Eric Bear has a problem. Gangster Nicholas Dove has given him the task of removing the dove’s name from the infamous Death List, a task that might be impossible since no-one seems to know if the Death List even exists. If he fails, his beloved wife Emma Rabbit will be torn asunder by the dove’s gorilla goons, so he turns to the old crowd – simple Tom-Tom Crow, sly Snake Marek and sadistic Sam Gazelle – for help.
Oh, and they’re all stuffed animals.
I have to admit, I struggled a bit with Amberville. On the surface of it, it sounded a little off-beat, clever, unusual – a fantasy universe in the same vein as Jasper Fforde’s Nursery Crime Division series or Robert Rankin’s The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse. I even loved the cover with its stuffed animal take on Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (with Emma Rabbit as Jo Hopper, of course). But actually the stuffed animal world seemed at times a little gimmicky, although the reason for its use as a warped mirror held up against our own world became more obvious as the story progressed.
It’s really the second half of Amberville that makes it, but it’s very hard to talk about it without revealing rather too much about the twisty plot. Each animal representative deliberately plays to stereotype; for example, Eric Bear is your everyman, Sam Gazelle a “mincing” (yes, really) male prostitute, Archdeacon Odenrick is a penguin, in black and white clerical gear. To some extent this means a bit of predictability, but to give ‘Tim Davys’ – it’s a pseudonym for ‘a Swedish author’ apparently – credit, the plot still packs a few surprises. However, the underlying themes of life and death, good and evil, religion and afterlife are well-trodden indeed, and Amberville holds few revelations here. It is perhaps the kind of book that appeals most to those that already agree with its thesis on morality; for me it felt a bit tired.
But if the moral didn’t do it for me, Amberville certainly gets points for originality of setting, and the kind of gleeful, haunting darkness that drips through it. Despite being carried out by stuffed animals, there’s nothing funny or less unsettling about scenes of torture, madness and betrayal, and they certainly stay with you. If you can ignore (or embrace) the underlying theme, there’s always the sneaky mystery story and detailed setting to enjoy instead.
Find out more about the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge. Please note that opinions are my own and unbiased; I am not required to give the books a positive review.