Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Alphonsus Spewt

The visual artist Mike Wilks (unknown to me) has a tremendous time naming characters in his novel Mirrorscape. Melkin Womper, Ambrosius Blenk, Dirk Tot all trip off the tongue in a silly way (and they are delightfully delicious when heard), but my favorite is Alphonsus Spewt [guessing on the spelling] (a bad guy). The cover has a somewhat Hieronymus Bosch feel to it, and Wilks says on his website that his character Blenk is inspired by Bosch. While listening to this novel, I sometimes felt like I was looking at a Bosch painting, having that overwhelmed sense of not knowing where to look.

Melkin Womper -- who goes by Mel (except by the nasty Spewt, who calls him Smell) -- lives in the backwater village of Feg in the kingdom of Nem. He loves to draw. His friend and priest sends some of Mel's drawings to the workshop of the famous artist, Ambrosius Blenk, in the hopes that a scholarship apprenticeship will be offered to Mel. Although Mel's parents don't want him to go to the capital, events carry him away. Mel has inadvertently gone afoul of the enforcers of the Fifth Mystery (led by Alphonsus Spewt): He needs to pay a tithe if he's going to engage in an activity that appeals to the sense of sight. As Blenk's assistant, Dirk Tot, explains, there are five Mysteries (one for each of our five senses), who control all activities and commerce related to that sense. But the Mysteries are corrupt, and there is a revolutionary movement afoot hoping to destroy their power.

Mel takes up his apprenticeship at Blenk's mansion, but -- as the lowest of the low -- he does very little artwork and a lot of cleaning up. Soon, of course, he tumbles into political intrigue and discovers the Mirrorscape. By painting a special sign onto a canvas, those who know the sign can gain entry into the world of the painting. At first, the Mirrorscape serves as a refuge for the revolutionaries, but once Mel -- along with his new friends Ludo and Wren -- finds his way into the alternative world, the bad guys soon follow. The battle between the Mysteries and the revolutionaries may well be won by the person with the fastest hand on his or her paintbrush.

There's a lot to like here (the characters' names, first off). Mel is your classic charmed innocent thrust into situations about which he knows nothing, but with the skills to defeat even the most evil enemy. The concept of an alternative world on the other side of a painting has been done before (Hasn't it? A title is on the tip of my tongue ... or am I thinking Inkheart?), but here it's brought to life with an artist's eye for detail and a great deal of humor (Two characters from Mirrorscape are a moveable house that goes by the name Billet, and an all-knowing butler called Swivel -- whose head does precisely that.). There's plenty of adventure and magic, along with a dabbling of art history.

The narrator is Paul English. I listened to his reading of Mao's Last Dancer a few years ago, and liked him tremendously. He's a very skilled audiobook reader and he brings a lot of those skills to this novel. He can create numerous characters with his voice -- I was particularly fond of his Spewt, as well as Billet and Swivel. He keeps a story moving nicely along, while varying his pace to convey excitement or deep emotion. His voice is very pleasant to listen to (admitting my fondness for stories read with an English accent).

Alas, though, I found this story to be almost too complex for audio. I got lost in the Mirrorscape! Wilks' artistic sensibility means that the settings of the Mirrorscape are described in great detail. I would get bogged down listening to these, then -- once the action began again -- try desperately to remember where I was in the story. There is a lengthy sequence when the three friends (Wilks uses this expression frequently, and I like it) search the Mirrorscape for Ambrosius Blenk and I lost track of which painting they had moved into several times.

Another scene comprises description after description of the fantastical beasts that are being drawn by the story's various artists to battle each other in mortal combat. These beasts are one big blur in my reader's eye. At this point, the story's real action has shifted, and I can't even remember how that battle actually ended. I'm sure the book must have plenty of illustrations, which would undoubtedly help in tracking the strange creatures and settings of the Mirrorscape.

The book ends with not one, but two, glossaries -- the first defines words used in Mirrorscape, the second is the terminology of art and artists. Lists like these never work particularly well on audio, and two of them are just a bit much. The Mirrorscape glossary names all those fantastical creatures, and then defines each of them as "an imaginary beast."

This book was published in the U.K. two years ago, and its sequel is already in print there, with a third book expected momentarily. The audiobook has been published elsewhere as well. I just want to say to U.S. publishers with rights to overseas literature -- you don't have to space a series' installments out, you can give them to us all at once!

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