Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher

One of the perks of this here blog is that sometimes, publishers send me advance copies of books. And today, I'm talking about one of them there ARCs that you simply must see and read to believe. And when I say that "you simply must see and read" it, I don't mean that you'd only believe it if you read it. I mean GO READ THE BOOK.

But really, first I ought to tell you why, and before telling you why, I should probably tell you a bit of the what. Also, I have to divulge my particular bias, which is in favor of the notion of fairies/pixies living in the barrows on the English Downs (a la Tolkien and Pratchett).

The what

The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher is a graphic novel, in which the graphics are composed of photographs by David Ellwand (some of people, some of objects, some of sketches). These aren't just any photographs. Some of them are from highly modern equipment, but a number of them are from very old processes involving glass. Some are even daguerrotypes, positive images made using silver and mercury. The front matter, located in the back of the book, bears this notation about the photos: "The photographs were created with magic and necromancy." Having seen the book, I believe it.

On the inner title page, the book bears this subtitle/legend: "Being an investigation into the life and disappearance of Isaac Wilde, artist and fairy seeker". The written text is split into three parts: the first is from "David Ellwand's personal journal with additional notes from his photographic notebook"; Part Two bears this subtitle -- "Being a complete transcript of the phonograph recordings of Isaac Wilde documented here alongside photographs of the contents of the wooden box"; and Part Three is the remainder of David Ellwand's personal journal.

Image of two-page spread from part I of the book

David Ellwand spins a story about a mysterious happening on the Downs of England, a land of flint and chalk and barrows, referenced by J.R.R. Tolkien as the Barrow Downs, and spoken of with humor and affection by Terry Pratchett in The Wee Free Men and its two sequels. While walking one day, Ellwand found a "devil's eye", a round piece of flint with a hole worn in the center, through which (as anyone who has read The Spiderwick Chronicles or seen the movie can attest) one can see fairies. Come to think of it, Gaiman borrowed that device in Coraline, but I digress. Returning to the area, Ellwand eventually found himself drawn to an old house, eventually finding a heavy wooden box, once the property of Isaac Wilde.

Ellwand documents the contents of the box, which include old wax phonograph recordings. With help, the phonograph recordings were salvaged and recorded to CD, then transcribed for inclusion in the book. Because of the use of photographic evidence and journalistic reporting techniques in the first part of the book, it is easy to allow oneself to believe that the contents of the book are true, which makes it particularly intriguing, in my opinion. The middle part of the book is a transcript of the recordings, accompanied by materials which are alleged to have been the finds and creations of the fictional Isaac Wilde, a photographer hired by a fictional Victorian-era archaeologist named Gibson Gayle to document an archaeological dig on the Downs. Wilde includes stories learned from some of the locals, who believe that pixies inhabit the mounds on the Downs (as the Nac Mac Feegle do in the Pratchett books). The pixies photographed by Wilde, however, dress more like Victorian gentlemen and less like the Celtic warriors in Pratchett's books.

It turns out the Gayle is a ne'er-do-well who belittles Wilde, and Wilde is a good guy who, through the use of his own devil's eyes, has seen the fairies inside the dig, and tries to get Gayle to leave the place (and the fae) alone. Rumor has it it's a bad idea to piss off the fairies. You'll have to read the book to see what can happen if one does.

Two-page spread from Part Two, with text and photographs by "Wilde"

The Why

The photographs in this book are genius, pure and simple. Not just the photos, but their carefully crafted subject matter as well. Want to see a photograph of a 7-inch suit of armor made of mussel and oyster shells? A splinter-sized sword made of fossils? A helmet made of a snail shell and some bird feet? How about a wooden mask with real teeth and devil's eyes? And I can't tell you what the final photograph in the body of the book is, but underneath the flap is something magical. You know you want to see it.

Plus, the history/mystery that is the core of the book is built up cleverly, with credibility carefully crafted from the nested narrative and the photographs. This one sucks you in, and doesn't let go. (It also doesn't take particularly long to read, if I'm being truthful, but that's neither here nor there, and it will take your average ten year old about an hour or so (I'm guessing) to get through it the first time. Whereupon I predict that your average ten year old will go back to an earlier point in the book for a second look and/or read.) References to ten-year olds are based on the publisher's recommendation on the back of the ARC. It's really designed for middle schoolers, although I'm pretty sure that some savvy younger-aged folks will be all over this one. (Jo Knowles's son, E, comes to mind.)

The Mystery of the Fool & the Vanisher will be on bookstores later this month, or in September at the latest. I hope you won't let it sit there for long.

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