Sunday, 10 November 2013

Review: The Woebegone Twins by Christopher William Hill (Tales From Schwartzgarten #2)

When twins Greta and Feliks lose their beloved Aunt Gisela to a poisoned marzipan cake and are sent to the ill-omened Schwartzgarten Reformatory for Maladjusted Children it seems their fate is sealed...that is until they are rescued by the glamorous and wealthy Olga Van Veenen, a fabulous children's author. The two twins are grateful but something tells them that Olga's motives are not entirely genuine...

The Woebegone Twins is a tale of murder and mayhem, fact and fiction. The heroes are horrid. The plots are peculiar. And things are not always as they seem. If you prefer cleavers to kittens and fiends to fairies...then welcome to the gruesomely funny tales from Schwartzgarten.

Under 14s Only Month on The Book Zone continues with the second book in Christopher William Hill's brilliant Tales From Schwartzgarten series, although this post will probably be more of a review of the two books. I picked up the first book in this series, Osbert the Avenger, in Foyles towards the end of 2012 but due to the huge number of books on my TBR pile it sadly remained unread for some time. I finally got around to reading it in September and totally loved it, and reading it so late meant that I didn't have to wait long for the next in the series to be published.

Osbert the Avenger is a truly dark comedic tale that could probably only ever be written by a Brit and the publisher, Orchard Books, recommend it (and its sequel) for fans of Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket. However, this book is far darker than any of the books by these two luminaries of children's fiction, and I would suggest that it has much more in common with one of my favourite TV comedy series, The League of Gentlemen, with a soup├žon of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books thrown in for good measure. It is a gruesome and very funny tale full of the most fabulous, colourful characters, both good and evil. And then there is Osbert, who sort of falls between the two. Osbert is the anti-hero of the story, and after he is wronged by the particularly nasty staff of The Institute, Schwarzgarten's school for the incredibly able, he sets out to get revenge, and in the process accidentally commits murder. It isn't long before the staff of The Institute are dropping like flies, yet even though he has become a killer we still find ourselves rooting for Osbert, and guiltily wondering just how he is going to strike next. 

Some reviewers have criticised Osbert the Avenger for its seeming lack of morals, as Osbert appears to get away with his crimes, and does not face full punishment for the murders he commits. I'm sure I read one reviewer state that this shouldn't be likened to Dahl as the perpetrators of dark deeds in his books always got their comeuppance, although I personally can't remember George being punished for pretty much finishing his grandmother off with his marvellous medicine. However, I think kids will totally love this book for its sheer gruesomeness and will find themselves giggling wickedly as Osbert gets his revenge on the people who have wronged him and his family. It's a shame that some adults feel the need to become so holier than thou as soon as they read something that doesn't quite fit their ideals of what makes a good book for children. I guess there will be a few overly sensitive 9+ kids who might be a little scared by this story, but at the end of the day, if a child finds a book uncomfortable reading then they will invariably put it down and move on to something else.

The Woebegone Twins is a sequel to Osbert the Avenger only because it is set in the same town, the wonderfully imagined Schwartzgarten. Beyond this, it is a totally new story with a completely new set of characters. Deserted by their parents as babies, Greta and Feliks Mortenberg have been brought up by their loving Aunt Gisela, who has always loved and treated them as if they were her own children. However, times are hard and therefore she is forced to take in a lodger, the seemingly sinister Mr Morbide. However, nothing is ever as it first seems in Schwarzgarten, but that doesn't mean that things aren't going to take a turn for the worse for Greta and Feliks, and a poisoned cake sees them orphaned and consigned to a grim future in the Schwartzgarten Reformatory for Maladjusted Children. Fortunately (?), an angel of mercy in the form of glamorous children's writer Olga Van Veenen sweeps in to rescue them... but is it a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. As I've already said, nothing is ever as it first appears in this town.

The Woebegone Twins will not have the Daily Mail crowd clamouring for public book burnings as much as its predecessor might. It is still chock full of gruesome murders and despicable acts, but this time around the children are not the perpetrators, just the intended victims. However, it is just as funny and entertaining as Osbert the Avenger, mainly as a result of the author's dark and mischievous sense of humour. and I get the impression that they were probably almost as much fun to write as they are to read.

Yet again we are presented with a panopoly of characters, and again the villains of the piece are one of the story's real highlights. This is one of the stories where a location is as much of a character as the people who inhabit it, with Schwartzgarten being as dark, mysterious, and occasionally unfathomable as some of its population. However, in this episode the story does not solely take place within the boundaries of the city, and so we are also treated to a glimpse at the wider world that the author has created. I'm sure I read somewhere that Christopher William Hill has been signed up to write a further two Tales From Schwartzgarten books, and I can't wait to find out more about the town and its inhabitants.

I can't sign off without commenting on the wonderful job Orchard have done in presenting these books. They come in a great hardcover (sans dust jacket), with the wonderful artwork of Chris Riddell spot varnished on the front and rear. Both books have this glorious map of Schwartzgarten inside (click on it to see it in all of its glorious largeness), giving readers a great visual reference for the locations of the dark doings within the story. My only complaint - it would have been nice to see some of Riddell's illustrations inside the book as well to accompany the story.

The Tales From Schwartzgarten books are pretty unique in my opinion, as I can't think of anything else for the 9+ age group that is as darkly comic as these two books, especially Osbert the Avenger. I'm wishing there was a lot more of this around as I have a thirst for it now and I'm not sure what to turn to next.

My thanks go to the wonderful people at Orchard for sending me a copy of The Woebegone Twins to read.

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