Len Bailey,
(Tor/Starscape, 2007)

Cowboys, pirates, and chess may sound like an unlikely combination, but Len Bailey makes it work in his offbeat fantasy for the middle school crowd. Although it's a sequel to Clabbernappers, Fantasms -- unlike so many other fantasy books -- stands well on its own and leaves just enough open for further adventures. It's wacky, it's over-the-top -- it might even qualify as a "hoot-hollerin' fun time," to borrow our young hero's turn of phrase.

The book starts off in modern-day Oklahoma, where plucky Danny Ray, hero of the series and former best dang rodeo cowboy (junior league), is having a rough day. Not only has he been tossed off the bull Tomahawk and lost his title; he's also been snubbed by the rodeo queen in favor of cocky Billy Whitehorse. Bruised and humbled, Danny Ray nonetheless accepts an unexpected invitation back to the fantasy kingdom of Elidor, in which he previously battled pirates and magical baddies, winning the gratitude of King Krystal and his beautiful daughter, Princess Amber.

However, all is not well in Elidor. Princess Amber has been kidnapped by strange shape-shifting beings called fantasms, and it's up to Danny Ray and a peculiar assortment of traveling companions to win her back. Their quest takes them over the Checkered Sea in a bishop ship (which can, of course, only travel in diagonal lines) captained by the haughty Commodore Mumblefub, into the clutches of a failed magician, and over the skies on a giant dragonfly. Only one thing is clear: the fantasms can make distinguishing friend from foe devilishly tricky, even for a quick-witted rodeo cowboy armed with a magical slingshot.

A twisty plot, fast-paced and often humorous adventure, and even a bit of bull -- er, dragon riding -- should keep young readers flipping pages. The prose has a twangy, tall-tale goofiness that delights in its own colorful settings and characters with names like KarooKachoo (bless you!), Giddyfickle and Quigglewigg. Not even occasionally sloppy writing and some hyperbolically bad verse ("A rook is a pig / And a pig is a hog! / The knight is heavy / And jumps like a frog!") can quite weigh down its exuberance.

Don't expect too much depth or characterization: Fantasms is basically an energetic, idiosyncratic romp through a fantasy land that never strives for well-rounded realism. Young fantasy fans -- especially those who also like chess and cowboys -- looking for a change of pace probably won't mind too much.

review by
Jennifer Mo

11 August 2007

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