The Book of Lost Things is a decent book, but it's also misleading, disappointing, and not something I'd recommend. The premise is promising: a twelve-year-old boy flees the troubles of his English family during the middle of World War I, into a world he has read about in his beloved fairy tales. But once David arrives, the narrative shifts away from reality and becomes a tried-and-true fantasy that is not only unoriginal (the dark fantasy of Fables, the mocking satire of Jasper Fforde's The Big Over Easy) but falling far short of how bloody the original Grimm stories were. With the old world left behind, there are no parallels or lessons to pull from the text, only the implausibilities of the fantasy genre, replete with cliched comings-of-age, heroic quests, and nefarious villains. Author John Connolly has opted for a lesser version of The Adventures of Nemo in Slumberland rather than pursuing the same goal as the chilling Pan's Labyrinth. The Book of Lost Things isn't even filled with lost things, just old things, and perhaps the time you've lost reading it. It is disappointing that a book masquerading as old moral fables has such little to say.
Of all the elements John Connolly introduces in the engaging first sixty pages, little remains of his World War I era, and even less of the problems he sought to escape in the first place. The emphasis shifts toward the machinations of the Crooked Man, who seeks to use David in an unknown (but surely sinister) plot that involves the dying King of the realm and a rising army of half-man half-wolf creatures known as Loups. Along the way, there are a series of trials that David must overcome, most of which are bland retellings of other stories (like the fortress surrounded by thorns), riddles (the truth-telling troll, and the lying troll), and plots (the defense of a village against a spider-monster). Connolly skews toward what is perceived to be darker: David's allies keep getting killed, he is befriended by a homosexual knight (for the 1917 world, problematic), the seven dwarfs (communists) are oppressed by an obese and bossy Snow White, and the whole kingdom seems to be chasing him. But none of this is really surprising, nor are the consequences truly dire: the original fables were always darker than their Disney adaptations; at best, this is a return to form.
I'm critical of this novel not only because it has mistakenly received praise in the media, but because Connolly is a decent writer. The story is a page turner, and a quick read: had it simply been a fantasy, I'd appreciate it more. (This is akin to the animosity awarded to other lying books, like A Million Little Pieces.) However, the novel also seems rushed, with the first half far better constructed than the rest. Crisp descriptions rule the day initially; they are overrun by a plethora of action sequences later on.
"The dwelling was built of logs hewn from the forest...but that was where any resemblance to a normal cottage ended. Its silhouette against the night sky was like that of a hedgehog, for it was covered in spikes of wood and metal, where sharpened sticks and rods of iron had been inserted between, or through, the logs. As they drew closer, David could also make out pieces of glass and sharp stone in the walls and even on the roof, so that it shone in the moonlight as though sprinkled with diamonds."That's a great juxtaposition of the cozy with the militant, and it shows how the pleasant past has been overwritten with a fierce future. And then to paint the war back up as a hedgehog or as diamonds? That shows real skill, intelligence, and choice in language. The same goes for Connolly's cleverness in recasting the first few fairy tales:
"Oh," said David. "But that's not the story I heard."While I can understand the need to douse the levity of early sequences like this with the serious plight David finds himself in, this is the book I was suckered into reading, this is the tone I enjoyed. The military formality, the preciseness of the rest of the novel . . . that makes for a poor fantasy, and an even worse story.
"Story!" The dwarf snorted. "You'll be talking about 'happily ever after' next. Do we look happy? There's no happily ever after for us. Miserably ever after, more like."
"We should have left her for the bears," said Brother Number Five, glumly. "They know how to do a good killing, do the bears."
"Goldilocks," said Brother Number One, nodding approvingly. "Classic that, just classic." . . .
"You mean . . . they killed her?" asked David.
"They ate her," said Brother Number One. "With porridge. That's what 'ran away and was never seen again' means in these parts. It means 'eaten.'"
"Um, and what about 'happily ever after'?" asked David, a little uncertainly. "What does that mean?"
"Eaten quickly," said Brother Number One.