Sunday, April 20, 2014

REVIEW: Lamplighter by D.M. Cornish

Lamplighter (Monster Blood Tattoo, #2)Lamplighter by D.M. Cornish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 2008
Genre(s): Middle Grade Fantasy
Series: Monster Blood Tattoo #2
Awards: Aurealis Award Nominee for Best Young Adult Novel 2008; Children’s Book Council of Australia Award Nominee for Book of the Year – Older Readers
Format: Audio and Kindle
Narrated By: Humphrey Bower

The first book in this series, Foundling, left me bemused but intrigued. It was terrifying and rather dark but ostensibly for middle-grade aged children. I wasn’t particularly anxious to jump into book two in the series but while it was still fresh in my mind I picked it up at the library and I’m so glad I did. Somewhere in the middle of Lamplighter my vague interest in this series turned into true love. I feel like now I get it. I get the Half Continent and the world D.M. Cornish has created in such painstaking detail. Cornish’s imagination is a wonder to behold.

As book two begins, the enigmatically named Rossamund is finally beginning his study to become a lamplighter. He makes a few new friends while also getting caught up in a web of bureaucratic corruption that is infesting the Lamplighter Corps. It results in him being sent to the farthest and most dangerous reaches of the Kingdom where much to his surprise her feels like he might fit in and belong for the first time in his young life. Unfortunately, before too long, disaster strikes as it often does in this series, and Rossamund is facing his biggest challenge – the truth of who he is. As with book one, this is a relatively dark and rather complex, narratively and language-wise, book and I found myself once again being surprised in some ways that it was for 10-14 year olds.

The primary strength of these books is the intricate world-building, almost rivaling Tolkien himself. Cornish has imagined a history and a society for his world and developed or resurrected a whole new vocabulary to describe it. The books have a tangible atmosphere and mood to them that is all their own.

However, while the world-building is exceptionally well done, Cornish also does an increasingly good job with the development of his characters and plots. The main characters are nuanced and interesting. We see all of what is happening from Rossamund’s point of view and he is a good soul to be spending time with. Staying in his perspective also helps lend the other characters mystery. The fulgur Europe continues to play a key role in this book and she remains an interesting and ambiguous character. One of the new characters Threnody (sp?) is also written as difficult to like except for her utter devotion to Rossamund. Another of the new characters, Numps is written with such loving care it is easy to see why Rossamund quickly becomes attached and protective of him. No one fits into a standard mold though the bad guys do seem, without exception, bad.

The story also continues to grow in complexity but also follows a clearly laid out plan. One of the key pieces of evidence used in the final trial of this book was something that first made its appearance in the first few pages of book one. The heart of the trilogy is the relationship between humans and monsters. This relationship continues to be slowly fleshed out and it is clear that all parties, human and monster, are capable of great evil and great good. Will Rossamund be the key to establishing peace?

While it was really good, the book was not perfect and there were some things I could do without:
- The use 10 different made up or obscure terms or names for the same thing. I know it’s part of creating a realistic world but it adds a lot of confusion that I didn’t think needed to be there. The first line of the April 1st 2008 Kirkus review review is: “Cornish again buries a likable protagonist and perfectly viable plot under a mountain of obscure words and pretentious prose in this overweight sequel (Foundling, 2006).” While I think that is definitely too harsh, it did sometimes feel like Cornish was so enamored with the vocabulary that he sublimated the plot. It’s hard to complain about this because the language is really important in creating the unique atmosphere of the book but it took over in places. There is apparently a 94 page glossary at the end of the book. 
- Most of the characters in the book are male and almost all of the female characters that are included are moody and difficult, namely Europe and Threnody. It’s a little annoying though I have to say I find them to be the most interesting characters so it’s not really a big deal.

One note on the audio. It’s pretty excellent and the narrator does a great job with all the strange words and strange characters. However, I ended up having to finish the book on my kindle and discovered that the book has a smattering of wonderful illustrations. D.M. Cornish is also an illustrator and he’s definitely visualized both in words and art all of his characters. I feel like this gives the print version an advantage.

Final Verdict: Stellar world-building coupled with complex and interesting characters and plot makes this a well-rounded and increasingly addictive series! I am excited to see how it all concludes in book three Factotum.

I feel like one of the reasons the world building is so fantastic in these books is that Cornish is also an illustrator.  Do you know of any other examples that "illustrate" this idea of an author who is also a visual artist being very good at creating a really palpable feel to their settings?

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