Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Hero's Guide to Storming the Castle (The League of Princes #2) by Christopher Healy

Christopher Healy is the Groucho Marx of fractured fairy tales. His first book, "A Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom," was hysterical - sometimes at the expense of the plot - but this one strikes the right balance with more depth, solid plot, and a fun cliff hanger ending. Healy takes the delicate business of writing children's comedy and makes it a hoot for children and adults alike. You need to set aside your "doohickeys and dingle-dangles" and snort-laugh as the League of Princes reunite in order to rescue Liam who has been kidnapped by Briar Rose. Don't worry, the Princes Charming bumble plans that would do Elmer Fudd proud as their adventure leads them to recover the Sword of Erinthia from the Bandit King causing all sorts of "sparzle" or unpredictable twists and turns in the plot. A steady beat of wordplay highlights Healy's forte for clever dialogue, asides, and epigraph's that make for laugh out loud passages while poking fun at the hero concept. I like the made-up word "sparzle" because I can use it when I have writer's block. I"m sure you'll find your own word favorites. Perhaps you'll latch onto, "flash-fried" or "tchotchkes" or "String-Chi" or "Hwah!" Take your pick. If you liked book one, I guarantee that you'll love book 2. If not, call me "Humperdinck." (Did you know he wrote the opera, Hansel and Gretel in 1893?) "Huzzah!"

Prince Duncan is writing his book "The Hero's Guide to Being a Hero." He's not an ordinary hero being under five feet tall, an animal whisperer, and clod. The epigraphs before each chapter have the simple-minded Duncan making ridiculous statements that are either frivolous or bad advice to the "path to hero-hood." There are epigraphs that play on words and a few others from the ancient tome of Darian wisdom that gives villains mostly good advice on the path to power with some silly twist. Duncan gives useless advice such as a hero leaves nothing to fate which is why he or she must always have a coin to flip. The Darian book of wisdom stresses the importance of inducing terror in visitors down to a welcome mat that will haunt nightmares. Some epigraphs preface the chapter such as this Darian one, "They say laughter is the best medicine. Destroy the clowns!" The main theme of the book can be found in this hero epigraph, "When facing unbeatable odds, just think of yourself as unbeatably odd." I'd say that sums up not only Duncan, but everyone in the oddball League of Princes.

Duncan and Snow are perhaps the nerdiest couple in this book. Duncan tries to high five Gustav and accidentally slaps him in the face during a pep talk. "I'm just going to pretend that didn't happen," Gustav said. "Go, B Team!" Slapstick abounds like in this dialogue sequence: "'Dunky?' Snow called as she looked around anxiously. 'Where are you Dunky?' 'I am sorry, miss, but your donkey will have to wait,' Vero [a bad guy] said." Even though the two are hopeless ding-dongs, their friends truly care about them and they do make a difference in the mission's outcome. I like the subtle message of respecting others no matter how different they are from what's considered normal. Duncan's strange habit of naming animals is worked into the plot too. When Liam asks what JJDG stands for Duncan shouts, "Jimmy John Digglesford Garbenflarben!" (Next time I see a Jimmy John's commercial I'm going to yell the tongue twister, "Digglesford Garbenflarben!") When he names a rat, King Moonracer, it becomes his friend and chews his ropes when he's captured. I admire how Healy creates cartoonish characters that are endearing and doofy at the same time; plus their internal changes give them depth. Duncan learns to embrace himself and work with Snow when they storm the castle. He also realizes that all of his epigraphs aren't true so he needs to rewrite his book on heroes. He tells Snow that she's the "hero" at the end of this story. I can't wait to see the goofy epigraphs Healy creates in his next book.  Beneath the silliness there are messages of teamwork, courage, and acceptance.

 *Spoiler alert*
Liam, Ella, and Frederic's relationship is more complex. Liam is interested in Ella who is very much like him and Frederic doesn't think he's good enough for Ella even though they are engaged. Frederic is interested in Rapunzel, but it isn't clear if he wants more than friendship. This will probably be explored in book 3. When Liam hurts Frederic's feelings by not listening to his ideas, Frederic storms off determined to execute his idea. Ella is stuck with Liam and she's miffed at how he treated Frederic. Liam struggles with the definition of a hero and represents the classic hero for the most part. His problem is he is egocentric and enjoys the power that comes from leading others. He becomes so used to telling people what to do that he doesn't listen to others, which prevents all of the princes working together as a strong team. Liam doesn't particularly respect Frederic's opinion because he's a sissy and Liam is interested in Ella. In the end, his actions hurt all of them and he must either change or lose his position as leader. When he finds out what his dad did to him as a child he loses his self-confidence and isn't even sure what defines a hero. He makes peace with Frederic and changes, but he still doesn't quite get the hero gig as evidenced by the dialogue he and Briar Rose have at the end.

