The Secret History of Tom Trueheart
Ian Beck has written quite a good story here, particularly for folks who love fairy tales and like the occasional bit of metafiction. Picture if you will a little white thatch-roofed cottage, snug and warm, and somewhat overly full of burly Viking-esque men. So far, so good. Each of these six burly young men is named some variant of Jack. Also in the house? Mrs. Trueheart and a young boy, just turning twelve, named Tom.
The Trueheart family is the last of the great adventuring families, and they live just outside the Land of Stories, which is governed by the Story Bureau. The premise is that the story bureau devises scenarios, sends them to an adventurer, and then the adventurer must go off, make decisions and live out the story, then report back to the Story Bureau, which will write it all down and sell it in a book.
But evil is afoot, as it must needs be in this sort of story, in the form of a story deviser names Julius Ormestone. Try as I might, I couldn't puzzle out whether that name had any deeper meaning or could be abbreviated or condensed in such a way as to turn out to be something else (like, say, "Grimm"). Ormestone wants to write the whole story himself, you see, from beginning to end. So he sets all 6 of the Jacks on adventures from which they do not return, and it is up to Tom Trueheart, novice adventurer, to set out and find them all. Tom is accompanied by a crow named Jollity (actually a sprite in disguise) as he sets off to rescue his brothers and restore order to the Land of Stories.
Young readers will, I believe, like recognizing the identity of the people in the adventures -- a girl who loses a shoe, a girl with exceedingly long hair that's been locked in a tall tower, a talking cow who must be sold at the fair, etc. -- and they will know what it is that the Jacks will do, if ever they can be found. The descriptions are excellent, allowing the book to play very much like a movie in one's mind -- I credit Mr. Beck's experience as an illustrator for his wonderful physical descriptions throughout the book. I also really enjoyed the silhouettes that pass for the only art inside the book (apart from the Map showing the Land of Stories and some other areas that make up the end pages fore and aft).
Tom does good detective work in figuring out how far in each adventure his brothers got, and in sorting out where (and how) they went missing, but he doesn't face any real adversity until almost the end of the book.
This story is essentially a heroic quest, and I found it a bit lacking because the only real adversity Tom faced for most of the book was his nervousness at being alone in the woods (and he had Jollity for company, which abated that immediately) and the occasional attack of nerves about being a newbie adventurer. Most of these episodes were of the (cue scary music) -- "Is something there? Is it bad? -- Nope, just a leaf!" variety (music turns happy again). The lack of truly high stakes makes this a terrific read for younger independent readers, for whom the idea of being on an adventure is all the scare they need. But I found myself wishing that Ormestone might have gotten wind of Tom much sooner and tried to mess with Tom through misdirection, as by sending him false instructions, or trying to intercept, capture, or at least trick him. In fact, I kept expecting it, but it didn't happen. Still, I enjoyed the story, and the bit of metafiction that comes from having stories be real, but staged, and being there for the purpose of generating a written story to be shared with others.
The ending makes clear that at least one more book will follow. Tom lets us know it, and so does Ormestone. And I can't help but remark that this one would make an excellent movie, as well (think Shrek meets Happily N'Ever After).