Review of the Day: Factotum by D.M. Cornish
I don’t read novels for young adults. This is out of necessity as a children’s librarian more than any personal animosity towards the genre. With all the great middle grade fiction out there who has time for YA? So I’m not sure how I got conned into reading the first Monster Blood Tattoo Foundling back in 2006. However it happened, I was immediately enthralled. Here was a fantasy world I could believe in! One that on the surface looked like it was made up of the usual black and white tropes, and then later turned into an increasingly variegated series of grays. Moral ambiguity city, baby! I devoured Foundling with relish and when its sequel Lamplighter arrived I tossed that back as well. Maybe that’s why I took my time with Factotum, the third and (sadly) last book in the Monster Blood Tattoo series. Reading this book meant having to say goodbye to a lot of old friends. It meant bidding adieu to a world I’d grown to love. I never meant to read a young adult novel. Now I’ve read three and they’re books I honestly love with all my heart. Here’s hoping Mr. Cornish has something more up his sleeve.
When last we left our intrepid heroes, Rossamund the Lamplighter had been accused of being a . . . well . . . a rossamund. Which is to say, he’s accused of being a monster in man’s form. Rescued from his accusers by the always impressive Europe, the Branden Rose, Rossamund has become her factotum to escape the public eye. Rumors of what he is plague and follow the two, however, and both Rossamund and Europe discover that there are forces aligned against them that will stop at nothing to get what they want. What these villains do not count on, however, is that an angry Europe is far more deadly than a pack of slavering monsters.
In comparing the book to its predecessors, I must say that this is probably the longest of the three. Foundling was mere slip of 434 pages, and only 312 were story (the rest was backmatter). Lamplighter was 717 pages, 602 story. Finally, Factotum is 688 pages, with 610 pages of story (the longest yet, storywise). Much of the book feels like a bit of a road novel too. After a brief stay in Europe’s home she and Rossamund go out nicker hunting in the countryside where things do not always go according to plan. It really isn’t until they return to town that the plot starts to run towards the ultimate finish. Not that I was complaining, but I know that some people aren’t particularly fond of Cornish’s meandering style. I sympathize, disliking that aspect to other authors’ writings, but with Cornish I enjoy how well he enfolds me into his universe. There is a meticulousness to his world building. If you found yourself transported there right now, you’d probably get eaten within three seconds, but at least you’d have a general sense of where to go and what to do.
There are some series out there where you can just enter two or three books in (Harry Potter, for example) and be none the worse for wear. Factotum is not that kind of book. You will only be able to survive it if you have read its previous two novels, preferably recently. Cornish will acquiesce to a tiny bit of recapping, but you get the distinct impression that it makes him impatient. Indeed there was more than one moment when I felt like he was saying to me, “Right! Got all that? No? Well, you’ll catch up soon enough because we have 610 pages of plot to get through! Hi-ho!” Newbies to the book might also remain unaware that when you encounter a strange term (like obsequine or threwd) you can just look it up in the massive Glossary at the end of the book. Of course, to make room for new information (and little poems n’ such) Cornish has excised much of the information that appeared in the previous novels. So terms like “wit” are best found in the previous books’ glossaries.
A colleague read this book before I did and made an interesting point that I have been turning over in my mind ever since. Said he, “You know, I don’t think Rossamund is actually the hero of this series. I think the hero is Europe.” I was about halfway through this last book when he said this to me and the more I thought about it the more sense it made. Certainly Rossamund is the character we the readers follow the closest. He also has his own inner struggle to overcome i.e. Does he belong to the world of monsters or men? But Europe’s mind is even more fascinating. She hates monsters. Indeed her entire job is to wipe the country clean of them, and she’s even had her body surgically changed so that she’d be better at that job. Then along comes this young runt of a kid and she becomes emotionally attached to him, only to find that he is the thing she’s always despised. She’s still attached to him, but the reader can only wonder (as Rossamund himself wonders) how she can justify his existence. How does she reconcile his two natures? At first it seems like her solution is to ignore his monstrous half and to grow angry if he indulges in sedorner (monster lover) sympathies. Yet as time goes on she cannot ignore what he is, and so she must change her own mind, and maybe even occupation too. This story is every bit as much Europe’s as it is Rossamund’s. The only difference is that we get a peek into the inner workings of his mind, while Europe remains a strange closed book.
I spent much of my reading waiting for Rossamund to meet some important monsters. Ever since Lamplighter hinted at the existence of The Sparrow King I’ve been waiting impatiently for the moment when Rossamund meets him face to face. I won’t give away whether or not that happens in this book, but I will say that Cornish does a fairly good job at showing us some impressive magisterial monsters while also allowing us a glimpse (just a glimpse, mind) into their culture. There are some questions that remain unanswered at the end. These include (avert thine eyes if you do not wish to know) how monsters are born, how Rossamund specifically was born (there’s an allusion to the process, but I wanted details), what monster culture is like, etc. etc. Basically, I wanted more monsters. But Cornish is young and healthy. He has a number of good years ahead of him. Perhaps more monsters are in the offering. We’ll simply have to wait patiently and see.
So now it’s done. It’s done and it’s gone and I’ll never have the experience of discovering the books for the first time again. This makes me inordinately sad. So sad, in fact, that I think I’ll try to force the next child I run across to read Foundling … even if they’re five years old. I’m patient. I can wait until they’re old enough to read it … then read Lamplighter … then finally read Factotum. Oh, it may take years but eventually I’d get to see them experience the joy of the series for themselves. And then maybe by that point D.M. Cornish will have other books out as well. A gal can dream, after all.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Notes on the Cover: Penguin’s sort of going for an all new look for the series it seems. The covers of Books 1 & 2 were based on Cornish’s own illustrations as is, seen here, the Australian version of #3:
With these new covers (Penguin as recovered the whole series to look rather similar to the one at the beginning of this post) it’s not as if the new look is any more marketable. I can only assume they’re going for the Lord of the Rings crowd. Seems a tad odd, but I can’t say the new covers aren’t attractive. They’re really very nice. Just a tad unexpected.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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