(2021) Jasper Fforde, Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99, hrdbk, 356pp, ISBN 978-1-444-79993-4
The fourth and apparently the final volume in Fforde’s Young Adult (YA) oriented comedy fantasy Last Dragonslayer Chronicles.
The hero, Jennifer Strange, finds herself facing two major problems. 1/. An evil wizard, Shandar, who has immense power, seeks to conquer the entire universe. 2/. Carnivorous trolls have largely conquered Britain, driving Jennifer and her allies to the final uncaptured territory in Cornwall, protected only by large ditches filled with coat buttons (which trolls are inexplicably afraid of).
Jennifer Strange is a potent wizard herself, though she often just uses her wits or the advice of her allies to get out of bad situations. A claustrophobic journey under enemy lines in a submarine that burrows through the mantle of the Earth sees her totally dependent on the will and skill of the crew. Strange just seems drawn along for the ride.
Jokes come thick and fast in a Hellzapoppin charge of often very funny one-liners, mostly about numerous deposed fairy tale princesses squabbling with one another in their petty minded vanity.
The Mighty Shandar seems more pantomime villain than a near-deity of Voldemort magnitude. He gloats, sneers and boasts a great deal about how unstoppable he is, which may be true, but also gets irritating after a time.
More fun is the story’s only friendly troll, a vegetarian with a fixation on mathematics (which becomes very important to the outcome of half of the story).
The fantasy realm doesn’t really gel well with modern real world background detail. This typical feudal fantasy-land is superimposed on the age of DVD players and mobile phones. The actor John Nettles is venerated as a saint with statues, and everyone has copies of his Bergerac TV series in their collection.
Another problem is that the two key problems, Shandar and trolls, never really connect, so Jennifer Strange simply addresses part of one conflict, and then goes to deal with the other situation, leaving a sense of two books that take turns with the chapter divisions.
Add to that a huge chorus of background voices, with so many people chipping in to some long rolling blocks of dialogue that keeping up with who is who gets quite challenging. Characters seem to appear just to throw in a gag-line and then retire to the background. Other beings, especially a subatomic particle identified only as The Mysterious X, add exposition, as do numerous fourth-wall-breaching footnotes and back references to events in the earlier books in the series. Sometimes a character says something after several pages of silence and the reader has to work hard to remember who they are and why they are still present (often they needn’t be).
Later, the comedy gives way to a sterner, more serious narrative, especially with regards to Shandar, and though Fforde is noted for his humour, the book works best in its darker passages, with some genuine ingenious closing twists and conclusions to the parallel problems. The saga is very neatly wrapped up but much meandering is done before the narrative gets there.
Fforde can certainly write much tighter narratives than this, as demonstrated through his Thursday Next books (beginning with 2001’s The Eyre Affair). The Great Troll War is really a siege at the conclusion of a largely completed war, and a desperate gambit to stop the trolls restarting the fight for their final advance: there is relatively little warring going on.
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