(In the spirit of full disclosure, I have met James Kennedy. We were both standing beside the treacle well. I was drawing treacle; he was drawing pictures of Richard Nixon wearing iconic costumes from famous movie musicals, such as Anna’s ball gown from The King and I and Eliza Doolittle’s black and white ensemble from the horse racing scene in My Fair Lady. You can’t deny that what James lacks in understanding he makes up for in inventiveness.
“That’s some nice cross-hatching on Nixon’s jowls,” I said.
“Thank you,” he replied.
After a bit more drawing, he said, “If you like my pitiful art, you should really see the work on the cover of my book. Now that’s some drawing.”
“You have a book?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, tucking his pen behind his ear. Not the best idea, really, since it was a fountain pen; ink immediately began trickling down his temple and running into his mouth. “I have a book. The Order of Odd-Fish.” He paused, dipped his finger into the ink running down his face, and proceeded to adorn himself with a small Charlie Chaplin mustache. “Have you read it?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve only just heard of it.”
“A likely excuse!” he said, adding to his face an impressive pair of side-burns. “Too busy drawing treacle, were you? I suppose you can be forgiven….a dying art, is treacle drawing. I should commend you.”
“Perhaps I would read it, if I only knew a bit more about it.” I was contemplating whether the best way to order odd-fish was alphabetical or numerical; or, perhaps, if one should order odd-fish before or after the soup course.
He tucked his sketchbook away and motioned for me to follow him to the gate enclosing the treacle well. He perched upon the gate and I sat down upon a nearby rock. He harrumphed and said, “I’ll tell thee everything I can. It begins with a baby in a basket….a very DANGEROUS baby. Jo Larouche, to be precise, raised for thirteen years by a fading Hollywood starlet. One night, during a party, a Russian General appears….”
He prattled on for quite a while; I missed much of it, since I was thinking of a plan to dye one’s whiskers green, and always use so large a fan that they could not be seen. Fortunately, it has all been written down; and I heard and retained enough that I knew I wished to read this book.)
Kennedy’s book is large. It contains multitudes. The cast of characters is vast. The humor is painted in broad strokes. The journey is epic. It is part steam-punk, part urban fantasy, part fairy-tale, part bildungsroman, and part romance (in the Hawthorne sense of the word).
Within the main character of Jo LaRouche, there are echoes of Alice, Milo, Wart, and Dorothy. In the world, there are homages both subtle and obvious to Lovecraft, Stephen King, Monty Python and Moby Dick. Yet from these many and diverse influences, Kennedy has created something unique.
Jo’s companions also echo Tock and the Humbug, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, the Mad Hatter and the White Queen; her foster mother echoes Merlin and another faded starlet, Lily Cavanaugh; her foes, the Belgian Prankster and the Silent Sisters rank among the best villains of children’s literature such as the Jabberwocky, the Terrible Trivium, and Shere Khan, to name just a few.
Kennedy’s companions sparkle because of their oftentimes pathetic absurdities (a cockroach butler bemoans being smeared in the press, but when the press ignores him, he tries doubly hard to be worthy of their write-ups) set them apart from more noble examples of the archetype, and his villains feel all the more dastardly because of the sheer goofiness with which they practice their evil, such as writing musicals to thwart one another and filling the Grand Canyon with pudding.
The world of Eldritch City, which we reach by means we don’t really understand but go along with anyway (hint: it involves the Moby Dick reference), is incredibly bizarre but functions with a logic all of its own, and it obeys its own insane rules, as all the best fantasy worlds do. The characters are iconic but have been imbued with qualities that make them stand out from those who have come before. The plot, which its standard fantasy trajectory of a quest and an evil that must be defeated*, familiar to anyone who has read The Lord of the Rings, is told with such singular style that the well-worn path seems freshly paved.
I could blather on and on, but there is no reason to; this book is worth reading, and if you love any of the books or characters I’ve mentioned during this review, you will love this book as well. This book is not for every reader, nor should it be. As Ranganathan taught the librarian so long ago:
- Every reader his [or her] book.
- Every book its reader.
I am obviously one of this book’s readers. If you think you might be, too, do yourself a favor and go read it now.
Reviewed from a library copy.
A couple of other internet references to The Order of Odd-Fish:
*And yet the journey is also inverted, which I will not discuss further lest I ruin the tale for you.