Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review: Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King

Title: Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King
Authors: William Joyce and Laura Geringer
Genre: Children’s Fantasy
Rating: 3

I plucked this book from amongst its neighbors because of the Rise of the Guardians movie put out by DreamWorks which comes from this series of books. The movie looks to be a sweet and humorous tale of the mythological characters we see around many holidays and I plan on seeing it at some point. However, having read the book which started it all, I have to wonder why DreamWorks decided to take up this project.

Nicholas St. North, is the tale of its title character, as well as Ombric—the wise, kind old wizard—and Katharine—the girl whom Ombric cares especially for. North is a notorious bandit who dreams of riches, and those riches eventually lead him to Ombric. Aside from this trio, there is the sinister Pitch, a once-great hero now turned to a master of shadows and nightmares. It is also the story of a small boy who kept Pitch bound for years, a spectral child who carries about a moonbeam on a staff and protects children everywhere from being haunted by the Nightmare King.

When Ombric’s own protective measures for his home are turned against him, the lives of the villagers are at stake, and only North can turn the tides. And when her closest friends are taken by Pitch himself, Katharine is the one who sets out across the wide world to attempt a rescue.

This book, while harmless enjoyment and finding its own charm, was not particularly well written or told. The characters in it have little depth, the mystical things occurring have little if any explanation, and the voice of the narration was…shall we say, buoyantly enthusiastic. Enthusiastic in a manner which led to having an exclamation point—a minimum of one—on almost every page.

The story is part fairytale, part legend, and is told in a similar fashion as one might tell a Grimm; that is, with very little apparent emotional involvement from the authors. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it was the work of blood, sweat, and tears for the Brothers Grimm to collect and record their tales, but there is very little emotional investment in those tales. When Granny gets eaten by the wolf? We shed no tears, mostly because that section of the story encompasses half a sentence. An idiom casually applied to writers is ‘no pain, no gain’. Or, in other words ‘no tears shed by the author, no tears shed by the reader’. Now, whether or not Joyce or Geringer became bleary-eyed in the penning of this volume, I can’t say. But it doesn’t appear likely.

We are hardly introduced to one character before that character is slung into an impossible turn of events which inevitably cause them to save the day…or die, actually. But whichever one occurs, there isn’t enough time to wrap our own hopes and fears around these characters and the things happening to them. In the climactic moment of the book, I found myself skimming the paragraphs—a downright reader’s sin. But I was not caught up in the story enough at that point, not ‘emotionally invested’, one could say, to really feel the tension.

It may be that I am too old for this story, and that is why I did not enjoy it, but even if that is the case, then it shows poorly on the tale’s behalf. I am the type of person who is quite content in perusing children’s picture books, or reading the laughter-inducing, clipped-vocabulary works of Mo Willem’s and his ilk. I take seriously to heart C. S. Lewis’s words that someday we will be old enough to love fairytales again. (I never stopped.) A children’s story can be (and should be) just as enjoyable to adults as to the intended audience. The best of them always are.

My best take on Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King is that it would be better suited to a picture book, where the depth of characters comes more from the illuminations of them, and the emotions of the story ride more often on the pictures than the words. William Joyce, after all, is a fabulous artist, with a whimsical flair. And both authors are well-known in the younger reader’s world of literature. As a matter of fact, I once picked up a children’s picture book which I found to be both whimsical and gorgeous, eye-candy, if you will. It was only as I was reading Nicholas St. North and studying some of the illustrations therein that I discovered the picture book held the historical background and foundation story for the novel—a legend about how the Man on the Moon came to be there.

All that being said, there was nothing inherently wrong with the story. But it is not one I recommend, and despite the fact that the story is left unfinished, I don’t plan on reading the further installments of this series. I will likely still see the DreamWorks take on the tale, and perhaps that will change my mind. Truly, I think this book could have been written better and given more life and invested with more love.

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