Tuesday, September 14, 2010

RIP CHALLENGE: the Dark Deeps by Arthur Slade

Modo and Octavia, under the orders of the complicatedly sinister Mr. Socrates have re-emerged from their last disastrous adventure to trace the whereabouts of a missing fellow spy.

To New York they go, disguised as husband and wife and then to sea where a twist of fate sends the inimitable Modo to the very depths of the abyss.

A french spy, Colette, a man with the amazing power to make himself invincible named Griff and the villainous Captain of the steam-powered submarine ship Ictineo pepper the fast-paced homage to Victoriana.

I must confess that these stories are especially fun for those who are familiar with their source material. Drawing on Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dickens, Hugo ( to a lesser extent in this volume than in the first Hunchback Assignments ) and even Arthur Conan Doyle, this addition to the extremely popular Steampunk genre will be a hit with kids.

The isolating cabin wherein Modo finds himself trapped at the bottom of the Ocean as well as the gruesome circumstances surrounding Modo and Octavia’s missing colleague and the re-appearance of the Clockwork Guild add the thrills and chills needed for the Hallowe’en Season.

I was at a reading of Arthur Slade’s where an adorable child reader pronounced that Modo satisfied all of her “reading needs.” The Dark Deeps is a compelling follow- up to the ˆHunchback Assignments and a perfect addition to the RIP challenge.

As per usual, Slade writes deliciously and there are few contemporary writers whose prose seems so sparkly and alive. Humour (also, as per usual) is threaded throughout and I caught myself laughing aloud more than once: even in public places!

When the cunning spy Octavia ( probably my favourite character in the series) attests : “ I do not cough. I expel air daintily”, I snorted coffee up my nose on my morning train commute. Just before Modo falls deep deep into the ocean, he has a last, fleeting moment to part with Octavia: “He tried to find some final, memorable words to leave her with, but all that came out of his mouth was ‘uh—ohhhhh!’ and he fell into the Atlantic.”

Not wanting to leave Modo without a wily and winsome heroine, Colette and Modo join tentative sides aboard the Ictineo. Colette is as equally as savvy and sassy as Octavia and bemoans her boredom in captivity on the ship: “Twenty-eight day and four hours, not that I’m counting. I hope you like reading books and looking at fish!”

When Colette questions Modo’s being in Iceland, Modo cleverly quips: “We were travelling to Iceland for diplomatic reasons. And smoked cod, of course”

Slade doesn’t really stop. Ever. There is a winning line on almost every page.

Thematically, the emphasis of Utopia and Captain Monturiol’s obsession with an underwater Utopia provides a deep and level contrast to the moments of humour, of monsters and of invisible men. Slade also quotes Coleridge for good measure ( seriously, folks, when was the last time someone threw Xanadu into a kids’ book? )

The only thing the book lacked was MORE OCTAVIA! While Colette was certainly interesting and Griff a surprising foil for Modo, Octavia and Modo’s relationship and the chemistry in the snap-crackle-pop dialogue flitting between them was sorely missed. I can only hope she turns up to greater extent in the next Hunchback novel.

This series is absolutely, tremendously and utterly unique and, as always, proves its writer’s almost ridiculously wide-spanning literary range.

Slade’s narrative voice is like a comfort zone to me: like the smell of pumpkin pie or macaroni and cheese--- it’s something I am so used to and so enjoy sinking into. A tremendously great yarn full of things that go bump in the night ( and at the bottom of the ocean, no less); of gaslight and creaking carriage wheels; of people who are not who they say they are; of steam-powered madness; of distant utopias on strange, green lands--- or on the crust of the ocean’s silvery bottom. The Dark Deeps is an imaginative smorgasbord.

( and while you're at it---- read Jolted ---one of my favourite books ever)

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