Monday, March 29, 2010

The House of Arden: A Free Book Review

The House of Arden (free audiobook here) by Edith Nesbit is about a brother and sister who try to find an ancestral treasure so they can restore the ancestral home. All this naturally involves a magical white mole and a lot of time travel.

The setup is simple enough: Edred and Elfrida Arden live with their Aunt Edith (wink-wink, nudge-nudge), who seldom ridicules them for their names. Their dad has gone to South America with Uncle Jim (just Aunt Edith's fiancé thus far) to make a lot of money and be declared dead. Everyone needs a hobby.

Incidentally, Ardens are dropping like flies (everyone still needs a hobby), and Lord Arden's passing sends his title looking for an heir; with Papa Arden out of the way, it lands on Edred with the unerring accuracy of a cartoon piano. This means that Edred has a couple of days to find and utter a spell that will lead to the revelation of the long-lost family treasure. Plucky monkey that he is, he succeeds, but all he gets is a grumpy mole that tells him he needs some old-fashioned character development first. This can only mean a bunch of adventures.

And it's here that the story starts to wobble a bit. For one thing, we've already been told that each generation of Ardens conveniently features a boy and girl named Edred and Elfrida, respectively, whose place our pair manage to take in whatever time they appear. Then we encounter a nice old lady who is called a witch by superstitious rustics when she's really just really, really smart and does time travel and can summon the mole and--wait, she is a witch, though, isn't she? Hmm.

That's never clarified, unfortunately. The line between magic and really weird science is vague at best here, and perhaps what she does can be considered non-magical in terms of the story. But I doubt it--and that means the author has lied about the witch's nature, which is a no-no.

There is some good historical fiction in the adventures, which is a positive. But we also start generating lose ends. People turn up and are apparently important, but the arcs go nowhere. This becomes especially bad near the end, where several situations are set up only to evaporate, and in the end we get a Big Cosmic Lesson that is fine but contrary to the overall direction of the story.

In sum, I got the impression that Nesbit had a major change of personality while writing the story. In fact, there are a few places where the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next simply don't mesh. But the last chapter doesn't mesh with the rest of the book, and that's fatally bad. So while I'm generally a fan of Nesbit's work, I can't recommend this one.

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