Arthur has lived underground with his grandfather his whole life, until one night, while foraging for food, he witnesses a sinister group of men on a cheese hunt – even though hunting wild cheeses has been outlawed for years. Soon Arthur finds himself wrapped up with the cheese hunters and their mysterious plan to destroy the city of Ratbridge. With the help of his fellow underground denizens, the clever boxtrolls and the shy cabbageheads, plus a ragtag crew of piratical humans, rats, and crows, Arthur must stop Snatcher and his fellow Cheese Guild members before they eliminate Ratbridge – and the peaceful creatures living beneath it – forever.
Here Be Monsters! is a weird book. Unfortunately, it’s weird because it’s trying really, really hard to be weird, and so just winds up being annoying. Fantasy books are all about taking the hero from his or her ordinary world and plunking him or her down into extraordinary situations. This doesn’t mean the world has to resemble ours from the start – Frodo Baggins leaving the Shire comes to mind. But it has to start with something resembling normality before it gets into serious abnormality. When you’ve got a kid living in a drainpipe with his adoptive grandfather, wearing a gunnysack and stealing bananas out of people’s gardens (bananas? in England?), and seeing nothing strange about live cheeses running about or mechanically-minded trolls wearing boxes stealing everyone’s spare lug nuts, you’re not starting from any kind of normality, and we’re not given any time to get used to or understand this strange world before Arthur is thrust into the Cheese Hunt.
Arthur was also a disappointingly passive protagonist. At one point in the book he displays remarkable intelligence, competence, and courage, when he sneaks into the Cheese Hall to rescue his kidnapped friends. Unfortunately, this is only a third of the way through the book, and for the remaining two thirds Arthur does approximately nothing. In fact, all of the characters are remarkably passive. The kindly old Willbury Nibble, who takes Arthur in when Arthur is trapped aboveground, simply allows Arthur to be arrested by corrupt police officers and handed over to the villainous Snatcher. Kooky inventor Marjorie sits mindlessly in the Patent Office while her invention is stolen by the bad guys and used to horrendous purposes. This does not make for exciting decisions on the part of the good guys; the plot mainly consists of them sneaking or breaking into the Cheese Hall and then running away from the Cheese Hall. You get the feeling Snow could have cut a lot of unnecessary pages if the characters would just stay in the damn Cheese Hall for two seconds.
I also would have liked to see more female characters. There were two, unless you count the cameos by the queen of the cabbageheads (they live underground and worship vegetables) and the rabbit women (they live underground and worship rabbits. Sensing a theme?), and the idiot society women who gave Snow a chance to exercise his satirical muscles. Marjorie, as mentioned before, created the invention that is behind Snatcher’s evil plan, and is the classic absentminded professor type. That’s a role that women rarely get to play, and so it’s nice to see, but as she doesn’t get much of a chance to exercise her technical acumen, and is, like all the other characters, frustratingly passive, so that she comes off not as charmingly eccentric, but rather bland and dopey. The only other named female character, Mildred, is a crow who does very little.
Finally we have the society women, who totter around town on ridiculously high heels with insanely large, bizarrely shaped buttocks, which I at first thought were bustles, but which, it appears, are their actual buttocks. I’m not sure how you get your rear to grow into a hexagonal shape, but maybe it’s different in Ratbridge. Now, I certainly don’t deny that fashion is frequently taken to a dangerous or ludicrous extreme, but I always get a little wary when a male writer chooses it as an easy target. When it’s done well, it’s a way of mocking people who let themselves get overly concerned with what’s fashionable. When it’s done poorly, it’s a way of mocking women. If at any point Snow had shown us either that there are women who are not obsessed with hexagonal buttocks (aside from fringe dwellers like Marjorie) or that men can be equally as foolish over trends, it wouldn’t have bothered me; as it was, however, my feathers were distinctly ruffled.
I do have to give props to Snatcher, who was an excellent villain. He managed to be both goofy and threatening, a balance that works beautifully for children’s books but is very difficult to achieve. I also really enjoyed Arthur’s pirate allies, a motley crew of humans, rats, and crows who ran aground sometime before the events of the book begin, couldn’t get themselves out to sea again, and so decided to set up a laundry service on the ship. The boxtrolls were rather endearing, and I’m a sucker for steampunk, so things like Arthur’s mechanical wings charmed me to no end.
Finally, a word should be said about the illustrations. There are several hundred of these tiny, painstakingly cross-hatched black and white doodles throughout the books, and they show an incredibly amount of hard work and talent. However, they’re small and extremely detailed, and a lot of them are hard to make out. I chalked this up to the fact that the copy I was reading was an advance copy and maybe the printing of the illustrations wasn’t up to snuff yet, but a glance at the art on the website makes me think that maybe they are just that cluttered. Snow’s a great artist – he’s the pen behind the brilliant How Dogs Really Work!, which I’ve always loved – but his style doesn’t translate well to non-picture books. Fewer-but-larger illustrations, maybe with some color or at least some grayscaling, might have worked better.
Here Be Monsters! gets two cupcakes. There was potential there, and a couple of good moments and characters, but it was too long, too dense, and too boring. There are two more Ratbridge Chronicles planned, but I won’t be picking them up.
Tags: Alan Snow