Sunday, March 9, 2014

REVIEW: Foundling by D.M. Cornish

Foundling (Monster Blood Tattoo, #1)Foundling by D.M. Cornish
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 2006
Genre(s): Midgrade Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Monster Blood Tattoo #1
Awards: None
Format: Audio
Narrated By: Humphrey Bower

Recommended subtitle: What’s a boy to do if the monsters are nice and the humans are monstrous?

What a strange little book this is. I picked it at random out of the young adult section of audio books. As I started listening, my thoughts were that this was less young adult and more middle grade. It seemed targeted for a pretty young audience, perhaps 8-9 year olds? But then violent and disturbing things started to happen and I thought…Oh, so NOT for 8-9 years olds. Heck it’s practically not for 41 year olds. It has moments of serious creepiness and some very dire situations.

Rossamund is an orphan, raised in a strict but sheltered life at Madame Opera’s Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls. With his girl’s name he is not treated very well by his schoolmates but is looked after by two kindly employees at the school. At the age of 12(ish), it is time for Rossamund to be assigned a profession but he watches all the other boys his age get picked as sailors and other common professions until a strange man appears and picks Rossamund to join the Emperor’s Lamplighter’s service. Rossamund has no clear idea exactly what a lamplighter does besides light lamps but he is excited to be getting out of the orphanage and into the great wide world. As you might expect, however, the wide world has some surprises in store for Rossamund as he is sent alone on a journey to the city of High Vesting to begin his service. I have to admit Rossamund being sent off alone and with little direction at his age, stressed me out quite a bit and may have had a negative impact on my enjoyment of the story. Frankly the story would have fallen apart if his recruiter had taken two minutes to at the very least put him on the assigned boat to High Vesting but this is a make believe world and we are meant to go with it. It is a world in which a 12 year old, who has practically never been outside an orphanage’s walls, is expected to have the experience and take on the responsibility of an adult.

As the preceding paragraph hints at, the world felt very Dickensian to me. A bizarre Oliver Twist if Oliver had been required to fight monsters. The dress and trappings of the society conjured up for me a more Napoleonic war Europe with tri-corn hats, landaulets, a peerage, a vigorous navy and roadside inns and taverns. The difference is that it is a world uneasily shared by humans and monsters, called bogles and nickers depending on their size and ferocity. The two societies are endlessly at war and there is a special class of citizen who specializes in keeping the monsters at bay. In his journeys, Rossamund ends up in the company of a famous lahzar or monster hunter named Europe (aka the Branden Rose). While I don’t wish to reveal too much of the plot, the main point seems to be that not all of the monsters in the story are bad while many of the humans are definitely monstrous.

Besides being a writer, D.M. Cornish is also an illustrator and his writing reflects this. The world building was vivid and it was easy to envision in my head. It’s a strange world, very dark, dangerous and richly imagined. It also has its own vocabulary which at times required clunky explanation and took a bit to get used to but in the end added to the otherness of the setting. It is also a world ala Tolkien, which feels much more vast than the small glimpse we are provided. In a way, I felt like I didn’t get fully immersed because it took me a while to get my head wrapped around the society and the feeling that I wasn’t getting the full picture – the view was limited to that of a 12 year old sheltered boy.

The characters were, again in the style of Dickens, quirky and a bit unknowable because we are seeing them through Rossamund’s eyes and, to a child, the ways of adults are sometimes baffling. Europe, the lazhar monster fighter, was the most intriguing character for me because it was so unclear whether she is good or evil and she is likely a bit of both. I found Rossamund himself basically charming and easy to root for but not terribly complex or interesting besides the mystery that runs through the book of who or what he is. He is the type of boy who is very na├»ve but who is brave, loyal and has a rock solid moral compass.

In the end it took me a bit to get into and I never really got sucked into the tale because of the extensive creativity of the world building. I think this is generally a problem for me and why I don’t necessarily love overly complex and unique settings. I feel like so much times is spent explaining the world, society, system of magic or conversely I spend much of the books so confused, that there is no room for getting caught up in the story. But this is my thing. If you are someone who likes to explore creatively imagined and vividly drawn new places, this is a book you may be inclined towards.

Final Verdict: A moody and intriguing middle grade book with an especially well built world which both fascinated and kept me from becoming full immersed in the story. I will likely continue with the series.

Have you ever read a "childrens" book and been a little taken aback by the ferocity or disturbing nature of  some of the violence?  I was wondering if perhaps the scenes I found disturbing would actually not have that much of an impact on a kid and would actually be more uncomfortable for an adult who perhaps can more easily picture the scene and give it reality? 

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