Friday, November 4, 2016

Knight Kyle and the Magic Silver Lance (Review)


Remember Saturday morning cartoons? Of course, you do: they were fun, brightly animated, and adventurous stories featuring a colorful cast of characters who manage to get into trouble time after time. Well, Oliver Pӧtzsch has written a children’s book which perfectly mimics that format: with every chapter representing a new adventure for the titular protagonist, and luscious illustrations accompanying each tale, the end-product is a medieval-inspired chapter book which has both convention and unexpected oddities.

                So, the story, what little there is, takes place in Fairyland; with it being a magical realm in which “even airplanes and rockets can’t fly there” (Loc.5), we are not going to find many real-world monuments. So we have a world wholly set apart from the hum-drum of our non-fairy realm.

                In Fairyland East, lives knight Kyle. He is the protagonist, in case you didn’t figure it out already. Kyle is a little boy—likely a stand-in for the author’s son—and has inherited a large castle from his great-grandfather Kasimir. He loves raspberry soda, chocolate chip cookies, and his friends. Oh, also, he inherited this magical lance from his great-granddaddy which grants him the power to rule over the land, but he went and lost it. Darn. Especially so since his foes are searching for the lance as well.

                As a lead, Kyle is pretty boring. He doesn’t really do much other than exist as the standard cis-hetero male lead—the King Arthur, for those of us keeping track. He has a horse named Rosinante, but they don’t feature heavily in the plot (I think Rosinante only shows up three or four times, tops). But that is fine since I’m not in the mood for a story featuring a horse.

                Anyways, Kyle has some friends and they are a tad more interesting; Kyle also has some foes, and they are, by a long stretch, far more interesting than most of his friends. But all in good time, dear reader.

                So the first of his friends is Prince Nepomuk; the presumed king of the castle in which Kyle dwells. Why Prince Nepomuk is not the male lead instead of Kyle, I am not sure, but it likely as to do with his lifestyle. You see, Prince Nepomuk is a metrosexual.

                The text describes Nepomuk possessing “a closet as large as all the horse stables put together”, a rather flamboyant reality for a young boy. Additionally, “Nepomuk likes to get all dressed up… His only quarrels are with Kyle over Constance, but she always brushes him off. If he’s not looking for adventure with Kyle, he’s probably zooming along the castle wall on his skateboard” (Loc.9-10). So, we have a kid who loves to get dressed up—and indeed, has a very gender-ambiguous look—while possessing a love for adventure and skateboarding while trying to gain the affection of a girl. As I said, metrosexual.

                I feel that the author wanted to make Prince Nepomuk (the stereotypical) gay, but lost courage at the last moment. I do not know how I feel about this; on the one hand, it would be nice for there to be a homosexual character in a children’s chapter book, since there are few. One of the other hand, his flamboyant personage doesn’t exactly do much for Queer representation in the collective unconscious. Outside of either hand, though, the idea of a metrosexual character is, in itself, somewhat irksome since I consider metrosexuality to be postmodern cultural exploitation of Gay sub-culture.

                It is really a no-win situation. In the very least, it is a different approach to the normal representation of what one would find in a kid’s book. It isn’t perfect but it was unexpected.

                Moving on: next of Kyle’s friends is Constance, the Lady of the Castle. Not much to her, honestly; she is described as being brave—though that bravely renders her into the role of hapless damsel in distress which needs saving by our big, strong men—and loving to read. She is crafty and does manage to save the castle from some rampaging trolls, but she is mostly chauvinistic eye-candy.

                Next is Elf Aurin. He lives on an island and adores writing and playing music on his harp. Kyle hates it because it always puts him to sleep. He is a skilled archer. The only thing to imbue him with some difference is that he is sensitive and prone to fits of pouting if Kyle doesn’t pay attention to him. Looks like that Aurin, at least, is not in a homosocial triangulation, so maybe he is our gay character? A man can dream.

                There is a small supporting cast to help Kyle: Fairy Laureana, who makes potions in her forest cabin and loves all the forest critters; Dragobert the Dragon, who is, uh, a bit dragon whom Kyle freed from Balduin; and Arthur the Eagle, whose design was clearly inspired from a young child’s imagination, considering his polka-dotted shorts. None of these characters do very much. They mostly exist for purposes of dues-ex Machina.

