Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Faceless Fiend by Howard Whitehouse

This is actually the second in the series about Emmaline and Rubberbones. I completely missed the first.

I enjoyed this one in spite of myself. It takes a very long time for the action to really get anywhere, but once it did, it was quite exciting. The characters are engaging and funny, and I expect we'll be hearing more about their future adventures.

Here's the basic plot. In the first book, Emmaline and the Princess Purnah escaped from a horrible school (with the help of Rubberbones, a boy who cannot be injured). Princess Purnah comes from a tiny, fictitious, and "backward" country somewhere in eastern Europe. The Faceless Fiend of the title has been hired by the Russians to kidnap Purnah and thereby gain control of her kingdom, in order to invade Europe. The madcap adventures follow as the kids try not to get captured by the Fiend.

My only real complaint about this story is that it is so very quaint. The setting is supposedly Victorian England, although perhaps an alternative one because of Rubberbones' mysterious qualities, the presence of Sherlock Holmes, and Purnah's kingdom. Although the views of Purnah's savage country are no doubt accurate for the time, to me the depiction was too much of a throwback to colonial views of non-white countries. Is it acceptable to use the allusion of an uncivilized and violent, albeit fictional, country for humorous purposes?

It reminds me of other books (Nancy Farmer's Sea of Trolls and John Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series, to name two), in which main characters learn to appreciate the culture and society (however unlike their own) of their enemies, to the point where they can become allies. I think this is a more desirable approach for the 21st century. Now, to be fair, those two books are very different in style from The Faceless Fiend, Purnah and her fellow citizens are not the enemy, and only the bad guys want to take over her country.

I think I wouldn't be so concerned if the book was set in an alternate world. It could have many of the same characteristics of Victorian England (as in Philip Pullman's
His Dark Materials trilogy or Philip Reeve's Larklight), but wouldn't be burdened by the actual social history of imperialism.

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