Or, to be less intimidating about it, since many American fantasy writers are very talented, how is British fantasy unique? To answer that question, we obviously need to compare Monty Python and the Holy Grail to I Love Lucy, or Wallace and Gromit to The Simpsons, or When Harry Met Sally to Bridget Jones’s Diary. Therein we will surely find the answer, especially if we stick blithely to sweeping generalizations, which I hereby pledge to do in today’s post.
Actually, I looked at a couple of lists of American film comedies and TV shows, trying to decide what they have in common, and I concluded that Americans are very good at what the term “sitcom” tells us: situational comedy. Our humor is based on plot twists. We’re especially good at putting people in embarrassing situations and watching what happens—e.g., I Love Lucy, Everybody Loves Raymond, Get Smart, Seinfeld, and just about every “reality” show ever made. And just like in reality shows, the situations we find funny tend to be derived from things that do actually happen, or things that could happen very easily.
In contrast, British humor tends to lean towards the surreal—witness any number of scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but just for instance, take the one where the guy’s arms and legs have all been chopped off and he’s yelling at his opponent to come back and fight. Or the killer rabbit, or the coconuts. It’s all kind of nuts, and I mean that in a good way!
Combined with the strangeness, we get a real deadpan reaction from the characters. When something goes wrong for Lucy, she scrambles to handle it, but ends up flipping out. Wallace of Wallace and Gromit fame, like other British comedic characters, reacts to the most bizarre happenings with equanimity and an air of faint puzzlement.
Which brings me back to books: there’s something literary, not to mention clever, about British comedy, and about British fantasy writing. The words that keep coming to mind are wit and whimsy. I realize these tend to be used stereotypically, but then, stereotypes can have their roots in truth. I suppose we can define wit as cleverness and surprising humor. Just what is whimsy? Overused, it can become saccharine attempts to be cute, or as the British themselves, especially Terry Pratchett, might say, “twee.” But whimsy is creativity with a cheery grin. It is the oddly hopeful thought processes of a child, taking us to strange places which are not inhabited by vampire boyfriends, but rather by giant, traveling peaches and by baby griffins who eat too much and require our young heroes to earn extra money in order to feed them (thanks to Roald Dahl and Joan Aiken, respectively).
Beyond offering up solid plotting and appealing characters, children’s books—especially fantasy—really should surprise us. I’ve written before on this blog about the Fresh Factor, by which I mean innovation, the kinds of plots and language and details that make us sit up and take notice. Perhaps it’s a sad tribute to the televisionization of American culture that so many of our stories are prone to being predictable. In any case, I don’t know why some of the best or certainly most off-the-wall fantasy is British, but I can only surmise that there’s a little less TV involved and a lot more Lewis Carroll.
Whatever the explanation, the most innovative children’s fantasy I’ve read in recent years has been by British writers. This may seem like a cruel thing to say considering all of the excellent American fantasy out there, but I’m comparing good books to other good books, truly. My point is simply that the most fantastical fantasy tends to be British. There’s Diana Wynne Jones with her dragon’s blood smugglers and moving castles, Terry Pratchett with his frying pan-wielding young witch and his tidal wave-and-ghost-washed island, and Philip Reeve with steampunk space adventures and moving cities that devour smaller cities, for example. Not to mention Garth Nix’s bell sorceress in the land of the dead or his key-seeking Arthur Penhaligon in the seriously strange House, let alone Neil Gaiman’s Other Alice and Mowgli-in-a-Cemetery. (Yes, I realize Garth Nix is Australian, but I’ve decided to lump him in!) Frankly, one of the most original concepts I’ve seen in years is from a less well-known book, Eva Ibbotson’s Dial-a-Ghost, in which a temp agency that places ghosts in houses gets two orders mixed up. I also recently read the collected Armitage Family stories by Joan Aiken in The Serial Garden—and really, if you want to know what I mean by British wit and whimsy, her book perfectly exemplifies the phrase.
