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Reviews Wed Dec 17 2008
The Order of Odd-Fish
by James Kennedy
(Delacorte Press Books for Young Readers, 2008)
Though there are many books of which I am fond, there are few instances in which, upon finishing a book, I find myself thinking, with some sadness, of how much I would have missed out on had not some happy accident brought said book into my life. This is the thought I had from nearly the first page of James Kennedy's The Order of Odd-Fish. This book will likely receive complimentary comparisons to such literary greats as Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl, along with contemporary favorites like Lemony Snicket and the perhaps less widely celebrated but no less loved Norton Juster, and while such comparisons rarely set the reader up for anything more than disappointment, they are entirely justified here. Even if Kennedy never again sets pen to paper, he will always be remembered lovingly for the one great contribution he has made to young adult literature today.
The Order of Odd-Fish is at once a coming of age story and a fantastical journey into a middle world where gigantic cockroaches are butlers, knights spend their lives engaged in fruitless endeavors and a legend threatens to destroy an entire community. Jo Larouche is thirteen when her life is uprooted and she finds herself vomited out of a giant fish into the strange world of Eldritch City and an order of knights known as Odd-Fish. Along with her is her eccentric Aunt Lily, who cannot remember anything before Jo's birth, a boisterous Russian named Colonel Korsakov, who literally puts all his faith in his gut and bases his decisions on his digestive sensations, and Sefino, Korsakov's uppity and self-absorbed cockroach butler. It is here that Jo must learn the truth about her birth and how she is inexplicably linked with the Ichthala, the true legend that predicts the return of a goddess known as the All-Devouring Mother and the end of Eldritch City.
Lest Jo's story appear to be more of an inner journey, Kennedy pits her against a couple of formidable and highly comical villains. First up is Ken Kiang, a bored Chinese millionaire whose goal is to be "thoroughly, intentionally EVIL." Here is a man who proudly boasts that he has drunk kitten blood, who concocts a plan for a man to sell his soul in exchange for consuming delicious pies, who "[makes] a mental note to practice his diabolical laughter for fifteen minutes a day," for he knows that the devil is in the details. Acting in opposition to both Kiang and Jo is the Belgian Prankster, known for his ability to pull off world-class pranks like covering New York with orange carpet and standing the Eiffel Tower on its point. To say more about the Belgian Prankster would be to reveal too much, but suffice it to say that he will stand as one of the more memorable and satisfyingly disgusting villains in literature.
If the story in The Order of Odd-Fish is at all great, which it is, it is because Kennedy's writing is so extraordinary. He has a knack for creating outrageous characters and vivid scenes where the subtlest turn of phrase can make the most hilarious impact. Kennedy's remarkable use of alliteration alone is worth noting: "Infamous Insect Indignantly Irked in Insipid Imbroglio" and "Magnanimous Mayor Makes Merciful Motion Mandating Murder Matter Mended" read the headlines of the "Eldritch Snitch," the city's newspaper. It is not often that we are reminded that language can be so much more than an instrument of necessity, the fork by which we feed ourselves words and ideas. There are few writers who remind us, instead, that language can be an instrument of pleasure, the precise curve of a neck, the density of a wood, the delicacy with which a bow is drawn against a set of strings to produce a melodious harmony. Kennedy reminds us that writing, especially young adult writing, does not have to be simple or tedious or at all reductive, that it can be dense and multi-layered and exquisitely complex. These are the words of a man who knows his instrument well and plays it with the joy of someone who has clearly had the luck of discovering a true love.
If I sound overly laudatory, it is because while there are many good books that I like, there are few great books that I love. Indeed, I loved The Order of Odd-Fish. My only consternation is that I have come across this book at the age that I am. How I envy those who will discover it when they are young.