Briar Rose is the perfect foil to Liam and there is more depth to both characters than implied from their initial appearance in the story. Both grew up with the adulation of the kingdom's citizens and are used to getting their own way. Liam has lost his peoples' love for him, but has the respect of his friends. Briar realizes on her adventure that she wants respect, companionship, and to do the right thing so she can have someone who cares about her; a lesson Liam learned in the first book. Ironically, Liam doesn't understand this because he's too wrapped up in his own feelings and doesn't realize he's like Briar in so many ways. Frederic and Ella still don't seem sure about each other and at the end when it looks like they have reached an understanding about their differences, Frederic's father messes things up telling Ella to leave his castle because she keeps leading her son off on dangerous adventures. In the first book, Frederic has to face his fears. In this book he has to embrace who he is as a person and find the courage to stand up to his overprotective father. Frederic is growing up into an independent person who realizes that his father's unreasonable protectiveness is from Frederic's mother dying on a similar adventure when Frederic was young.

Gustav is still the courageous, cynical, not-to-smart brawny guy, who changes in that he has to learn to get out from the shadows of his sixteen successful brothers and find his own identity. When he decides to be a hero by helping people, it is evident that Rapunzel, the healer, has been his literary foil. He keeps messing up the sword-stealing mission by not knowing the meaning of words. In a laugh-till-you-can't-breathe part where he and Duncan have to talk to a bard to get critical information, Gustav argues with Duncan about how to say and spell, "Jeopardous Jade Djinn Gem (JJDG)" which Gustav pronounces, "Jepperjajinjam" and insists he heard only J's. When Duncan explains the D in djinn is silent he gives the snarky reply, "Stupid language." Later Liam and Ella survey how Gustav destroyed most of the bard's bedroom and Liam scolds him that they needed to proceed "subtly." Gustav insists he did. "Everything's quiet, the bard suspects nothing, and then subtly-BOOM!-we attack." "Gustav?" Duncan said gently. "I think you were thinking of 'suddenly.'" Gustav is the king of name-calling such as calling Lila, "Duchess Dictionary" to which she dryly responds "I think you mean 'Thesaurus.'" He was correcting Lila that Duncan was "fortunate" not "lucky." Let me punt you a string of Gustav's names that point out characteristics in others: Mr. Mini-Cape, Captain Specific, Mount High-Hair, Professor Textbook, Awful Clawful, Lady Twig-Arms, Hairy Scary, Capey, Tassels, Blondie, Furface, Goldilocks, Masked Marvel, and more.

The villains are a contrast in characters too. Deeb Rauber is the eleven-year-old Bandit King who punishes his flunkies by making them go "through the spanking machine." He's a villain that you won't find anywhere; a kid whose loyal followers are adults and whose diet is the candy pyramid. What person wouldn't love that? Don't call attention to Deeb's age or size. He's the kind of person that punishes friends and foes alike by dunking them in a vats of caramel sauce. The person that met this fate was talking about a "kid" goat, but Deeb is a dweeb who thought he was being called a name. In contrast to Deeb's innocence and self-centeredness, is the nasty Warlord of Darian. When Deeb invites the brutal Warlord Lord Rundark to his castle, Lord Rundark is amused, "We shall go. It is always fun to kill a novice king." Deeb is fascinated by Lord Rundark and doesn't realize how dangerous he is while Lord Rundark is fascinated that a young boy can command the loyalty of adults. The two try to thwart each others plans and create an interesting contrast between childhood innocence and maturity. The characters are one-dimensional but I did wonder if Rundark's statement that his "thirst for knowledge" was as great as blood might be further explored making him more multifarious. It isn't elaborated on in this book, but I hope it will play a part in the next book. I prefer a good bite out of a complex villain.

