James C. Christensen with
Renwick St. James and Alan Dean Foster,
Voyage of the Basset
(Artisan/Workman Publishing, 1996)

Voyage of the Basset is an oversized, lushly illustrated tale of a Victorian era professor, Algernon Aisling, a widower, and his two daughters, Miranda and Cassandra. Miranda is sixteen and concerned with being sensible, while Cassandra, nine years and eleven months, likes and believes in magical things. Miranda is outnumbered in this family, because Professor Aisling lectures on mythology and legends at his university, and believes in mysterious and magical things too.

But some of the members of the university think that it is nonsense to teach about myths and legends, because magical and mysterious things cannot be dissected, weighed and measured. One member in particular, Mr. Bilgewallow, takes delight in tormenting Professor Aisling, who wishes -- and dreams -- of a ship which would take him to the worlds where he might find the creatures of legend.

One evening, his wish comes true. As he and his daughters walk along the river, they come across a curious little ship, with a crew of dwarves and gremlins. (James Christensen's gremlins are particularly natty: they wear tall top hats and spats.) One of the dwarves introduces himself as Malachi, Captain of H.M.S. Basset. He says that it is Professor Aisling's ship, conjured from his wishes and ready to sail on the "tides of inspiration." Aisling is astonished and delighted, and he and Cassandra waste no time in going aboard. Miranda needs a bit more coaxing.

The Aislings set sail on a magical voyage where they meet a number of creatures from mythology who join them on board the ship. Included among these are the Harpies, who take over the galley, the Manticore, the Sphinx, the Minotaur and a dryad, complete with tree. Disaster strikes when Aisling becomes distracted by the potential of bringing back measurable proof for Bilgewallow and his ilk. He also insists on bringing the lovely but deadly Medusa on board, with predictable results for one of the crew. But through the help of his daughters and Medusa, he recovers his belief and his balance as all of them must unite against the evil trolls who pursue him.

The book is largely a vehicle for Christensen's paintings, which are packed with detail and whimsical touches. One double spread features a Faerie court, presided over by Oberon and Titania. The range and variety of faeries depicted is astonishing, and one could pore over these two pages alone for a long time. One gets the sense that Christensen takes himself seriously only up to a point, and that he is not at all afraid to be playful.

The text is well written, if occasionally precious, but not for mythology purists. Titania and Oberon lack the streak of callousness often exhibited by the faery folk in traditional mythology, and the figures from Greek mythology lack menace. This is not entirely a bad thing -- it takes a creative mind to turn the Harpies into avid cooks, or to consider whether the Minotaur just might have wanted to get out of the Labyrinth -- or that Medusa might just be lonely. This approach is best appreciated if one has a grounding in the original mythology. Still, my two children, ages 6 and almost 5, were able to follow the story and understand that each of the creatures had a different mythological background. They enjoyed the story as well, cajoling me for one more section after each night's reading. It makes a wonderful book to share out loud, with lots of time for studying the pictures, and it doesn't hurt to instill in a child the Basset's motto: Credendo vides -- "By believing, one sees."

Note: The voyage continues this fall as Random House Children's Publishing launches a series based on Voyage of the Basset, aimed at middle grade readers. The first two books in the series, due out in October, are Islands in the Sky by Tanith Lee and The Raven Queen by Terri Windling.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]



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