The Problem Child by Michael Buckley
Illustrated by Peter Ferguson
First Published: 2006
Pages: 292 (Hardback)
Series: The Sisters Grimm #3
For Sabrina and Daphne Grimm, the latest in a long line of fairy-tale detectives, there is one mystery they want to solve more than any other.
Who kidnapped their parents over a year ago?
Sabrina enters the hideout of the Scarlet Hand, the sinister group of Everafters who are keeping her parents prisoner. She has a chance to rescue her mom and dad but is foiled by the most famous fairytale character in the world.
How can a human child defeat a magic one?
With the help of her little sister (who might be tougher than Sabrina realizes) and a long-lost relative, Sabrina finds a powerful weapon for fighting her enemies, and discovers that magic has a high price.
The library finally got it in for me! And I think it might just be the best in the series so far – though not without a lot of problems. The major one being that the author really can’t do a natural sounding recap for shit. So after the big cliffhanger the last book ended on, we get a first chapter of what should be an exciting action/revelation scene being awkwardly interrupted for massive infodumps to tell us everything that has led up to this point – and not even particularly accurately. Two mysteries solved does not equal ‘as they solved one mystery after another, the girls had started to discover a disturbing pattern‘ except in the most strict technical sense. As a result of this ‘stop and explain everything’ approach, the flow of the early portions of the book feels very disjointed and it’s a while before the writing finally finds its feet. It’s practically an advert for why some series are much better off sticking a ‘the story so far’ page in before you get to the prologue. But once those pacing issues are ironed out, the ‘standalone’ plot for this novel is much more interesting than the last entry in the series.
This book marks a pretty big advancement in the overarching ‘who kidnapped the Grimm’s parents? and how to rescue them?’ arc, with Sabrina and Daphne beginning to uncover more about the mysterious ‘red hand’ organisation as they encounter one of its deadliest members – and her pet Jabberwocky. It also introduces the Grimms to yet another long-lost relative, and fills in some important elements of the backstory – why their father never told them about their heritage, why he was always so anti-fairy-tale, and how did one of the ‘goodies’ of the fairy-tale world turned out to be the big bad of the book. And well…if I thought attitudes to mental health were bad over here I would hate to live in Ferryport Landing, where PTSD can get you locked up for life and forgotten about because you creeped other people out! I’d be setting my pet Jabberwocky on people after that too!
The Jabberwocky, of course is the biggest threat in this book and the main plot revolves around finding and reforging the only weapon that can kill him – ‘The Vorpal Sword’ (unfortunately lacking in ‘snicker-snack sound effects) – a quest which takes the young Grimms into the most dangerous corners of Ferryport Landing and to meet some of the most interesting characters. Twinned with this plot is the return of the black sheep in the Grimm family and the tension between his and Granny’s way of doing things. So while Daphne follows Granny Relda’s practical and down to earth approach, Sabrina begins to use and abuse magic props to do things the ‘easy way’. It’s all a little bit Buffy; a heavy-handed ‘power corrupts’ aesop, and a ‘magic=drugs!’ anallogy which felt pretty tired to me. But then, the seven-year-olds this is aimed at probably haven’t watched Buffy and with any luck don’t have much knowledge of drugs. It still rankled a little bit, especially as it’s Sabrina, yet again, who’s being an idiot. I love little Daphne, I do, but I think it’s her turn. And just one I’d like to see the black sheep return and actually be right (or at least not totally wrong) while still keeping the older generation sympathetic.
And one more bit that niggled. The hetronormative attitude that means after saying only ‘the kiss of someone with royal blood‘ can break a curse, the characters rush to Prince who hates them rather than approach the friendly Princess they know who would be more than happy to oblige. The cursed character’s a child – it’s really not like it’s going to be a romantic kiss either way. And even if they hadn’t thought of it themselves it would be nice to have seen Snow White stepping forward to do it after Charming starts kicking up the fuss that he does – it’s not like the two characters weren’t hanging out together for most of the story.
Overall though I really liked this book. Buckley is by no means the best writer in the world, but he’s good with ideas and there was a lot in this book to like – my favourite was the underwater city built from rubbish humans had dumped in the water. It’s got a more exciting and less predictable plot than the first two Sisters Grimm books and it really pushes the overarching-plot along as well. I’ll wait a little while before ordering the next book from the library, but it’s definitely a series I plan on carrying on with.