Geek Fantasy Novel cover
Cover illustration
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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.
Geek Fantasy Novel

by E. Archer

The literary convergence of technology and fantasy is not always comfortable for readers accustomed to a safe distance between their computers and their elves, so it’s a bold decision to throw wifi, oppressed fairies, a mythological underworld, and video-game programming all into the same narrative pot. Add in an engaging protagonist and an omniscient and increasingly opinionated narrator who comfortably straddles the line between geekdom and the fantastical world, and the result is a stunning, often befuddling, and wildly amusing novel that will likely confound and enchant sci-fi and fantasy fans alike.

Ralph is our titular geek, and after being forbidden by his parents to visit his mysterious extended family in England, he decides that now is the time to make his stand, use the tickets his aunt sent, and become his own man. After all, he has put up with his parents’ weird obsession with keeping him from making wishes, and he needs cheering up after a recent rejection from a video-game design company (surely his being fourteen shouldn’t be such a hindrance when he has all these excellent ideas ready to go). His English idyll quickly turns weird, though, as the wishes of his three cousins take him out of the drafty castle (where he was trying to get the wifi working) and into worlds where fairies are used as roof tiles and coffee stirrers, snow queens poison prisoners using delicious scones, and his eccentric, ostracized aunt, a wish granter long kept away from the kids, turns from merely odd to murderous in the blink of an eye. There the quartet have an opportunity to make the wishes their parents prevented them from making—and to deal with the consequences.

While all four young characters are effectively developed as intriguing individuals, Ralph is the most accessible, the kid out of place first as a techie outsider, then as an American among Brits, and, finally, as the only seemingly sensible entity in a world turned upside down by wishes. He’s the anti-hero yet also the bold adventurer: he is the only one to actively attempt to help during his relatives’ quests, and he is deeply sympathetic to his cousin in mourning, but there is no denying that a kid who packs eight gaming books, a Petri dish, and a set of elf figurines but only one pair of pants for his international travel isn’t quite the dashing and stalwart protagonist of fantasy yore. The idea that a single wish could change the world is a seemingly simple premise, yet it is one that manages to involve elements ranging from the tragic (Ralph’s oldest cousin wishes to see her recently deceased birth mother in the Underworld) to the hilarious to the repulsive, and back again. The fragile balance of dark and light, ugly and beautiful is disconcerting, and it’s also the message of the novel, a fact that becomes shockingly clear once the narrator, a boy presumed dead for years, is revealed to have been indelibly changed by his own wish (to be infinite) years before.

Buried within the quests are a few subtly conveyed observations about the quiet desperation of settling, the alienation of modern life, and the irrevocable ways that loss changes people. In less adept hands, these philosophical points might slow an adventure, but Archer (a pseudonym for Elliot Schrefer, author most recently of The Deadly Sister, BCCB 9/10) eases them in among the killer bunnies and telemarketing aunts with aplomb. It is not always obvious whether this book is a wry reinterpretation of fantasy tropes (including texting as an obvious go-to while on a heroic journey), an entertaining vessel for some subtle and nuanced life lessons, a coming-of-age-geek-style novel, or some nifty hybrid of all three. Smart readers, though, are likely to be far too engaged to care much about how it is labeled, and they will simply enjoy the unusual result.

April Spisak, Reviewer


Geek Fantasy Novel cover

Cover image from Geek Fantasy Novel ©2011 by Phil Falco.  Used by permission of Scholastic Press.

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This page was last updated on April 1, 2011.