The Misadventures of Benjamin Bartholomew Piff #1: You Wish

Ben PiffBy Jason Lethcoe [LibrarythingAmazon]

Ever since his parents died and he was dumped into the world’s most miserable orphanage, nothing’s gone right for Ben. So he never really thought his birthday wish for unlimited wishes would come true, but it did – and caused major problems by doing so. Now he has to team up with Thomas Candlewick, brand-new president of the Wishworks Factory, and lead a small army of fairies, leprechauns, and Jinn into battle. Because not only has Ben’s wish upset the delicate balance of children’s birthday wishes worldwide, it’s delivered the unstoppable power of endless wishes into the hands of the president of the dreadful Curseworks Factory, where it’s become a weapon that may just destroy all wishing…forever.

The titular Ben is your typical determinedly decent orphan, and likeable enough. He’s smart while still reading like a child, and his motivations are all understandable and sympathetic. Unfortunately, this book isn’t really about Ben, despite what the title might tell you. This book is about Thomas Candlewick, who early in the book is promoted to president of the factory by his foster father, his predecessor (although they refer to it as an “election” afterwards. Shyeah, right). Though the first chapter is from Ben’s point of view, the next six are from Candlewick’s, and the two of them alternate pretty evenly throughout the rest of the book (with a couple chapters given over to the villains). For starters, this causes a problem with over-expositing: Candlewick explains the mythology of the world to the new Wishworks Factory interns, but mostly for the readers’ benefit, and then later has to explain again to Ben, but rather than dump all the information again, the text glosses over it awkwardly.

More importantly, however, it doesn’t make sense. I didn’t want to see that much of Candlewick’s pomposity and neuroses fighting for dominance, and I suspect the target audience, which is much closer to Ben’s age than I am, wants to even less. Candlewick’s unhealthy overidentification with Ben (Candlewick was an orphan too) reminds me a little of Harry Potter and Sirius Black – but at least Sirius’s reckless endangerment of and lack of emotional distance from Harry were noted by several characters for the problems that they were, and also Sirius is awesome. Candlewick is just kind of a snooze when he’s not being downright aggravating, and moreover, I can’t help feeling like he’s taking the story that should rightfully be Ben’s.

Furthermore, Ben’s character arc would probably have made more sense if he were an angrier character in general. The death of his parents and his subsequent abuse would certainly justify such anger, but he maintains a sort of “aw, shucks” temperament throughout, which makes his (temporary) decision to keep his unlimited wishes at the expense of the rest of the children in the world (there’s a finite number of wishes out there) somewhat out of the blue.

The book’s other main stumbling block is the way it handles the relationship between humans and Jinns. According to the book’s mythology, humans enslaved the Jinns centuries ago, keeping them in lamps and forcing them to do the humans’ bidding. Although the Jinns were freed and the lamps (supposedly) destroyed a couple of centuries ago, a footnote (more on those later) tells us that: “The relations between mortals and Jinns have improved over the last fifty years, but there are still many feelings of resentment harbored by the Jinns for having to be confined to a small lamp and enslaved by the human race for centuries.” I’m not sure if it was intentional that this period of improvement began roughly around the civil rights movement, but as this footnote was the first mention of the Jinn slavery, my mind immediately began drawing parallels. Couple that with the fact that Jinn mythology comes from a culture with which this country currently has pretty strained relations of its own, and you’ve got two hot-button issues in one.

So when the book takes the viewpoint that Jinnish resentment of humans is somehow unreasonable, I find that deeply problematic. These characters are immortal – their enslavement is still in living memory. And it’s not like even the most likeable, upstanding humans see Jinns as equal; Ben’s first thought on discovering their existence is that maybe he should use one of his unlimited wishes to get a Jinn of his very own – and he’s the hero! Candlewick’s snobbishness and human privilege is infuriating: he very definitely thinks of Jinns in terms of firepower, is vaguely annoyed by the Jinnish practice of always going by the names “Gene” and “Jeannie” so as to avoid giving humans the power of their true names, and only promises to push through the contract negotiations with the Jinns in exchange for Jeannie’s (the two Jinns who appear in the book are, of course, called “Gene” and “Jeannie”) cooperation with the Ben situation, when it should reasonably have been a priority. Jeannie and Gene have every reason to be angry at humans and the Wishworks Factory, but the text doesn’t seem to agree. The parallels that may or may not have been intentionally drawn make this support of privilege even more unsettling than it would otherwise have been.

There are some minor quibbles, too. The footnotes that I mentioned before are really interesting, but I’m not sure they work well in the text, since there’s no authority for them – who’s footnoting the book? The author? Ben? We don’t know. The supporting villain, Candlewick’s foster brother, is just sort of dropped without any resolution to his plotline. And the main villain’s motivation is introduced really poorly – he mentions something about revenge about two thirds of the book and, during the final confrontation, explains that he once worked for Candlewick, who fired him, but as we never get any foreshadowing of this from either the villain or Candlewick, nor any explanation for the firing. Finally, I highly doubt Ben’s practice at video games would make him a natural at throwing the Wishworks Factory’s high-tech (well, high-magic) boomerangs. Video games can help you develop many skills, I’m sure, but throwing is not one of them.

Ben’s Misadventures do have a good balance of whimsy, which is something a lot of authors seems to be taking stabs at lately, and usually not the greatest stabs at that. Moreover, Lethcoe’s world-building is fantastic. The timeline of Wishworks Factory presidents in the back of the book, combined with the footnotes and the explanations of the mythology of wishing and the workings of the Factory, are fascinating. If I pick up the later books in the series, it will definitely be to find out more about what makes this world tick (especially since I’ve categorized it as both Portal Fantasy and Contemporary/Urban Fantasy because I’m not entirely sure whether the Wishworks world is part of ours or not, so there are definitely some unresolved mysteries here).

After considering my acid test – would I pick up the sequel? – You Wish just barely squeezes by with three cupcakes. It was a mostly-fun read with a couple of major problems, and I wouldn’t pay for the next couple of books in the series, but I would definitely read free copies if they came my way.

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