Friday, July 15, 2016

The Goblin's Puzzle, by Andrew S. Chilton

First, an aside: You're going to see a lot more reviews of recently released middle grade fiction around these parts for a bit. I'm involved in a little project and middle grade fiction is what it's all about me for at the present. Head's up!

I "discovered" The Goblin's Puzzle by Andrew S. Chilton when looking through a list of new titles and thought I'd give it a go. To my way of thinking, this book had a lot of things going for it at first glance:

1. It's middle grade fiction which is one of my favorite genres. Why do I like it? Because it's typically clean fiction (i.e., short on foul language and sex scenes or innuendos) and therefore a book you can relax with a bit.

2. The typical length of a middle grade fiction book is around 250-300 pages which gives enough time for the author to provide a meaty tale of some sort.

3. Middle grade fiction is also much more imaginative than most modern day fiction. The readers aren't assumed to have grown too old for fairy tales. (And truly, who among us is really too old for fairy tales? I imagine that "being a realist" is somehow more romantic to some but I'm not buying the exceptions.) Do note that I'm not saying real life doesn't involve hard subjects with which we have to deal, but I also think there is still a bit of magic left in this world and that a great deal can be learned from fairy tales in order to help us overcome life's difficulties. At any rate, The Goblin's Puzzle looked like fun.

As we proceed, I think it's important to note that this is the debut novel of Andrew S. Chilton. It's an interesting and unique storyline which I would be happy to describe in my own words except that I'm feeling lazy. Instead, let's just read the description from Amazon, shall we?

THE BOY is a nameless slave on a mission to uncover his true destiny.
THE GOBLIN holds all the answers, but he’s too tricky to be trusted.
PLAIN ALICE is a bookish peasant girl carried off by a confused dragon.
And PRINCESS ALICE is the lucky girl who wasn’t kidnapped.

All four are tangled up in a sinister plot to take over the kingdom, and together they must face kind monsters, a cruel magician, and dozens of deathly boring palace bureaucrats. They’re a ragtag bunch, but with strength, courage, and plenty of deductive reasoning, they just might outwit the villains and crack the goblin’s puzzle.

I ended up reading this book in one sitting, partly because I was enjoying it well enough and mostly because I had the time to do so (a rarity these days). If I were to summarize my thoughts on this one I'd tell you that it was a book that had great potential but flopped a little for me. Obviously I know that's not what any author wants to hear and I'm sorry to disappoint but perhaps I can explain a bit? While I didn't prefer it, I can completely see how another reader could enjoy it quite well. It has its highlights, I just wasn't completely won over.

Where to start? I'll go by numbers and try to stay organized!

1. Chilton's writing style has a heavy dose of humor attached to it with asides that reminded me a great deal of Gail Carson Levine. Perhaps it reminded me of Ms. Levine's work because I recently read Ella Enchanted and even more recently watched the movie (which I found kinda cheesy). The Goblin's Puzzle isn't a fairy tale story told in a classic manner, so I don't know that it'll have any sticking power over the decades, but it is very much suited for the modern audience for which it is written. It's Shrek-like and Levine-like and I might even go so far as to say a bit Princess Bride-like (my best compliment for Chilton!). If you don't care for those styles, you won't care for this title. It would be remiss of me not to note for you that some of the humor in this book involved nudity and references to affairs (which, frankly, I didn't appreciate it a bit).

