Lord of the Night reviews the absolutely fantastic debut novel from Ishbelle Bee, The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath, the first in The Peculiar Adventures of John Loveheart, ESQ series, published by Angry Robot Books.
"A debut novel that is truly weird and wonderful at the same time, and while not everybody will enjoy the bizarre narrative, insane characters and mix of madcap comedy and gory horror, I do believe that everybody should try this novel anyway, because you never know. With her dark, gothic fairy tale first release Ishbelle Bee is already my choice for Best New Author of 2015." - Lord of the Night @ Talk Wargaming
TSaEToMaG, for short because I ain't typing that title more than thrice, was a novel that caught my eye during a brief flick through incoming titles on Angry Robot. I found the premise interesting, and I felt it might have a bit of the dark magic that I loved so much in Laini Taylor's Smoke and Bone Trilogy or the acclaimed movie Pan's Labyrinth. Starting it on the bus ride to work one morning, I had finished it the same afternoon; I simply could NOT put it down. Never before have I encountered a book like this, truthfully I can't even tell you what genre it is in the end; Fantasy? Gothic? Horror? Fairy Tale? This book truly felt unique to me, something that stands apart from the other fantasy and fairy tale series available now, and that is no mean feat. Not only does the book feel unique in subject matter, but in other areas as well, and it isn't lacking in the more straightforward areas. The story was engrossing and filled with surprising twists, the characters were brilliant and each and every one felt like someone the author had spent a good amount of time on, there were no bystanders or one-note redshirts here, the book itself was hilarious and had me laughing at the madcap antics of the protagonist, the bizarre situations and dialogue, or the comedic-horror worthy of Sweeney Todd himself. With one novel Ishbelle Bee has barged right into my favourite authors, along with Jim Butcher, Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Brandon Sanderson and Derek Landy; the woman knows just how to meld horror and comedy in just the right amount to make it enjoyable rather than corny.
The year is 1888 and a little girl named Mirror and her shape-shifting guardian Goliath Honey-Flower have landed in England. Ever since her father forced her inside a mysterious clock painted all over with ladybirds, something has been wrong with Mirror. Whatever she is, she is not a simple human girl anymore. But to Mr Fingers, demonic Lord of the Underworld and the Demon of Clocks and Time, Mirror is the key to his eternal reign over the Underworld and perhaps even the world itself. Mirror's only hope is John Loveheart, ESQ, and personal servant to Mr Fingers. Taken as a child by the demon lord after the deaths of his parents, many say Loveheart is as mad as a hatter; he is inclined to agree. Called upon by his otherworldly father to find the mysterious little girl and claim her, Loveheart knows that his father plans on eating the little girl, but Loveheart was not born wicked, and a choice is soon before him. Good or evil? Where is a mad man to stand these days?
The story in TSaEToMaG is split into a lot of narratives, using multiple characters in separate stories that are eventually drawn together into the primary story. This is very much a character driven book, the actions of each character driving the story into unexpected twists and surprising turns, sometimes their actions affect stories other than their own and those definitely produce interesting results. The first story is about Mirror, a twelve year old who both is and isn't a little girl and her shape-shifting companion Goliath Honey-Flower as they attempt to discover what happened to Mirror inside that clock and what she has become, which quickly becomes a lot more complicated than simply knocking on doors and asking questions. The second story focuses on John Loveheart as he begins to question his allegience to his adoptive-father and murderer of his real father, remembering that he was not born wicked, and trying to discover if it is too late for him to return to the light, or if he is lost to the darkness of the Underworld forever. The third story is an investigative mystery as Detective White and Constable Walnut attempt to find a series of missing girls and unravel the connection to a small out of the way watchmaker and a group of people who seem to be ageless. The fourth story features the young maiden Pomegranate and her Auntie Eva and shows how these two rather strong women met the diabolical Mr Fingers and the origin of the Tale of the Thirteen Princesses and the Thirteen Dark Princes. With so many stories and characters you can be forgiven for thinking the book is hard to read or that the stories are underdeveloped, it is not so. The book reads smoothly, each story is given appropriate page-time and exploration, and at no point did I feel that any story was treated less seriously or importantly than the others. Bee brings these stories together very well when the time comes, something that felt natural as the links between each of the stories, both the links found by the characters and the ones they made themselves, became apparant.
The characters are a truly memorable bunch. Firstly we have our protagonist, John Loveheart; a man with a mind like the Mad Hatter, but with the Red Queen's predeliction for taking heads, the fashion sense of a peacock and the capacity for violence of Sweeney Todd. Loveheart is not your standard fantasy or fairy tale prince at all, he's completely bonkers and likes to cut people's heads off if they offend him, he dresses like he's always at a costume party, and he's the adopted son of the Demon Lord of the Underworld who likes to eat little girls. Loveheart is mad and wicked, but he wasn't born that way, and it's his struggle to determine whether or not he can be something more than wicked that makes him a compelling character; that and the total irreverence towards pretty much everything and his bloody yet zany actions that capture the reader's attention whenever he appears on the page. One of the best things about Loveheart though is that he really does read like he is insane, not just different or a little touched; completely 100% cuckoo. But there is a core of kindness and nobility in Loveheart that really adds to his dynamic and creates a wonderfully complex character that is as likely to rescue the damsel in distress as he is to slice off the heads of some angry drunks. Mirror and Goliath themselves are a rather heartwarming pair, the little girl and her loyal protector, and as Mirror grows over the course of the book we see a brave little girl who will become a strong woman, and in her companion we see a truly good man who simply wishes to do right by a girl who has gone through a lot of bad things in her life. Other characters include the rather badass Auntie Eva who matches Loveheart in sheer awesomeness and Mr Fingers in ruthlessness; Constable Walnut whose rather dim and simple outlook on life meshes well with the more analytical and complex Detective White, the straight-men of the novel and a pair that could have novels of their own about their various cases about the mysterious and the unexplained; the boisterous and very very English explorer Rufus Hazard who would fit right in with the cast of Blackadder the Third; and Death himself who comes across as a very morally ambiguous character, and yet one that definitely has some of Sir Terry Pratchett's legendary depiction of the Grim Reaper in him. One of the best parts about the book is that each and every character from the leads to the secondary characters to even the bit players feels like someone the author has really worked on, from the fairy-tale-esque names to the bizarre personalities and quirks, each character feels a bit like a labour of love, something that makes the novel so much more enjoyable, you can tell that Bee had a blast writing this book and creating the characters, and it shows very much.
