Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mr. Wicker's Window: a Free Book review

[Sorry about the delay; it was a bad week.]

True to my threats, I'm reviewing an old book available free online in both text and audio book form.

Chris Mason has Problems. Not the typical, modern, angsty ones: his dad's away being naval, and his mom's apparently come down with a bad case of Incipient Death. So he does what any twelve-year-old would do: he goes out for a walk in his native Georgetown and gets talked into visiting an antiques store to ask the owner about giving a job to a friend.

Little does he know that the owner, Mr. Wicker, is a wizard recruiting for a job back in the 1790s. It's the sort of thing most kids would miss. Anyway, before even Chris can say, "Golly Moses!" (his typical exclamation), he's back in time and on the verge of a mission to help finance the fledgling American economy by doing something that would actually lead to a disastrous downturn in the prices of precious metals and gems and probably produce a global financial catastrophe. I hope no congresscreatures are reading this.

Anyway... The story features magic, sea adventure, near-fatal events, and some Amazingly Bad People for villains. It's a good yarn, but I'll mention a few issues:

1. Despite Mr. Wicker's claim that it's all really high tech, we're talking about magic here: magic words, sometimes with some material component, modifying reality. It's mostly about shape-changing, though there are some magic gadgets that are vaguely techy. Chris even brings a wooden statue to life, which is theologically problematic, but then, this isn't a Christian book.

2. The story goes downhill a bit toward the end, as though the author suddenly noticed a deadline. Specifically, the scene change between chapters 27 and 28 was so large and sudden that I actually thought for a moment that a chapter or two had disappeared. Similarly, there's a brief summary at the end of Chapter 31 that I would've fleshed out and made into a short chapter. And a duel introduced in Chapter 33 is never resolved, though I would like to have known who won.

3. A note about the audio book: while generally good, there are a few chapters that combine poor audio with a non-native speaker with a heavy accent rushing through the text. Under anything but optimal conditions (or with better equipment than my portable player), the result is hard to follow. You're better off reading the book there. The problem chapters are 2, 3, 18, and 19. The reader is intelligible in other chapters she reads, and I had no problem understanding these chapters when using my computer at home.

4. There is a fiddly point that can't be right: I'm certain that any professional sailor of the period could have recognized a slightly disguised ship he was already familiar with--the ship's lines, its movement, etc.

But these points aside, it is a good yarn, mostly on the right side of modern political correctness. There is violence, especially when the arch-villain, Claggett Chew, uses his whip, but it's well below Harry Potter level. The running time of the audio book is just under six hours, and I would suggest audio books as a good way to teach munchkins about the joys of being read to and of using their own imagination.

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