The Eye of Zoltar, by Jasper Fforde

The Eye of Zoltar, by Jasper Fforde (HMH Books for Young Readers, upper middle grade, Oct. 2014 in the US) is the third book about an alternate United Kingdom that's totally dis-united into a mishmash of principalities, and in which magic and mayhem and mythical creatures are very, very real.  The main character is a 16-year-old orphan named Jennifer, who is the glue holding together a somewhat creaky establishment of professional magic users.  In this installment, Jennifer finds herself burdened with a somewhat impossible task--she must find the mythical Eye of Zoltar (a stone of tremendous magical power) or else the last two dragons face death at the hands of an malignant and impossibly wealthy sorcerer.  

The trail to the Eye of Zoltar leads to the Cambrian mountains, and in this world the only tourists who venture there are those for whom the risk of death adds to the rustic charm ("jeopardy tourism" sustains the Cambrian economy).  Since Jennifer and her companions (her almost boyfriend, Perkins, the young dragon Colin, and a snooty princess who's been magically swapped into a serving maid's body to teach her a lesson) are more or less sensible people, they would rather not risk dying....but they don't have much choice.

Wild adventure follows wilder one as they journey through the deadly Cambrian Empire.  But their young guide (a plucky 12 year old girl with deadly skills and an impressive resume of tourist survival) calculates their odds as a 50% rate of death...and encumbers them with three thrill-seeking tourists to provide warm bodies for the statistics to chew on.    And monsters are faced, spells are cast, the princess shows that she is more than just a pretty very plain serving girl's face (she has a head for finance that's almost magical itself--goat futures, for instance, have never been so entertainingly brought to life in a fantasy novel), and then there's a crashing cliffhanger of an ending.

So basically this is one of those books that's a collection of fantasy bon mots for the mind, a smorgasbord for the imagination, with the Eye of Zoltar serving as the McGuffin that gets things going (aside--I just learned that without Alfred Hitchcock, we might have been stuck with the word "weenie" to describe this sort of plot device.  Thanks, Alfred!).   Many of the bits of imagination are lovely--I utterly adored the messenger snails, for instance.   And the transformation of the princess into a likable character was tremendously enjoyable.

But those looking for rich, moving, characterization and story might be disappointed--the characters aren't allowed to feel much of anything emotionally, even under difficult circumstances, and so the reader isn't given a chance to either.    Book 1, The Last Dragonslayer, is brilliant (and I really truly recommend it),  Book 2 was just fine,  and this one was fun its own, somewhat Bitty, way.   That being said, I have high hopes for book 4--the set up for that is eyebrow-raising to say the least.

So in general I liked it well enough, but it wasn't quite the book I was hoping it would be.  And there were two things that annoyed me more than somewhat.

Thing that annoyed me professionally:  Australopithecines did not make beautifully knapped flint knives with bone handles.   If you are going to turn a character into an Australopithecine, read up about the subject first.

Thing that annoyed me (much more) because it smacked of racist colonialist attitudes and left a bad taste in my mouth:  the description of some of the indigenous Hotax persons of Cambria as "like humans, only stockier and with broader, flatter heads" (page 223).   Can't we just leave descriptions like that back in the 20th century?????

Thoughts on age of reader:

This is a series that straddles the middle grade/YA line.  Kirkus has it as 12 and up, but School Library journal pegs it as ages 9-12, and it's a Junior Library Guild Selection for that age group.   I am in the middle grade camp, myself.  Yes, Jennifer is 16 and she has a boy friend, but Luv is not front and center (there's just one kiss) and we barely see any emotional involvement, and what we do see is somewhat superficial.   And the dangerous adventure fun with bonus deaths/disasters is at the middle grade level (touched on with a light hand, and not such as would cause emotional trauma in the young, unless the reader is the sort of young who resents characters being killed off with no emotional weight given to their passing).  I can easily imagine a reader who thinks they are getting a YA book not being best pleased.  On the other hand, an 11 or 12 year old fantasy reader would quite possibly love it for what it is, and enjoy the bonus zest of feeling like they are reading "up."

Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


  1. I love Jasper Fforde but I have to be in the right mood to read him. Thanks for setting my expectations for this book appropriately. I'll definitely read it, because I also thought Last Dragonslayer was brilliant and I really like Jennifer. (I also thought Eyre Affair was brilliant, but I didn't manage to finish that series—it was just too much, somehow. I like his writing for younger people better. Feel the same way about Pratchett, actually.)

  2. Just not my favorite. I ended up sending my copy to another library, since I didn't buy the first. Think I'll just pass.


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