"...because some miracles can only happen in the dark."
- final page
I first found out about Walter Moers by picking up his book The 13 and 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, about a blue bear (naturally) whose adventures take him on a whirlwind tour of the mystical land of Zamonia, a massive lost continent existing simply "elsewhere", complete with illustrations. It hooked me from the first few pages and refused to let go...Zamonia is a land of much magic, and much danger, as half the things that aren't benign are lethal to a ludicrous degree. But between the odd yet pleasant prose and the heavily detailed illustrations, I was a fan. A year later, I'd wandered into a bookstore on St. Mark's Place and found Rumo by the same author sitting in the science fiction section. Within moments of flipping through it, I'd found out it was the sequel to Captain Bluebear, and that there were two other works besides. This filled me with much joy, and then disappointment as I realized I was short on cash. That summer, on a trip to a quirky indie bookstore in Tucson called Antigone Books, I found a copy of Rumo and immediately snapped it up, not wanting to lose the opportunity more than once.
Rumo tells the story of Rumo of Zamonia, a Wolpertinger (they're like bipedal sentient dogs with horns. Yes, I know it's odd, but stay with me) who eventually becomes the greatest warrior in the land. The book follows his adventures, from the time he escapes from carnivorous cyclopses as a pup to his eventual settlilng down in the city of Wolperting. Along the way, he meets a large Shark Grub with a devious tactical mind and a penchant for gambling, is educated by two "Nocturnomaths" (highly intelligent creatures with multiple external brains for storing extra information), contends with murderous yeti, fights a walking carnivorous forest, and must finally rescue an entire city (and his true love, naturally) from the bowels of the Netherworld. All of it illustrated to an almost dizzying degree.
What I like most about Rumo is the grip it has on its own world. Zamonia is a vibrant place, where everything from the tiniest forest creature to the massively tall Ygg Drasil tree could have its own book written about it. Moers' strong grip on Zamonia is what allows him to drop his readers into the plot, confident that he won't have to explain every little thing-- just the most important ones. What his occasional bits of exposition don't do, the illustrations more than make up for. Zamonia, despite its ludicrously lethal flora and fauna, is a place you feel like you live in. Through this, Moers is able to draw the reader into the plot and get one invested in the plot quite easily. After all, if one feels like they live somewhere, they're more likely to be interested in what goes on in their world. And this is the book's main strength. It hooks you in because it constructs such a feeling of immersion, and doesn't let go until the final pages, when a series of narrow escapes lead to a climax that is ultimately that much more relieving.
Another major strength of the book is its ability to laugh at itself. It knows it's kind of silly, and while not winking at the audience, it plays that to the hilt. Be it the Non-Existent Teenies, who argue about their name and go on and on about how "we've gotten over (insert human emotion here)"; Dandelion/Krindle, Rumo's dual-bladed knife with a split personality (one part houses the spirit of a homicidal demon, the other's a got the spirit of a pathologically-lying but ultimately pacifist troll); or the self-deprecating "Dead Yeti Army"; Rumo is a book that knows it's flat out insane and just runs with it. It tackles this in the sense that it doesn't stop piling on the absurdities, and in the sense that it slyly pokes fun at itself with a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone. It's a fantasy satire that could very well be a regular fantasy novel-- the magic sword talks, the hero has to contend with all manner of monsters and demons, the fate of the world is at stake, and people ride large, mythical creatures. But with its unique sense of humor and take on its world, it becomes unique.
However, there are a few wrinkles. The book is gratuitously violent, beginning with the Siege of Lindworm Castle (a group of mercenaries attempt to siege a city of dinosaurs, only to be gruesomely repelled time and again), and carrying on like that. Blood is spilt, Rumo rips a cyclops' tongue out with his teeth, people get turned into pincushions and chunky salsa, and in one particularly squirm-inducing sequence, Rumo's love interest is put into an iron maiden whose spikes have been replaced with intravenous needles and tortured with poisons and viruses by one of the main villains. While I was prepared for the book to have its dark touches (Captain Bluebear wasn't without those, either), many of the sequences bordered on wanton violence. Though this might also fit with the darker tone of the heroic quest as it goes along.
Second, for a while the book stops dead just as Rumo reaches the walled city of Wolperting. While it picks up again, watching Rumo at school and working as a cabinetmaker-- while important to the plot later on-- becomes a bit of a slog. After all, the book had enticed me with points of epic adventure and duels to the death, so turning into a coming-of-age romance about growing up and finding one's place kind of seems out of place. But in the end, it pulls together nicely and gives a reason for Rumo to rescue his damsel, rather than just rescuing her and being done with it after that.
So in the end, this is a book well worth reading. It's a satire, a coming-of-age novel, a brutal heroic saga, and a fantastic adventure novel, all in one and with the length and girth to give all of that the time it deserves. The illustrations, while not beautiful, are fantastic, and the story hits all the right notes. It's a fantasy children's book for grownups, it's the book everyone always wanted as a kid but which grew up so it'd meet them on their level. Also, there's a fight scene that takes place in a giant robot. I forgot to mention that. In short, it's a fantastically good read and well worth tracking down and reading from cover to cover.
Next week: After this brief respite, we go back into the pile o' crazy with Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. And yes, the different coloring is manditory.