By: Ransom Riggs
Date Finished: 12.20.12
Sixteen-year-old Jacob Portman has long given up on the dream of an extraordinary life. Stuck in the family retail business in Florida, he lacks pretty much any ambition until his grandfather is killed by an unknown creature. With his dying words, Grandpa Portman sends Jacob on a quest to find the remnants of his old life in Ireland. Jacob’s not sure what he expects to find on the all but deserted island, but he soon learns that his grandfather’s unbelievable tales — and photographs — of children with peculiar abilities could be real. In a mix of present day and an impossible past, Jacob breaks out of his apathy to uncover his grandfather’s secrets.
The style of this book is wonderfully familiar, yet stands on its own. It has recognizable elements taken from the Hero’s Journey and bears the markers of a fantasy novel, but is decidedly modern. It’s partially a coming-of-age novel that happens a few years after the main character should have come of age and the transition from apathetic teenager to epic hero is slow, subtle, and not fully realized at the end of the book — a more realistic process than your typical fantasy hero to fit the contemporary setting. But while it feels like several books I’ve read before, it takes its own shape and somehow transcends archetype. Also, the books I’m reminded of do not resemble one another — a successful melding of genre and style. If Riggs has taken ideas from other novels, he cast a very wide net and fashioned something completely unique. And let’s face it, all stories are stolen to some degree, so at least he had the respect and creativity to go somewhere new.
However, stealing ideas from the photographs didn’t serve Riggs as well as I had hoped. If you stand in a bookstore and select a book by its cover, this one certainly stands out. When I discovered there are more pictures integrated into the plot, the book was irresistible. Unfortunately, the inclusion of the photos were like tearing down a curtain that served to hide an illusion. Riggs called so much attention to them that they didn’t come across as illustrations as I had expected. The pictures spoke volumes on their own and I wished the explanations had been minimized. As it is, it’s a bit obvious that he constructed the story around the photographs, which isn’t a problem in itself because the story is a good one, but he showed his hand a little too clearly when he came to each picture. Perhaps the writing was no different than if he used illustrations, but it felt off because illustrations are drawn from the descriptions and in this case, the descriptions were extracted from the pictures.
That aside, the story is a compelling one. It is wonderfully paced and has the right balance of surprise and predictability. A blurb on the cover specifies that this is his first novel, which, though I hate to say it, can be felt a bit (mostly just my irritation with the photos, I think). Even so, it is well-polished and features a strong voice. It may be his first novel, but I am keeping a close eye out for the second.
At the end of the day: Really for me