Jonathan Auxier opens his debut novel, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, with a description of Peter's early childhood:
"He was nursed on the milk of a wounded mother-cat, whom he met after crawling beneath the local alehouse. The cat permitted baby Peter to live with her in exchange for his picking the lice and ticks from her fur - until one tragic day some months later when the alehouse manager discovered them huddled beneath his porch. Furious at finding vermin in his establishment, the man shoved the whole family in a bag and tossed them into the bay. Using his skillful fingers to untie the bag...he managed to make it back to shore without too much trouble."
Silly and quite sad, no? But then Auxier sums it up for us thusly:
"Until this point, you have been witness to Peter's rather typical infancy - probably not unlike your own."
That was the first laugh out loud moment of the book, and there were many more to come. The irreverent tone of the omniscient narrator characterizes the book and is its greatest strength. It was refreshing to get away from the first-person narratives that pervade children's books, and especially delightful to read a voice that so consistently caught me off guard (in a good way).
When Peter Nimble was a baby, his eyes were pecked out by ravens. Blind, he made his own way on the streets and was eventually taken in by an unscrupulous man named Mr. Seamus. Mr. Seamus forced Peter to steal for him, keeping him locked up in a basement when he wasn't picking pockets and robbing residences. Peter became a terrific, and terrifically unhappy, thief.
His fortunes change when he runs into a man - a huckster, really - selling magical hats to an eager audience on the street. Peter is picking the crowd's pockets when the man calls him up to the front for a demonstration of a hat that will cure bad odor. The man seems to know quite a bit about Peter, and after the demonstration, he leaves his cart alone with the master thief. Peter can't help but take a look inside, and it is there that he finds the box of Fantastic Eyes. When he pops the first pair of eyes in, he is magically transported to another place. In this place, he meets Professor Cake, who sends him (and Sir Tode, a cat/horse/knight) on a quest to save a faraway kingdom. Numerous exciting and silly adventures ensue.
Auxier's imagination is impressive and tends toward the silly, but he keeps the stakes high. Children are used as slaves, ravens peck out infants' eyes, and monstrous sea creatures threaten to gobble up everyone we have grown to care about. Some plot points are easy to decipher, but others are completely out of left field (and intentionally so). Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is a bit of a throwback to classic children's fantasies. It reminded me a little of the Oz books, which are also full of imaginative creatures and incredibly strange bits of magic.
That said, I wasn't ever able to really connect with the story as a whole. I approve wholeheartedly of silliness and a rollicking adventure, but I never felt much heart in the story. I don't mean there has to be a lesson, but I wanted more depth out of the tale - deeper friendships, deeper meaning, something beyond silliness and clever phrases. Auxier almost gets there with the friendship between Peter and Sir Tode, but it never reaches what it could have been.
While I enjoyed Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, it seemed to lose a bit of steam toward the end. Even younger readers will realize where the story will inevitably end, and watching Peter and his friends get there isn't as exciting when that happens. The narrator remains wonderfully witty, the creatures and people that populate the tale are imaginative as ever, and the idea behind the Fantastic Eyes is wonderfully grotesque and should have great appeal to its target audience. The book is certainly delightful, but I wanted more.
Review copy received from the publisher. Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is on shelves now.