Friday, September 4, 2015

Retro Friday Review: Archer's Goon

by Diana Wynne Jones

Retro Friday Introduction:

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted by Angie @ Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be a favourite, an under the radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print etc.

This Friday, I chose Archer's Goon, the short, weird, but wonderful book about a family of megalomaniac wizards trying to rule a small town and the ordinary family who accidentally gets in their way. I reviewed it when I first read it back in September 2008, but it was a terrible and very short review. It deserves better.

Story summary: The Sykes are living their ordinary family life, with unwanted music lessons and awful little sisters, until one day, there's an enormous goon in their kitchen. He demands that Mr. Sykes (an author) write two thousand words (any words) for his boss Archer. It turns out Archer is one of seven wizard siblings ruling the town and battling each other for power. And all of them, in their own ways, are out to get Mr. Syke's two thousand words.
Can the Sykes survive the plots and machinations of seven self-absorbed wizards? Will they ever figure out what the heck those two thousand words are all about? And just how does your mother expect you to practice violin when you have imaginary spaceships to design?

Why You Will Like This Book:
  • Family. It's all about family: dysfunctional, chaotic, funny, surprisingly loving and surprisingly heartless.
  • Twists, complexity, originality, weirdness, chaos.

And Why You Might Not:
  • As with many of Diana Wynne Jones books, how everything comes together in the end can seem a little rushed and lacking in coherency upon first reading. This is a lie, though. She has everything work together meticulously, you just have to pay attention. (Re-reads really help clarify this.)
  • It is a weird book. And not extremely deep with the most complex characters or anything. If you're looking for something that isn't funny, strange, light, subtle, and family-friendly, then you probably won't like this.
  • None of the covers are pretty. None of them. None of them get the feel of the book right, let alone look at all interesting and attractive. I was thrown off this book for quite a while due to the unappealing covers.

Thoughts: As I said above, this is about the families. Sibling. Parents. From annoying, to mostly-evil, to decent-but-with-a-selfish-streak-and-a-temptation-to-take-over-the-world. And there's almost nothing I like better than families, especially when it's not the "heartwarming and wholesome" type of story, but filled with grudges and reconciliations and temper tantrums and people who dislike their siblings so much they'll confine them to the sewers for thirteen years.* And yes, also some heartwarming bits too.

And now for one of my other favourite things besides families: lists! Here are some favourite bits, with liberal discussion of spoilers using rot13:
  • The Goon marching them through the office buildings to demand an explanation from Mr. Mountjoy, causing chaos and confusion in their wake.
  • In a similar fashion is Howard's escape from Erskine, running through the town causing chaos as all the other siblings give him various forms of aid.
  • Meeting Erskine. Guvf jnf bar bs gur gjvfgf gung fhecevfrq zr. Vg tvirf n jubyr arj ynlre gb zbfg bs gur cerivbhf vagrenpgvbaf, nf jryy nf gb gur Tbba'f punenpgre.**
  • Awful's magical growth spurt. (Of course she'd ybbx yvxr Fuvar.**)
  • Torquil and Hathaway's relationship. There's a reason why so many people like Torquil, and this is a large part of it. Q'nnnnjj, gur pelvat. Erpbapvyvngvba vf gur orfg. Nyfb uvf boivbhf ybaryvarff orsber guvf unccrarq jnf fjrrg naq fnq.**
  • Erskine and Venturus's relationship. Erskine looks out for him! And understands him well enough to figure everything out about him when nobody else could. Naq Iraghehf vf sbaq rabhtu bs uvz gung ur srryf uheg naq orgenlrq jura gur Tbba gheaf bhg gb or Refxvar, naq xvaq bs yvxrf uvz qrfcvgr nyy guvf. Jura pbzcnevat nyy gur erfg bs gur fvoyvatf' nggvghqrf gbjneqf rnpu bgure, guvf vf ybir vaqrrq.**
  • The list of ten facts at the beginning. It's hilarious, and sets a good tone for the rest of the book. "When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, the result is a family fight" indeed. (Only problem is, I never got #2: "Pigs have wings, making them hard to catch." Still don't. Is it some sort of vague reference to how many impossible things happen in this book? Cause "when pigs fly" means something impossible? Seems a little non-specific compared to the rest of the facts, though. Don't get it. EDIT: explained here; still don't completely get it; gonna have to sit down and figure it out sometime.)
An awesome pic of the Goon, by taken from here.
See some more awesome Archer's Goon pics by the same author here.