Healy is a maestro with words, poking fun at conventions, and describing colorful characters. Fairy tales have an oral tradition as exemplified in the bards or minstrels in the kingdoms who change stories to fit their audiences. This reflects the changing history of fairy tales that have evolved from an adult to child audience that is explained in the "Norton Anthology of Children's Literature." The bard, Reynaldo, changes the League of Princes adventures and name to make them more entertaining and improve the cadence and rhythm of a song (just like Healy has fractured several original fairy tales). When Gustav and Duncan break into the Reynaldo's room, he jumps into song: "Listen dear hearts to a tale most upsetting, four bumbling Prince Charmings who destroyed a wedding-" "Not that song!" Gustav growled. "And it's Princes Charming," Duncan added pointedly. "How many times do I have to remind people of that?" "But Princes Charming just sounds wrong," Reynaldo said. "No one would request my songs if I used stiff grammar like that." Not only do the metafictional elements make the story more interesting, but the anachronistic use of Internet slang such as Briar using, "JJDG," in her journal was a stitch as well. As an adult I laughed at this because I remember my daughter first using Instant Messaging abbreviations and going, "Huh? What's LOL mean?" And how can you not "sparzle" at his descriptions of characters such as Redshirt, "a thick-necked barbarian with a penchant for licking the edge of his ax." Or Maude, the big troll who was the villain in "Jack and the Giant Beanstalk" and has teeth like tombstones and eyebrows like untrimmed hedges. "Entire families could get lost in her forest of spiky gray hair."

The Gray Phantom character is a clever spoof on Grimm's fairy tale, "The Valiant Little Tailor." In Grimm's tale the tailor kills seven flies and goes out to seek his fortune. He makes a flashy belt that says, "Seven at One Blow" and everyone thinks he killed seven men with one blow. He uses his cunning to trick others and eventually marries the king's daughter. She hears him mumbling he's a tailor and he is chased out of the kingdom because he's a commoner. In Healy's tale, "The Tailor" adopts the alias "The Gray Phantom," after the Bandit King won't let him be a part of his crew because his weapon is using thread, which is just as silly as killing seven flies. The princes call the Tailor's skill, "String-Chi," because he's so good at disabling his enemies by tying them up. He has fooled them into thinking he is on their side and they have no clue that he is the Gray Phantom. Like Grimm's tailor, he is deceptive  and cunning. At the end String-Man (Gustav is rubbing off on me) meets a more gruesome end than in Grimm's story which I thought was funny because Grimm's original stories are known for their violence versus the conventionalized Disney fairy tale versions seen today. Not that this is a Disney-style fairy. Oof! It's more in the vein of "The Stinky cheese man and Other Failry Stupid Tales," by John Scieska.

Healy creates strong, empowered females that help balance the male characters. Below the surface humor is the subtle message to rethink old-fashioned views on gender and power. Ella knows her own mind and has amazing sword skills. We learn that Frederic's mom was an athletic person with an adventurous spirit. Snow keeps Duncan from getting lost and is encouraging. She's into frilly clothes, but so is her husband. Snow has the best throwing arm in the kingdom which in the end saves all of them from dying or being controlled by the Warlord. Troll Maude likes to crush things and contemplates squashing Gustav when he calls her "Big Mamma." Usually male trolls are presented like her. Kind Rapunzel is wise and saves many lives, not to mention, doling out advice to Gustav regarding why he's unhappy. Briar Rose is a champion at manipulating people, but wonders what it would be like to have friends.This basketful of supporting female characters helps bring some normalcy to the kooky male characters. Okay that's not completely true. Troll Maude is a bit extreme. Just don't expect any stereotypical characters in this tale.

So folks, read this book for it's "sparzle." (or "sparkle" if you are an automatic dictionary). Or read this book for its "rampage-and-wanton-destruction" type troll that can be found in Maude. Or read this book to study foils, wordplay, irony, epigraphs, characters, and fairy tale twists. Or read this book to write a glorious paper that explores the oral traditions of fairy tales and their function in cultural socialization processes. Just kidding. Or read this book for a good belly laugh. Do keep in mind that below all the silliness is a great story that challenges readers to examine their own lives and decide how they want to live through the choices they make each day. This is what shapes people of character. People who don't need capes to be called, "heroes."

5 Smileys

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