, "The Palace of Laughter" seemed like a cobbled together series of other books and films. By the time I reached the gangs of children that reminded me of nothing so much as “The Warriors” meets “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”, I was skeptical. Then I relaxed and got into it. Throwing in everything from talking cats to walking teddy bears to boys who shave half their heads and tie chicken bones to their hair (in lieu of toe bones, which are awfully hard to find), it’s the humor that’s often the saving grace of this book. At one point a landlady is said to have, “sang snatches of some tune that must have sounded considerably better in its original form, or it would have been strangled at birth”. Later on in the story someone is arrested and awaits trial, “to answer charges of Attempted Despotism”. I wish we could charge such a thing in real life.

I do wonder a bit how Christian fundamentalists will take the wide variety of angels present in this book. Lest you worry that this is some born-again bit of secularism, angels are not particularly holy figures in this story. Each caste has a job, Little’s job being to protect the One Song that holds the universe together. There isn’t any talk of God or the Devil or even mortal souls (though Miles suspects that a nightmarish creature called the Null has one). Angels don’t much care for the real world, and who could blame them? The villains here are uniquely villainous, though they always have their reasons. Berkeley always makes it clear why one person or another is acting as awful or as nice as they are at any given moment. And while you could definitely point out a little two-dimensionality here and there, the people are never so shallow as to strike the reader as utterly unbelievable.

So chalk me up as surprised. When I saw that this was a title in “The Julie Anderws Collection” (shouldn’t it be the Julie Andrews Edwards Collection?) I was unimpressed. This was, after all, the same collection that brought out that forgettable “Legend of Holly Claus” not too long ago. Fortunately the book is a strong one, and good thing too. With a big old “The Wednesday Tales No. 1” printed on the cover and some loose ends fluttering in the wind, Berkeley is counting on some heavy duty interest to keep this series going. Fortunately, the book stands firmly enough on its own two feet to justify that bet.

On shelves August 1st.


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