Blind Eye Books, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-935560-28-9
Imagine a world like ours, only a few centuries back and with steampunk elements. That’s the kind of world in which Langley Hyde’s Highfell Grimoires is set in. Lord Neil Franklin and his sister find themselves impoverished, heavily in debt, and facing debtor’s prison after the deaths of their parents. Their uncle offer to take Neil’s sister Nora in, but Neil would have to pay him back by serving as a teacher in the boarding school Highfell Hall. He also has to surrender the family grimoire as a collateral for his family’s debts.
Never mind. Neil was a boarding school kid when he was younger, so he imagines himself the impassioned tutor to a classroom of intelligent and well-behaved children, all eager to be turned into exemplary citizens by him. He would thrive in an intellectual environment, engaging in edifying discourses with fellow teachers. Of course, if this is how the story goes, there won’t be much of a story. Poor Neil finds himself in something that is more Charles Dickens than Harry Potter – the school doubles as a sweat shop of sorts, the kids are sullen, and the facilities are far from conducive for studies. Still, there is Leofa, the resident gardener and handyman whom Neil is forced to share the bed with (the facilities here are really in need of improvement, let’s just say). While the bed sharing soon becomes, er, more cozy, could poor Neil do something for the kids in this school?
While it may be easy to compare this story to, say, RL Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, Highfell Grimoires is nowhere as bleak as anything Charles Dickens could come up with, but Neil is not exactly the David Balfour to Leofa’s Alan Breck Stewart either despite the presence of a sinister uncle and a lost inheritance. In fact, while reading this story, I find that Neil is a bit of an acquired taste. That guy is so perky and unflappable that a bitter old hag like me soon feels tempted to slap him a bit just to see him squawk.
Oh, he has to become a teacher in a boarding school? It would be fun, he loves the idea of building up future generations of exemplary citizens, so things would be cheery! Oh dear, the boarding school looks dire and busted. No matter, he’s sure things would look up soon! And on and on he goes, to the point where I start to find his perky sunshine goody two-shoes persona grating. Every obstacle only makes him pause for a moment before he sails through it. Angry children? He speaks to them and makes them stand down with a smile on his face (really). He may feel nervous, but he’s got this. Kidnappers, murders, whatever – okay, he’s shaken by these things, but he’s unflappable. Of course, he is also a most empathic person. When other people feel sad, he feels sad for them too. I bet, if he has money, he’d buy them all ponies.
Because the main protagonist is basically an overachieving Boy Scout waltzing his way through the story with barely a hair out of place, the story doesn’t feel very suspenseful at all. It’s not like I believe even for a second that Neil hasn’t got any situation under control, after all. Highfell Grimoires therefore reads like a story for kids rather than for adults, as while the story unfurls at a breezy pace, it lacks any semblance of emotional complexity that I’d usually associate with stories written for adults. Here, it’s just “See Neil go!” If he has a tail, Neil would be wagging it from first page to last.
The romance, by the way, is just incidental and it’s not central to the story. And, really now, Neil always got it, so it’s not like he won’t get Leofa in the end either. He’s on his way to getting everything by the last page of this story.
A story as perky, upbeat, and charmingly uncomplicated as this needs a strong villain to keep things interesting, one that could keep up with the unflappable hero, or a strong conflict that challenges the hero in a meaningful manner. There’s none of that here, so I hope you really like reading about perky boys that won’t let anything get them down.