                On to the foes: there are two principal enemies. One, Balduin the Magician. Two, Rasputin the Robber.

Balduin is barely a character. He has a tamed pet dragon named Gogol who lights his fires for him and does generally petty chores, but that is all Gogol does. Balduin himself spends the book scheming to get his hands on the fabled Silver Lance so he might make himself king of Fairyland. Too bad that he doesn’t know that Kyle hasn't the foggiest idea where the lance actually is. Remember—Kyle’s family lost the lance a long time ago. Really, outside of those details, there is not much to Balduin.

Rasputin (the Robber) is our other evil-doer. Before Kyle shaved it off, he used to have a scraggly beard. He robs people for a living and is terrified of Kyle. Rasputin could have been as uninteresting as Balduin, but the text paints him sympathetically; it reads “He looks grim all the time, but he’s actually just very lonely” (Loc.17). The narrative goes further in qualifying Rasputin by saying that his descent into robbery was all by his aesthetics—people would see him when he would try and talk, and they would run off. So he would take whatever they left behind. A character with surprising depth.

As I said before, there is not much of a story. Balduin tries to steal the Magic Silver Lance, but Kyle has no idea where it is, so every time that Balduin hatches a plan—such as lighting fireworks, sneaking into the castle basement, etc.—he messes up in his search for the fabled lance. It is a useless affair. With no one knowing what happened to the lance, we are just waiting for it to show up one day. Until then, random stuff happens.

And it truly is random. There is a knightly jousting tournament, a misadventure over some snowy mountains to try and reach a birthday party, pulling of a decayed tooth from Dragobert, helping a giant shrink, a circus extravaganza… you get the idea. It is random events in the day of the life of Kyle (the Great). We learn a lot of random facts—about Rasputin’s gullibility, Balduin’s ignorance, and Constance’s position of matriarchal authority—but nothing much in terms of an over-arching plot.

The closest thing we get to a plot is a search for the silver lance, but that is resolved at the last second by a spark of good fortune (as I was expecting it to be). Since we are dealing with a children’s chapter book, I do not think this is a bad thing; after all, the story is supposed to recall the sensational adventures of Saturday morning. So this book is like a season in a series. And, at any case, the divergent nature of the book makes it easy reading for either bed-time stories—if your child is too young to read—or elementary school readers, who are just starting out and have short attention spans.

It is almost a plus, though, that these chapters are so random because otherwise, we would not be privy to Sibylle Hammer’s beautiful illustrations. Think of Dr. Seuss but put in a medieval aesthetic. The end product is a book which keeps the young reader entertained and reading, if for no other reason than to witness the next well-drawn image.

Outside of the characters, story, and images, though, I found it difficult to pinpoint what medieval tradition the author was drawing upon. He is clearly drawing upon some tradition, but not one so specific that I can identify it; obviously, with knights and an eagle named Arthur, he is at least referencing the Arthurian mythos, but beyond this, if I had to take a shot in the dark, I would guess Old Norse as the defining tradition, since some of the names and recurrent themes—giants, special food and potions—seem indicative of the Norse tradition (from what little I know of it).

(Perhaps in the future I will take another look at this title, or series when I know more about the Old Norse tradition and how it interacts with the Polish selection of Arthurian texts.)

In the end, Silver Lance is a well-rounded title. The characters are nothing if not likable, the story is lively with many different scenarios, and there is enough pictures to satisfy any child. It has its faults—the questionable inclusion of metrosexuality, the lack of definable plot—but none of these are game killers when it comes to whether it should be read or not. Everything remains family friendly and injected with the usual blasé moral stories teaching kids life lessons. Honestly, you can find stuff about this text to complain about, but I do not see the point in doing so.

Knight Kyle and the Magic Silver Lance
Oliver Pӧtzcsch (Author); Sibylle Hammer (Illustrator); Lee Chadeayne (Translator).
266 pages. Published by AmazonCrossing. $4.99 (Kindle), $9.60 (Hardcover), $3.49 (Audible Audiobook), $9.99 (MP3 CD/Audio). 2016.

Age Level: Six and up.