Friday, February 4, 2011

Review of Factotum by D.M. Cornish

Cornish, D.M. Factotum (Part 3, Foundling's Tale). Putnam, 2010.

Young Rossamund, who started life as a foundling and was apprenticed out as a Lamplighter at a tender age, now finds himself the proud if wary factotum of Miss Europe, teratologist (ie monster-slayer) extraordinaire and Duchess-in-waiting. As such, he must prepare the "treacle" that keeps Europe's strange, man-made innards in working order, assist during monster-slaying expeditions, and in general do whatever Europe needs him to do.

As readers of Foundling and Lamplighter know, these are no easy tasks - especially considering that Rossamund not only feels a sympathy for monsters (and has been labeled a "sedorner" or monster-lover) but may actually be one himself. Rossamund manages to get himself in lots of hot water in the large town of Brandenbrass, but luckily his old friends Craumpalin and Fransitart have his back - as does the complicated and always fascinating Europe.

It isn't so much the plot as the atmosphere of these three books that is so compelling. Cornish uses a vocabulary all his own to create a rich and imaginative world, with cuisine, mode of dress, slang, history, religion, pastimes, and more all lovingly described - and if there isn't room in the narrative itself, there's a long glossary at the back of each book. When a new character appears, his clothing, hairstyle, and complexion are all laid out for the reader, and if that weren't enough, we often get an expressive drawing of the character as well, complete with labels detailing the finer points of the outfit. This all has the effect of plunging the reader straight into a complex and vibrant place that exists in its own right, always has, and always will.

The text is so dense with exotic words, however, that it's a bit like reading a book in a language in which you are not yet fluent. There is much flipping back and forth from the text to the glossary - and frustratingly, most of the terms are not even in the glossary, having already appeared in the glossary of the first or second book or simply not being explained at all. To prevent getting completely bogged down, the reader must let go of total comprehension and just flow with the story despite the many rocks and boulders of unknown words. Still, it can be exhausting.

By the end of the book, Rossamund has not only come to terms with who he is but knows how he will conduct the next phase of his life. It's a relief to see the sturdy but vulnerable foundling grow into a new maturity, but it's also bittersweet - Rossamund doesn't have an easy road ahead of him, and readers will wish they could find out where his journey takes him.

I'm quite certain that readers won't need to give up the Half-Continent altogether, luckily. Cornish has put so much time, thought, and energy into his world that we'll be reading more adventures set there, count on it.

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