The Murdstone Trilogy by Mal Peet, 320 pp, RL: TEEN

Mal Peet was an award winning British author of young adult books, although he disliked being defined by his audience or by genre, who died at age 67 in March of this year. Although he seemed like a veteran writer, he only began his career as an author at the age of 52. Peet wrote over 100 easy readers with his wife, author Elspeth Graham, before writing his first novel for young adults, The Keeper, in 2003. He went on to write six more novels, The Murdstone Trilogy being his last. Peet's name was not unfamiliar to me and I always intended to review his books here before now. When I read the blurb for The Murdstone Trilogy I determined that this would be THE book by Peet that I reviewed and, it was only after reading (and listening to it) that I learned of his untimely death. The Murdstone Trilogy is a wickedly funny novel that skewers so many sides of the publishing industry, from literary agents and reviewers to literary awards and authors, as well as provincial British villages and the people who live in them. And, as I learned while reading reviews of The Murdstone Trilogy, Peet makes fun most of all of himself, his novels and the village he lived in. Although British reviews of The Murdstone Trilogy refer to it as Peet's first book for adults, the book is being published in here as a YA novel. I'm not sure I could think of the teenager who would enjoy this and get all the jokes, although there are plenty of them who have read enough of the phantasy genre to appreciate that portion of the novel and especially how Peet wraps it up...

Philip Murdstone is the protagonist of The Murdstone Trilogy. Like Peet, Philip is an author who shot to fame with the young adult novel Last Past the Post that "made Asperger's cool." Since then, as his agent puts it, Murdstone has, "in five lovely sensitive novels" said everything there is to say about "boys who are inadequate." Over lunch in London, during which Murdstone orders a Mexican Platter that consists of an "enormous square plate upon which, apparently, a cat had been sick in neat heaps around a folded pancake," his agent, the gorgeous, driven Minerva Cinch, urges Philip to try a new genre. Specifically, fantasy, or, even better, high fantasy, also known as "phantasy." Completely unaware of the phenomena that was Harry Potter and the new series, The Dragoneer Chronicles, that is sweeping the genre, Minerva explains this genre to Philip as "Tolkien with knobs on." She goes on to tell Philip the formula for writing high fantasy, which she "pinched out of the Telegraph. From a review of The Dragoneer Chronicles, actually." Armed with this formula and the knowledge that his total income for last year, from all five books, was "twelve grand and some change." As his agent, Minerva's share was "a measly eighteen hundred quid plus VAT." 

Even though he lives the quiet life in Devon in the tiny village of Flemworthy, Philip knows that if he doesn't do something drastic Minerva will dump him and his career will be over. After the Ploughman's lunch and a pint of Dark Entropy at the Gelder's Rest, Philip wanders home, a bit hammered, stopping by the Wringers, the stone circle of Flemworthy where he blacks out. While unconscious, Philip hears a voice in his head narrating a story - a phantasy story. When he goes home and types it into his laptop, it flows from him in a continuous, powerfully voices narrative stream. Peet's send up of the real world of publishing are hilarious, but the fun that he pokes at the world of fantasy is almost more intriguing that funny. As with the names of the towns, pubs and patrons in Flemworthy, Peet does an excellent job building the fantasy world and the glimpses of it we see are rich and intriguing. Pocket Wellfair, a Greme who is Clerk to "Orberry Volenap, last of the Five High Scholars," has a mind of his own and inserts his point of view into the story that he is supposed to be recording for Volenap, the story that becomes Murdstone's book, Dark Entropy. The book becomes an international sensation, and Philip a literary celebrity. It seems he can do no wrong, say no wrong, even when forced into events (like speaking to a crowd) that he would have previously fumbled. Knowing that he needs to write a sequel, Philip tries to recreate his black out at the Wringers and instead finds himself face to face with Pocket Wellfair.

Philip's life becomes irrevocably, and increasingly, uncomfortably, intertwined with Pocket's as he struggles with his success and the demands of his public. He makes a Faustian bargain that he thinks he can get out of, making the last quarter of the novel tense and suspenseful. The ending seems only right, given the spirit of The Murdstone Trilogy (which is NOT an actual trilogy, in real life or the book, although Peet slips in one, final brilliant jab at the creative act of writing on the final pages) but, having quite a soft spot of my own for fantasy, I wish it had been a bit different.

Source: Review Copy and Purchased Audio Book

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