Of course, the big name in British fantasy today is J.K. Rowling. People who fuss about her rather ordinary prose are completely missing the point, which is that this is the woman who invented Bertie Bott’s Many Flavored Beans and quidditch. Besides the lovable characters, it’s those crazy, brilliant details that lift the Harry Potter books out of the ordinary.
And despite all the press, Rowling hasn’t actually unseated Roald Dahl—his stuff is still the best bet I know of for almost any eight-year-old on the planet. Talk about wit and whimsy! Golden tickets for the possibility of entrance to a mysteriously unknown chocolate factory? A girl who chews a stick of gum and turns into an oversize blueberry? I won’t get into lions and witches and wardrobes, but I hope you get the idea.
I got started thinking about all this because I read two British fantasies this week: Magical Kids by Sally Gardner and The Deep Freeze of Bartholomew Tullock by Alex Williams. I didn’t realize they were British at first, but I started getting the feeling I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and checked those back flaps to see where the authors were from. Suspicions confirmed!
Neither book is amazing, though both are pretty good. Magical Kids is a flip book—one side is a novella called The Smallest Girl Ever and the other is one called The Boy Who Could Fly. The idea of a shrinking child is not new, nor is the rather pop psychology explanation that Ruby Genie shrinks because adults are belittling her. The idea of a boy getting his wish to be able to fly is an oldie, as well, and it’s burdened by a creaky subplot about a dad who has forgotten how to have fun. But in each case, the story telling rolls cheerfully along just the same—especially in The Smallest Girl Ever, whose title character spends part of the book inhabiting a ladies’ purse while improving the magic tricks of an inept but helpful magician. (Apparently this is the second volume, by the way; the first volume consists of The Strongest Girl in the World and The Invisible Boy.)
The Deep Freeze of Bartholomew Tullock features one of those moustache-twirling villains intent on taking the family farm, also the farmwife. Only in this case, the farm is an oddly crafted house where the Breezes make intricate mechanical fans, and the farmwife is Elizabeth Breeze. Bartholomew Tullock has turned the town into a wintry, miserable place where everyone but the Breezes works in his turnip fields under a dark gray sky. As the villain increases the pressure, Madeline Breeze and her father leave town with a charming con artist to try to sell their fans in a warmer climate, while Rufus Breeze and his mother try to keep the bad guys from destroying their house. The book is a fun, fast-paced read, but as other reviewers have pointed out, the best thing about The Deep Freeze is the fans, which are utterly bizarre and are described in loving detail, making readers want to own one.
Like Magic Kids, The Deep Freeze of Bartholomew Tullock is a good way to spend an afternoon. Both books have that sense of whimsy, a valuable commodity in a fantasy world often overrun by dour plotting.
Of course, all is not lost on the American front. Going back to humor, I am happy to report that Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and sequels actually give British humor a run for its money (particularly Louise Rennison!). And when it comes to TV, I am both relieved and proud to say that The Simpsons makes up for any number of predictable, unfunny TV comedies cobbled together by less creative Americans.
As for children’s fantasy, I suppose we can attempt to claim Neil Gaiman, despite the deplorable persistence of his entrancing accent. More important, we have some innovative newcomers appearing on the horizon: Marie Rutkoski (The Cabinet of Wonders), Ingrid Law (Savvy), and Joseph Helgerson (Horns and Wrinkles) all seem promising.
But let’s focus on the really kooky stuff. For madcap, whimsical, Britishy off-the-rails books, there are two American writers to watch: Ysabeau S. Wilce and James Kennedy. Wilce is the author of Flora Segunda: Being the Magical Mishaps of a Girl of Spirit, Her Glass-Gazing Sidekick, Two Ominous Butlers (One Blue), a House with Eleven Thousand Rooms, and a Red Dog. The sequel, just in case you can’t guess, is Flora’s Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room). The first book tends to ramble, but is nevertheless something new and intriguing—imagine a California about a century or so ago if the Aztecs were still around and had territorial rights, and if all concerned had magical abilities. Throw in a teenager with a Califan slang vocabulary and insufficient supervision, then watch what happens. Flora’s mother is the Califan military leader, while Flora herself is a rambunctious fourteen-year-old who gets suckered by a banished magical butler. I will say that the second book hangs together better. (It is also more clearly a Young Adult title.)
