The Unusual Suspects by Michael Buckley
Illustrated by Peter Ferguson
Publisher: Amulet Books
Pages: 290 plus afterword (Paperback)
Series: The Sisters Grimm #2
For Sabrina Grimm, living in a community of fairy-tale characters means always being ready for trouble. And something is definitely wrong at her new school. The adults seem too angry, the kids seem too sleepy, and the gym teacher likes dodgeball way too much. Of course, her little sister, Daphne, is having the time of her life. (Who wouldn’t with Snow White for a teacher – she’s so good with little people!) But when Sabrina’s teacher, Mr. Grumpner, is found dangling in a giant spider’s web, even Daphne’s convinced Ferryport Landing Elementary has a monster problem. Can the Sisters Grimm solve the crime?
So, after reading a few stories in a row that didn’t quite ‘click’ with me I thought I’d pick up something nice, easy, and fun – and this proved to be exactly what I needed. Without spoiling the first book too much, The Sisters Grimm is a fractured fairy tale/fairy tale mash-up series following the adventures of Sabrina and Daphne Grimm as they solve fairy-tale crime and try to track down their abducted parents. If I’m honest, it’s not the best-written of series so far, but it’s very fun, the ideas are good, and as a sucker for reimagined fairy tales I’m kinda moving towards loving it. Enough that I’ve already put in a library reservation for the next book anyway.
The Unusual Suspects follows closely on the events of the first book, the gap between them being a mere three weeks, with Sabrina and Daphne just starting at the local school and beginning to settle into the weird world they’ve been thrown into. Or Daphne is settling in anyway, Sabrina, the primary protagonist, is really not. Already the less likable of the two sisters, Sabrina is actually a bit of a brat in this book, taking her initially understandable distrust of the fairytale ‘everafters’ to the point of outright bigotry. To be honest this didn’t bother me too much as I could understand, to an extent, where Sabrina’s character was coming from. Her development is obviously going to be a big theme throughout the series though as she learns to accept other people’s views and stop thinking of herself as the sole person looking out for her younger sister and for that to happen she has to start off pretty angry and closed off. For me, at least, Buckley managed to straddle the line with her character just about right, and though she was occasionally annoying I never disliked her – but I can understand it being a potential stumbling block for other readers. Daphne, of course, is still wonderful and I love the easy way she trusts people and enjoys almost everything the story throws at her without questioning its total oddness, but then that’s eight-year-olds for you.
Now I said the writing wasn’t the best. For me it was particularly noticeable in the first portion of the book where there was a lot of info-dumping to bring readers up to speed with the setting and the events of the first book. Once that’s ploughed through though it’s actually fine. Though Buckley is definitely guilty of the trap, particularly common in busy settings such as schools, where the author only bothers to name those background characters who turn out to be plot-important, meaning that a large portion of the ‘mystery’ turns out to be not so mysterious with the guilty parties pretty easy to identify by halfway through the book (imagine Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets if the only named student besides Harry, Ron and Hermione was Ginny, or a Poirot where nobody but the guilty character was given a name or description). But then again this is a story where you’re obviously meant to solve the mystery alongside or slightly ahead of the characters, where the focus is more on the ‘fairy-tale’ aspect than the ‘detective’, and which is written with a pretty young audience in mind. So for what it’s trying to do it works pretty satisfactorily with enough hints and not too many red-herrings that a younger reader shouldn’t feel the mystery beyond them and might even have a few ‘I knew it!’ moments without the characters themselves looking too stupid either.
I have to say I wasn’t as impressed with the standalone plot for this book as I was with The Fairy-Tale detectives, it felt a bit lacklustre in comparison, but what I really enjoyed in this book was the character interactions. After not quite loving Puck as much as I think I was meant to in the first book (it felt a bit like the writer had wanted to use Peter Pan but then remembered that copyright is ridiculously muddy so just switched the name) I think he started to come into his own in this one. I’m probably not the target audience for his hilarious burping, nose-picking, and whoopee cushion antics, but his enthusiasm for dodgeball and his stubborn insistence that he’s a villain won me over. He’s not as good as Daphne but I like him. Mr. Canis and Granny Relda I continue to absolutely love (more Canis, please!), and we began to see a bit more of other everafters and what their ‘everafter-ness’ meant for their family lives. The real hook to pick up the next in the series, however, lies with the developments in the overarching plot of finding and rescuing Sabrina and Daphne’s parents from the mysterious ‘Scarlet Hand’ and the total cliffhanger of an ending. I wasn’t expecting so much movement so soon into the series, but am very eager to see where it leads.
A definite four star read and a series I would recommend to people with children if I actually knew any. Am very surprised it’s so hard to find in British book shops and libraries (I’ve had to order in the next from London as my local library service for the region doesn’t have anything beyond the first two books and I’ve only seen them once in a brick and mortar bookshops). Definitely deserves a bit more attention than it seems to be getting over here.