Other random things I like:
  • There's this concept that I for some reason really love, where people stand for, or even are, ideas or abstractions in some sense. It's a similar idea to anthropomorphism (and thus my Top Ten (Or So): Anthropomorphic Personifications of Death list exists). The Greek gods are a pretty good example of this; some of them are considered actual things, like Helios who is the sun, and and some just have qualities similar to the things and are generally in charge of the things, like Apollo the sun god. In this book, this is realized through the idea of "farming". The wizard siblings "farm" various town functions, like education and infrastructure and future related things, or music and entertainment and shopping and fun related things. What they farm seems related to their personalities and powers in some ways, and you could easily imagine Torquil, for example, as the "god of arts and entertainment". My love for abstraction and structure is quite strong, and trumps realism any day, and this idea is an important reason why I love this book so much. (Some of the other books I like for a similar reason are The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton, The Pilgrim's Regress by C.S. Lewis, and Enchanted by Alethea Kontis. And I'm sure there are more I've forgotten.)
  • The names! Archer, Dillian, Shine, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, Venturus. All actual names as far as I know, though all fairly unusual. But don't they look lovely and interesting all in a row there?
  • The Goon talks like Freddy from Cotillion, probably my favourite book by Georgette Heyer. For this reason, and because I often have a fondness for large, stupid people (especially when they're actually a lot cleverer than people think), the Goon is my favourite character. He's also surprisingly sweet, especially when you get to know his real motivations.
  • Torquil is probably my second favourite character after the Goon. It's the surprising depth that does it, especially after meeting the other siblings. Although Shine is so distinctive that she holds a high place in my list of favourite characters as well.
  • The twists in plot! Some of them I caught on to before they were revealed (e.g. gur Iraghehf gjvfg**) and some surprised me quite a bit (e.g. gur Refxvar gjvfg**). A lot of them at the end seemed to come out of nowhere the first read through, but this book rewards re-reads: all of the twists have backing and make sense, if you think about it. And not only do they make sense, but they're clever and amusing.
  • And in the end, you're left with so many questions--not the bad kind that leave things unfinished and bug you forever and indicate bad storytelling, but wonderful areas to imagine about. Like.. Jub NER gurfr crbcyr? Nyvraf? Ubj qvq gurl trg urer? Jung ner gurve cneragf yvxr? (Zhfg or nznmvat (va znlor na njshy jnl) jvgu puvyqera yvxr gubfr...) Jung jvyy gur crbcyr ba gur fcnprfuvc qb? Jvyy gurl fheivir naq gel gb gnxr bire n qvssrerag cynarg? Jvyy Refxvar gel gb snez gur jbeyq? Jvyy Njshy gel gb snez gur jbeyq jvgu uvz? (V'z fhfcrpgvat fvapr Iraghehf vf tbbq jvgu shgher fghss, znlor ur pna frr gur shgher gb n pregnva rkgrag naq uvf vaghvgvba nobhg Refxvar jnf pbeerpg. Nygubhtu znlor jvgu Iraghehf'f vasyhrapr vg jvyy ghea bhg qvssreragyl.) **

Grade: 5 stars

*Naq sbe Crgr'f fnxr, guvf fgbel raqf jvgu sbhe fvoyvatf rkvyvat gur bgure guerr vagb fcnpr jvgu ab xabjyrqtr vs gurl pbhyq rire erghea. Gung'f abg rknpgyl jubyrfbzr naq urnegjnezvat.**
**Translate these spoilers using rot13.

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