CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 33 . . . . May 5, 2017
Elspeth Pule is once again needed in New Winkieland. That's good news for her because, even though she has grown up and mellowed out, buying a new school wardrobe is a little dull now that she knows she is from a magical kingdom. She is a little older (12) and wiser and has friends for the first time in her life. Sure, her best friend is a stick, but Gene is the loyal sidekick who helped her oust the dictator, Old King Krool. And he reappears with the news that Mary Mary Quite Contrary has kidnapped Queen Farrah, formerly Elspeth's fashion doll. So off she goes, by holding her breath until she turns blue and meeting with her old pals to devise a plan to rescue the queen. It turns out that King Krool is a still a menace and is the real power behind the kidnapping. By the end of the tale, he is at large and, terrifyingly, has found his way to our own world, the Deadlands, which is the best possible set up for a third novel.
Long Live the Queen is a more self assured and comfortable book than Blue in the Face, the first in the series. The banter is a little funnier and the repartee a little sharper. Jack and Jill are described as two people "known to the world mostly for their inability to successfully negotiate a hill while carrying a bucket of water", and the Muffin Man is not the one who lives on Drury Lane but "works the Lower East Side. First name Larry." There was an element about the first novel that was too clever and tried too hard to amuse. Now the amusement flows without the effort, which makes for fun reading.
The recap of the first book is inserted subtly into the opening chapters to remind readers of Elspeth's previous heroics. And for those who missed the first installment, this story easily stands alone (like the most wonderful character, The Cheese, excuse the pun). As far as plot is concerned, Long Live the Queen is a little slow to get going. Almost halfway into the book not that much has actually happened, but that isn't necessarily a flaw. The joy of the book is in the interaction between the characters. Now that Swallow has gotten beyond the joke of introducing alternative versions of Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill (Elspeth's birth parents) and Little Bo Peep, he lets the characters become more his own inventions and less nursery rhyme jokes. The second half of the book is much more plot heavy but still with plenty of jokes.
Elspeth has become a complex character, and she deals with a lot of adult situations. She is again called to show great courage, and she demonstrates intense loyalty to her friends. She is also faced with the dilemma of having two sets of parents. How does she get closer to Jack and Jill without feeling like she is betraying the parents who have raised her? And how does she balance the duty she feels not to abandon her regular life with the call of friendship and adventure in New Winkieland? Elspeth has to figure out the nuances between many types of love and the strengths and weakness of all of her parents. It is a difficult subject to integrate into a comedic adventure, but Swallow makes this predicament both potent and relevant to kids.
Another running joke has to do with the commemorative statue of Elspeth which now adorns New Winkieland. To her credit, Elspeth does not feel the need for her past bravery to be commemorated. She despises public shows and self importance, and so, by the end of the story, she has begged for the bronze to be used for something useful. Elspeth, though so young, can see that fame is empty. In an age of celebrity worship, she is a great example, and Swallow has made this part of her personality very believable and balanced out by certain weaknesses. Elspeth would never claim to be perfect.
Although it is a minor theme in the book, there is an awareness of issues of class in New Winkieland. When the peasant class appear, they are usually indignant at getting the short end of the stick. And they point out that the rich always find a way to beat the system. That includes King Krool who, even though he has been deposed, claims to have hidden some extra cash plundered from the people. While the theme doesn't get developed as much as it could, it is a pleasant surprise to find this imbalance acknowledged in the book. As I mentioned in my review of the first in the series, I do wish that there was a sense that New Winkieland could, gasp, be administrated by someone other than a king. Another theme is the very idea of villainy. While Swallow does portray a world which is fairly black and white, Elspeth expresses the belief that no one is inherently evil.
All in all, Long Live the Queen is an amusing and worthwhile romp.
Kris Rothstein is a children's book agent, editor and cultural critic in Vancouver, BC.
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