2. Regular readers around here know that I always want to get at what the author of any book ultimately wishes to communicate to his readers. I felt that Chilton had three main arguments to make. I agreed with two of his arguments, but not the third. I'll use the alphabet to continue subdividing my points. Heh. 

a.) Chilton is a former attorney and wanted to use this book to explain the basic concept of logic. At the conclusion of the book, he explains the study of logic and its purpose (i.e., premises, fallacy, conclusions, etc.). This is both a positive and a negative aspect of the book, depending on your world view. It is good to use logic, (obviously), and understand how to think. Actually I find it imperative that children be taught how to think for themselves. We, as a society, do not spend enough time learning how to learn/think/process and this is a huge problem that needs to be rectified. I'm all for thinking! If Chilton's desire is to promote logical thought, we're in tune with one another.

b.) That said, my worldview does not quite match Chilton's and part of his desire to use logic is to rationalize away any belief system that would exist outside of one's person. One of the major ideas which Chilton is promoting in this book is that we as individuals are not bound to a predetermined fate or design of the "universe" (or, if you will indulge, Providence). The unnamed boy in this book is questioning who he is and what his role is in life and the question posed is whether or not he is free to make his own choices or if he is bound to a belief in gods who would dictate who and what he is on his behalf. The idea set forth by Chilton is that an individual is truly free when he or she does as he or she pleases without being "shackled" by a (presumed) faulty belief system.

"While he searched for what he thought was his fate, he had been forced to act as though he had none. He had made his own choices without regard for who he was supposed to be. For the first time, he had lived with doubt and uncertainty. Not knowing meant exploring and discovering. Yes, it was frightening, but it was also fun. Some of his choices were wise, and some were foolish, but all were his and his alone. Once he had thought fate was an anchor, holding him steady, giving him a place in the world. Now he saw that it was a shackle, binding him in place. Except that he was held prisoner not by iron bonds but by his own belief. When he let that go, the shackle simply vanished." (Chapter 15, page 220)

Chilton seems to begin with the premise that faith in something is a prison whereas I begin with the idea that faith - specifically in a Creator God - is the most freeing and liberating position from which to tackle life head on. I am not bound in chains by my belief in God, but instead know my liberties to explore the world and delight in it. My faith is an anchor which gives me the ability (and even the right) to live life to the fullest. Within the bounds of my faith I am exhorted to use my gifts and talents well, to test the limits, and am even authorized to enjoy the ride! You might say that Mr. Chilton and I start on different pages and so I found myself disagreeing with some of his seemingly forgone conclusions.

b.) Chilton desires to make a strong argument against slavery in this book - something with which I have no objection whatsoever. (I agree with both his premise and his conclusion on this point!) My only qualm is with the way he decided to argue his points. We understand throughout the book that the boy with no name is a slave and he is wrestling with his position in life as a result. Perhaps Chilton is setting the stage for his closing arguments but he really went off on his "jury" (i.e., the reader) within just the last few chapters about the evil which is slavery. Again, his arguments are fair, fine, and right but tossing it at the readers at the end of the book made me feel as if the thing I was supposed to remember best about the book was his stance against slavery instead of a carefully crafted and beautiful tale. In a courtroom setting you do want to hammer home the vital points of your arguments at the conclusion of the trial in hopes that the jurors will remember what you deem most important. In a book, you want the reader to be internally arguing with you over the course of the entire read and then to leave the story with a compelling conclusion which subtly wraps up your point in a way which drives said point home. Instead I felt like we sort of tiptoed around the issue of slavery throughout the book only to be walloped on the head before saying goodbye to this particular cast of characters. In short, his argument was abrupt. Given Mr. Chilton's background, I completely understand why this is and maybe this will ultimately prove his style of writing. A second and third book over a period of time will be telling! Other readers might not nitpick on this aspect of the book and might not even notice it. I can only tell you of my own personal reading experience.

On the whole I'd say I appreciated The Goblin's Puzzle for its unique storyline. It's incredibly interesting to me to read someone's first work and I do feel like Chilton shows great promise as an author. From the book jacket I'd say he plans to write more stories and if he did write another, I'd read it. Next time I would just know that we're coming at life from two differing perspectives and so that's going to cause some friction. It's not the sort of friction that would make me avoid his books necessarily, but I would offer a caution to other readers to pay attention to his main points and style of humor. Beyond that, you've got to think it through for yourself and form your own conclusion!

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