Jonathan Auxier’s debut book, Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, released August 1st by Amulet Books, is an imaginative attempt within the Young Adult (YA) fiction genre. But what appears to be the beginning of an action-and-adventure-filled series starring a persevering and original cast of characters is in reality an imaginative but half-hearted tale foiled by an amateur voice and copycat style.
By his own admission in the book’s acknowledgments, Auxier is a thief like his protagonist Peter Nimble. Snatching “inspiration from countless other worlds, characters, and books,” his crime is readily apparent. Young, blind, orphaned Peter is of the Dickensian trope and his behavior follows accordingly. He is born of dubious circumstances and ends up in the “care” of a corrupt guardian. He is forced to commit crime but is possessed with deep moral fiber. He is but an innocent, virtuous child graced with an adventuresome spirit who is, in spite of all handicaps, clever and highly self-sufficient. Peter’s friends, sidekicks, and saviors supplement and assist his adventures in a traditional fairy tale manner, appearing in times of duress and possessed with powers sufficient for the impending challenge. There is Professor Cake, an eerie human caricature of C.S. Lewis’s Aslan in omniscience and puissance; Sir Tode, an enchanted knight serving as Peter’s loyal sidekick and a bumbling cross between the Chesire Cat and Don Quixote; King Incarnadine, Peter’s nemesis and villainous uncle of Princess Pam, wearing clockwork armor that’s borrowed from a villain of Marvel comic Hellboy fame; and the monstrous ape army, serving as Night Guard in Incarnadine’s palace, reminiscent of the Wicked Witches’ flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. Peter’s entrance into the magical realm is similarly burgled from other tales. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the titular Fantastic Eyes transport Peter to the aptly named Troublesome Lake, kicking off our protagonist’s fantastic adventure. The Eyes themselves are a unique narrative device and it is quite pleasurable to discover, along with Peter, their magical powers. Young readers will find some of the more absurd characters, like Sir Tode the cat-horse-man and Simon the beakless raven, amusing and fresh.
All this theft on part of Auxier makes for an imaginative fairy tale and adventure quest “mashup”. However, the delivery and pace of the fiction lacks warmth. There was no joy or wonder in Auxier’s words. While the plot moves along at a nice pace for young readers and is suitable for the action-and-adventure genre, the content lacks depth and the narration is erratic. The beginning of the tale is lush with description of a magical world (simply look at some of the place names: Just Deserts, Troublesome Lake, Kettle Rock, et al) while Peter’s adventures are simply accounted for. The narrator explains and jokes with the reader in some scenes – Vitamin C turns into Vitamin Sea, a nutrient in lemons to prevent scurvy from afflicting pirates and sailors – then hurries the action along in the next by stating simple facts along the lines of, “this happened, then that, and then Peter felt distraught and hopeless.” I paged through Peter’s adventure impatiently, past whale-sized dogfish and raids with banished thieves and perfect palace lives that seem all too perfect, waiting for a delivery that was anything but fantastic or nimble (hee hee).
By the third and final section, the book had shifted dramatically. Gone are the witty remarks and the conspiratorial laughter of the narrator explaining unnecessarily complex adult notions. Instead, grotesque descriptions of battle produce an unjustifiably violent affect. Child readers can handle exposure to cruelty and violence, but the line is tenuous – just look at best-selling authors like William Golding and Suzanne Collins, who wrote books in which children commit violence. Peter Nimble is witty and compelling in a first read because of the narrator’s cloying voice, reminiscent of my favorite childhood author Roald Dahl, and this voice vanishes irrevocably into the thick of battle. Furthermore, Auxier fails to produce either narrative justification or consistency for descriptions of violence in the culminating escape and battle. In one scene, where the raven army is pitted against Night Guard apes for control of the palace, the carnage of the nearly overpowered ravens turns the waters of a flooded hallway deep red. Later, the machinery of King Incarnadine’s armor destroys Peter Nimble’s hand to the point that it must be amputated later and replaced with a fishing hook (Captain Hook, anyone?). These descriptions, together with other chillingly honest moments, give a tale of good toppling evil a revolting twist.
All these weaknesses can be traced back to a single error: Auxier, like many well-intentioned YA authors, writes for his audience and not for his story. He creates a truly fantastic world full of characters infused with attributes loved in other acclaimed fairy tales… only to lose his imaginative spark as the fiction’s dubious hero toils on. By the final section, when our well-meaning hero has the chance to prove his worth as the greatest thief who ever lived (and likely most honorable), the drawn-out action and predictable moral summations excised all former attention and exhilaration. No reader turns the page to be told the action. It’s the author’s job to use language and unique skill to show and share it. Unlike poor Peter Nimble, the reader will not blindly mistake Auxier’s dim and dark HazelPort with the visionary depth and clarity for which imaginary realms like Narnia, Wonderland, Oz, and Neverland, not to mention contemporary creations like Hogwarts and Panem, are acclaimed.
Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes should be a celebration of a child’s world triumphing over the dim, dull and illogical rule of adults. Instead, it pays homage to Lord of the Flies. Wide-eyed adventure no more, this tale suits better the Brothers Grimm.