Cornelia Funke Fearless Chicken House 2013
The second in Cornelia Funke’s Mirrorworld series has been blessed with an authentic-looking late 19th- or early 20th-century map by Raul Garcia, which greatly helps with orientation though, in keeping with the nightmarish nature of the books, its seeming accuracy can be deceiving. In Reckless, Jacob managed to save his brother Will from being totally transformed into a stone being or Goyl (a name derived, no doubt, from ‘gargoyle’); this was, however, achieved at great cost to Jacob himself, who appears thereby to have condemned himself to a lingering death, magically-induced, as a result of his self-sacrifice.
Unless of course he can find a key talisman: a deadly crossbow, in Helvetia, the land that coincidentally gave birth to the most famous Swiss hero of our own world, William Tell. For an otherworldly treasure hunter like Jacob Reckless that can’t be too difficult, can it? Well, only if he can obtain it before another ambitious treasure-hunter can get to it, Nerron, also called the Bastard because he is half-human, half-Goyl. The race to obtain the crossbow is the engine that drives this novel, another of Funke’s bleak fantasy tales that is rarely alleviated by humour or free from restlessness.
Funke’s world-building is admirable. The Mirrorworld that Jacob accesses through a looking-glass is an alternate Europe with archaic names for familiar polities, where fairytale figures, dangerous creatures and magical objects are real, a continent which is Grimm by name and grim by nature. Nevertheless, contamination from our 21st-century world (we assume in the person of Jacob and Will’s long lost father) has resulted in 19th-century technology impacting on this never-never land, with a new Industrial Revolution threatening to fundamentally destroy the ancient cities, Teutonic forests and peasant countryside that make up our view of the archetypal land of fairytale. Aiding our impression of a forbidding landscape are the people who inhabit it: the Bluebeard stalkers, the power-seeking tyrants and their sinister henchmen. Luckily, Jacob does have some assistance of his own in the shape of the shape-shifting Fox; and, of course, her loyalty to Jacob is not merely that of a staunch friend and companion.
Jacob’s quest for a cure is counterpointed by his search for his father, who he is certain survives in the Mirrorworld. Will Jacob find his father before death claims him? Funke builds up the tension in a very workmanlike way, and though the constant state of jeopardy that she describes can be quite wearing, somehow the four hundred and odd pages doesn’t seem overlong. There are some verbal sleights of hand in the final denouement, but what is crystal clear is that the end of the book is not the end of the story; while characterisation can be perfunctory – the main protagonists are largely stereotypes, the villains are mostly, well, villainous – one can only hope that Jacob and Fox will live to fight another day.
Review first published February 2013, and here slightly revised