The world of John Loveheart is a mad yet wondrous one, a Victorian London with Demons who eat little girls souls and collect clocks, where a man can slice people to bits in the morning and be having sponge cakes in the afternoon, and where Death and the Demon Lord of the Underworld have tea in an outdoor cafe and nobody bats an eye. Magical little girls and shape-shifting former police officers, ageless dilletantes wth a dark secret and a deranged serial killer with father-issues who collects teeth. I mentioned before that it is hard to categorize this novel as one genre, that is because I feel it isn't just one genre or even just two; it is a mix of many genres that Bee has combined to tell a very memorable story in a way that will stick with you long after you have finished the book. The best way I can describe this novel and the series as a whole is "Alice in Wonderland... in Hell... and on crack." Fans of Neil Gaiman's twisted take on fairy tales, Catherine Valente's Fairyland series, or Guillermo Del Toro's critically acclaimed Pan's Labyrinth, will find a lot to love in Ishbelle Bee's world where the hero is a head-chopping madman with a heart fetish, a witch with no problem killing children is a heroine, and the villain is a misogynistic rapist demon with a clock obsession, and where the Grim Reaper finds time to pop in for desert. However while the world-building that Bee does is well done, it clearly comes secondary to actually telling the story, Bee clearly prefers to allow the world to be built up naturally as the reader progresses through the story with the details we do learn being pertinent to the story we are actually reading rather than overload the reader with information that while interesting is irrelevant to what we are actually reading through info-dumps or conveniently placed explanatory characters. TSaEToMaG, with all it's gore and darkness, is clearly a fairy tale for adults, though I suppose that a modern-attitude child would enjoy this as much as an adult.
The pacing of the book is as different as the rest of it; the novel starts off slowly but quickly finds it's way to the final confrontation... at the end of Part 1. The subsequent parts show the backstory of the characters, both the leads and the characters that while not a part of the main story affected it through their personal stories, leading up to the final part that resumes the main story and leads to the conclusion of this singular and extraordinary tale. But it's the chapter format that is the most striking part of the narrative, some chapters being only a single page long and with less than a few words in differing font sizes, formats and spacing positions; these strange chapters really gripped my attention and drew me into the madness of John Loveheart's world, and really conveyed meaning in the shorter chapters where simple and unformatted text would have been dull and jarring. One of the best parts of this book I must say is the humour, both intentional and bizarre; I have not laughed this hard when reading a book since I read the Skulduggery Pleasant series, the mix of comedy and horror really gives the book a dark sense of humour, something I appreciate a lot more over straight humour, but that said the novel does have plenty of moments that are funny simply because they are funny rather than due to character madness or the bizarreness of the situation; or the moments of self-awareness some characters display. It's a really nice thing to be able to laugh as you read a book, and this novel will do that for you on nearly every page.
My favourite quote, I am torn between these two lines;
"Because I have standards."
"Time for the ending. I like the happy ones the best."
The ending is a very good one. Bee wraps up the tale of Mirror and Goliath while leaving the door open for more adventures with John Loveheart, who is the true protagonist of this story and series. This series is clearly meant to be one of self-contained adventures, each novel featuring John Loveheart and company in a new adventure, though the potential for a story stretching over multiple books is possible, but the tale of Mirror and Goliath ends here, and I think that it was best that way as it prevents their story from being dragged out. Each character, that lives, also gets a brief epilogue to show what ending they get; a nice touch that leaves no stone unturned and makes sure that no matter who your favourite character was, you get to know what happens to them in the end. Unlike some series that leave story threads open, this first novel does not and closes off all of it's story threads by the end, which means that the second novel in the series will pick up with a new story and characters, alongside the returning cast.
For it's gripping storytelling that made me unable to put the book down, wonderfully enjoyable characters that I am already looking forward to seeing more of, lots of blood and violence combined with hilarity on practically every page, and a world that is filled to the brim with the same dark magic that made me love the Smoke and Bone trilogy so much, I give The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath: The Peculiar Adventures of John Loveheart, ESQ by Ishbelle Bee a score of 9.7/10; this is a Great novel that was a true joy to read, so much so that I immediately pre-ordered the sequel, and has many factors that made it an incredibly enjoyable book for me and my choice for Best Debut Novel of 2015. I do believe that this is a novel that should be on EVERYBODY'S must-read list, and I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone willing to take a chance and the time to read it, you might just fall in love with Ishbelle Bee's world and characters as I did, or you might dislike them and find the book too weird to suit your tastes, but if that's the case then at least you tried it.
That's it for this review. Thanks very much for reading, until next time;
AVE DOMINUS NOX!