James Kennedy’s The Order of Odd-Fish isn’t perfect, but it is astonishing and funny. Here’s my Amazon review:
Jo was discovered as a baby by the flamboyant actress, Lily LaRouche, inside a washing machine, accompanied by a note that read: “This is Jo. Please take care of her. But beware. This is a DANGEROUS baby.” When our story opens, Jo is thirteen years old, living with Aunt Lily in the extravagantly moldering ruby palace in the middle of the California desert. The night of Lily's annual costume Christmas party, a Russian colonel whose actions are directed by his intestinal rumblings shows up, as does a narcissistic giant cockroach butler, not to mention a package for Jo that falls out of the sky. Chapter One ends, “After that, everyone had the leisure to start screaming.”As this task implies, author James Kennedy prefers to range along the road from the absurd to the ridiculous, stopping along the way in the outrageous. He also makes arguably masculine side trips into the realms of bodily functions and violence.
Soon Jo and company are being chased by a billionaire with evil aspirations. They end up in Eldritch City, where Jo finds out just why she is considered dangerous and must continue to hide her identity from her newfound friends, fellow squires to the Knights of the Order of Odd-fish. The order is working on making, not an encyclopedia of all knowledge, but an appendix “of dubious facts, rumors, and myths.... A repository of questionable knowledge, and an opportunity to dither about.”
The plot is a little uneven in spots, perhaps because Kennedy combines one of those dark end-of-the-world story lines with the aforementioned nuttiness—and sometimes these two efforts seem to pull each other sideways. A few bits and pieces work better than others: I didn’t quite buy the parts involving a pie-loving character called Hoagland Shanks, for example. However, many OTHER bits are simply hilarious—and refreshingly creative. The rituals related to dueling, particularly the exchange of insults, are among Kennedy’s bizarre gems. Think of Eldritch City as the love child of Lewis Carroll and Neil Gaiman. It is well worth the trip.I will caution you that Kennedy does not shy away from big words, nor from an irony worthy of a satirist writing for adults. I suspect a lot of the humor will sail right over young readers’ heads, although Lemony Snickett has already established a precedent for using irony and obscure vocabulary in children's books. Watch in particular for the subplot involving the vain cockroach butler, Sefino, and his archenemy, a centipede newswriter.
I can’t resist closing this review with the most astonishing sentence in The Order of Odd-Fish, a lovingly concocted work of art that will give you some idea what you’re in for: “But soon Ken Kiang found he was both cat and mouse in a bewildering showdown with the Belgian Prankster, in which strategies of ever greater sophistication were deployed, canceled, reversed, appropriated, adapted, and foiled; pawns sacrificed, attacks repulsed, fortresses stormed and captured, treaties signed and betrayed, retreats faked and traps sprung, territory gained, lost, besieged, divided, despoiled, and exchanged—it was a shadow world, of infinite levels of deceit and disguise, of decoys that were Trojan horses full of more decoys that were red herrings in non-mysteries that had neither a solution nor a problem, concerning people that didn't exist in a place that was nowhere in a situation that was impossible!” (275)
Frankly, I can’t wait to see what Kennedy writes next.
Now, I suppose this idea of British fantasy I’ve been trying to describe may be a style—and it may even be partly imaginary. (How apt!) But if there’s a lesson American fantasy writers can learn from the Brits, it is that we needn’t limit ourselves to simply finding a new method for establishing a portal to another world or swiping a medieval setting and introducing sorcerers. There’s a special kind of risk-taking involved in letting your imagination go significantly farther afield. So perhaps with this entry, I’m issuing a challenge to children’s fantasy writers, myself included. Because the mind can come up with far more creative worlds and plots and details if you will only let it travel higher into the ether.