The Fairy-Tale Detectives, Michael Buckley

The Fairy-Tale Detectives by Michael Buckley
Illustrated by  Peter Ferguson

Publisher: Amulet Books
Pages: 284 plus afterword (Paperback)
Form: Novel
Series: The Sisters Grimm #1

Rating:

For Sabrina and Daphne Grimm, life hasn’t always been a fairy tale. After the mysterious disappearance of their parents, the sisters are sent to live with their grandmother – a woman they believed was dead! Granny Relda reveals that the girls have two famous ancestors, the Brothers Grimm, whose classic book of fairy tales is actually a collection of case files of magical mischief. Now the girls must take on the family responsibility of being fairy tale detectives. Their first case? A roller-coaster ride of an adventure to stop a giant from destroying their new hometown.

And a high 4 stars (yeah, that rating system is definitely getting a haul-over in January). I really enjoyed this book. It’s not perfect by any means and a lot of it felt quite predictable but it’s aimed at younger children than most of the books I’ve been reading this year and it’s got a nice cosy childhood feel to it. It’s also in a genre I tend to like – fairy tale mash-ups. It seems you can’t escape them at the moment what with Once Upon a Time (started strong, got too boring to watch a few episodes in) and Grimm (started dull, got stronger as the series went on) as well as the flood of mediocre Snow White and Red Riding Hood films in recent years trying to be the next ‘big thing’. People seem to have cottoned on that they don’t have to pay copyright charges on fairy tales and are milking it for what it’s worth.

For me though my affection for the genre started when I was very small with Each Peach Pear Plum – a classic of the ‘read aloud to your baby’ picture books – and The Jolly Postman and The Jolly Christmas Postman – a brilliant interactive pop-up series for young readers that I honestly cannot recommend highly enough for people with young kids. Of course there’s the retellings – Revolting Rhymes and The True Story of the Three Little Pigs were practically required reading in primary school and they’re both great – but for me it’s always been about the shared-world thing where characters from different and sometimes very disparate fairy tales live alongside and interact with  each other. Jasper Fforde does a similar thing for and adult audience with his Nursery Crime series and uses out-of-copyright literary characters for the same purpose in his Thursday Next series (both brilliant – Thursday Next more so than Nursery Crime). And anyone who’s been reading my blog/following me on  goodreads for any length of time knows I’m totally hooked on Bill Willingham’s Fables series which transports fairy tale characters to modern-day New York. So…how does Michael Buckley’s work compare? And is that even a fair question?

Considering the different age groups all those books at I’d say not – but it’s something I couldn’t help doing as I read. There were a lot of superficial similarities to works I’d read before – particularly Fables – to the extent it sometimes did feel like Fables for kids. There were fairy tale characters living a secret existence in New York state, Jack the giant-killer as a pretty unheroic but friendly wastrel, and s Prince Charming as the mayor is an impoverished but ambitious royal who’s married and divorced almost every princess there is. But these are mostly are similarities stemming from the source material itself – once you decide to use fairytale characters it’s natural to combine all the Prince Charming’s into one character, and once you’ve done that you do then have to account for how many times he’s married. The vaguely similar personalities of Jack I’d attribute to the same thing – tell his story without the assumption that he’s the ‘hero’ and he becomes a lazy and uncaring kid who’d rather take the easy way out than work hard to help his family and eventually becomes a housebreaker and robber (and that’s just if we ignore the giant killing). It’s striking, and whichever order I read the books I’d be noticing the similarities, but I won’t hold that against this book – especially as I actually vastly prefer this version of Jack and the target audience should probably not be reading Fables in the first place.

So putting aside comparisons with similar books, how did I like it? Well enough. It’s not exactly going up on my list of ‘favourite books ever’ but I enjoyed it and thought it was a clever and entertaining little book with some very funny moments and interesting characters. I want to see more of Mr. Canis for certain, I enjoyed Granny Relda, Jack, and Puck, and got a few giggles out of King Arthur being concerned about the state of his car and the three little pigs working as policemen – nice pun there. I got a bit fed up on the emphasis of certain character’s ‘thick english accent’ and making him say Britishisms where they don’t fit (who the fuck asks for bubble and squeak for breakfast? It’s horrible at any time of day, but breakfast?) but I can overlook it. Now onto the main characters! Little Daphne I loved, but Sabrina’s personality – and the story is told from Sabrina’s third person-limited perspective – does make it a bit hard to get instantly into the story. Not only is she a cynic for the first half of the book but she’s also a very guarded and defensive child who doesn’t like to listen to anybody else about anything – a bit like book 5 Harry Potter but without the capslocky shoutingness. It makes perfect sense of course, she’s a child who feels the hurt of being abandoned by her parents and has had to play the role of mum and dad to her little sister through several different abusive and neglectful foster families – but it can come off as ‘high and mighty’. (Coincidentally I really liked the touch that they had resigned themselves to the idea that their parents had abandoned them rather than trying to rationalise it as ‘something must have happened to them, they wouldn’t abandon me’). Sabrina’s character development is a big theme of the story of course and she does get gradually better, but if you don’t like her much to begin with it might make the book harder to enjoy.

The story itself is good fun with a nice amount of action with lots of odd little fairy tale quirks to it – chase scenes on flying carpets etc. The twists and turns were a bit predictable – but then I’m twenty-four, I would expect to be able to predict most children’s stories by now, at seven I’m almost certain I’d have been surprised by them. Buckley also manages to pull of the start of an intriguing looking metaplot concerning exactly what has happened to the girl’s parents as well as neatly and satisfactorily tying up the novel’s stand-alone plot.

It’s very much the ‘first book of a series’ with a lot of time spent introducing the different elements and characters, but it’s the first book of what looks to be a very fun and entertaining series. I’ll be ordering the second one from the library soon.

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