Friday, July 1, 2011

The Order of Odd-Fish - Review

Note: I know I promised a Green Lantern review, but a combination of illness and too much other stuff to do has prevented me from making it to the movie theater yet. It will come, I promise. Probably. Also, the following review was prepared in a factory that processes nuts, and therefore may contain spoilers.

A few months ago, my friend Meri gave me a copy of James Kennedy's The Order of Odd-Fish as a gag birthday gift. She hadn't heard of it before, and I was pretty sure I hadn't either, but the blurb on the back led her to believe there might be some fun Lovecraft/Cthulu spoofing going on inside. I took it home and put it on my shelf while I made my way through other books, and finally got it down and started reading a few weeks ago.

Before I go too much further, here's the synopsis given on the author's website:

Jo Larouche has lived her thirteen years in the California desert with her Aunt Lily, a faded Hollywood starlet, ever since she was found in Lily’s laundry room with this note pinned to her blankets: This is Jo. Please take care of her. But beware. This is a DANGEROUS baby.

Up until this point, Jo has been, as Aunt Lily puts it, “as dangerous as a glass of milk.” But all that’s about to change. At Lily’s annual Christmas costume party, several strange things happen: a boy in a hedgehog shoots an elderly Russian colonel; a talking cockroach is found tied up in the basement, moaning about how this will play in the tabloid press; and a box falls from the sky, addressed to Jo from “The Order of Odd-Fish.”

Soon, worsening circumstances lead Jo and Lily out of California forever—and into the mysterious, strange, fantastical world of Eldritch City. There, Jo learns the scandalous truth about who she is, and she and Lily join the Order of Odd-Fish, a colorful collection of knights who research useless information. Glamorous cockroach butlers, impossible quests, obsolete weapons and bizarre festivals fill their days, but Jo’s dream turns to nightmare when she learns that instead of a hero of Eldritch City, she may in fact become its destroyer. By the novel’s wrenching climax, Jo comes to understand who she truly is—and what it means to call a city home.

Equal parts Monty Python and Roald Dahl,
The Order of Odd-Fish is an entertaining and hilarious ride through a world that readers will not want to leave.

This is a very fun, very clever little book.

Reduced to its most basic elements, it's the standard first part of the hero's quest: Jo Larouche is thrown into an extraordinary situation, and must get through it. She begins with the help of a mentor and her friends, but by the end is forced to stand alone, coming into her own as a hero. Because Odd-Fish is a Young Adult (YA) novel, it is required under the Geneva Conventions to be a coming-of-age story in addition to anything else it wants to be, so all the typical baggage associated with that also comes into play: straining against parental boundaries, coming to terms with one's own identity, the ups and downs of friendship, and, of course, the the beginnings of an interest in sex (often euphemized as "budding teen romance").

What makes this novel fun and clever is the way that Kennedy twists the tropes he's working with, even as he painstakingly honors each one. Many a typical hero these days worries about the monster they might become if they go down the wrong road: Harry Potter, for instance, continually (almost tiresomely) must decide between what is right and what is easy, knowing that the consequences of the latter will make him no better than his nemesis Voldemort. In Odd-Fish, Kennedy turns this on its head: Jo already is a monster. She really was born to be the catalyst for the end of the world, and there's no cute twist in the penultimate chapter that makes it not so. The destination is the same (the hero overcomes the darkness within him/herself), but it's refreshing to take a different route for once.

The idea of the hero's mentor is also given some real mixing up. In truth, none of the Knights of the Order of Odd-Fish really do anything significant to help Jo on her way. There's basic things, yes, like teaching her how to fight and how to get along in the bizarre world of Eldritch City, but most of their other concrete input is either ineffective or downright harmful (such as Aunt Lily's constant refusal to give Jo the whole story of what's going on). The thing Jo receives from her mentors is instead much more relatable: a family and a place to belong, no matter what. Jo's fear of losing this becomes the novel's core emotional dilemma, and it feels poignantly real.

The young love aspects are appropriately brief, and they feel natural and well-done. The primary romance set-up remains more of a low-grade, undeclared infatuation, which seems appropriate for the characters, given their age (13 years old). This contrasts nicely with some really dark and downright uncomfortable sexual allegory involving the book's primary villain and Jo, which is the only thing in the novel that felt a teeny bit ham-fisted to me.

(Also, it may be my own sick imagination, but there seem to be hints of a secondary, same-sex attraction that I find very fun to speculate about. If this was intentional, it was done with great taste and subtlety. If Kennedy chooses to write a sequel [or even a series], it would be interesting to see him develop this further one way or another.)

So, in writing this review, and rehashing my way through the book, I find myself forced to admit that it probably is, in the end, all about puberty, just as all YA novels are, in the end, all about puberty. The difference here is that The Order of Odd-Fish never smells like a typical YA novel about growing up, coming of age, going through puberty, dating a vampire, etc. Like Twain in Huckleberry Finn, Kennedy does his level best to convince his audience that they're reading a straight-up adventure yarn with no real substance while actually presenting them with a well-layered fable with a moral for those willing to look. In a story filled with the whimsical and ridiculous, Kennedy actually manages to address one of the central deep terrors of adolescence - that the strange new person we're turning into isn't good enough, isn't loveable, isn't even really us - and he does it with the same panache and originality that he uses while gleefully tipping the sacred cows of heroic adventure stories.

Plus, there's talking cockroaches. Buy this book. Seriously, come on.

Rating: 5/5 NM Copies of Action Comics #1

Next Time: Could be anything. We'll see.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the best-written and most perceptive reviews I've received. THANK YOU!