The power and magic of stories and books is the potent theme of this thrilling and emotionally satisfying middle grade fantasy adventure, which returns, two years later, to the world of Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes (2011).12 year-old bookmender Sophie Quire must unite the magical Books of Who, What, Where, and When in order to stop Inquisitor Prigg, leader of the No Nonsense movement in Bustleburgh, in his plan to burn all story books. Coming to Sophie’s assistance are Peter Nimble, the Greatest Thief Who Ever Lived, and his heroic companion, cat-horse-man Sir Tode.
Full of lively wordplay (a spell that renders an object impervious to flame is called the Shadrach charm), and fourth wall-breaking asides, the text is delightfully polished and easy to read, and while the pace is maybe a little leisurely in the middle, the plot flows along, shaped by Sophie’s quest.
Sophie, the lone character with dark skin as her dead mother came from the Topaz Isles, loves stories and knows all too well how reluctant heroes react at each stage of their journey, so she does not shy away from plunging into the unknown, following her instincts, developing a steely self-assurance and taste for adventure. Peter, on the other hand, has become more than a little cocky since we last saw him, and his arc is to find in himself a need to look out for others as well as himself. Support characters have helpfully Dickensian names, like Torvald Knucklemeat, signaling their roles.
The author uses Professor Cake to voice his own views: “Stories are not mere diversions to occupy us on a rainy day. They are a type of magic spell – perhaps the most powerful in existence – and that effect is to summon possibilities.” But he gives some balance by having the villainous Prigg have a noble motive for his turn towards pragmatism and ‘progress’.
There is enough background on Peter to make sense of him as a character, and this is more of a self-contained companion than a sequel. The ending suggests that the Sophie, Peter, and Sir Tode could move on to more exploits together, which will delight lovers of richly imagined speculative fiction.