Michael Buckley,
The Sisters Grimm:
The Fairy-Tale Detectives, Book 1

(Amulet, 2005)

Given its mixture of fractured fairy tales, unfortunate orphans and dastardly deeds, to say nothing of its faux antiquarian and oddly Lemony Snicket-like cover, The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives looked to be right up my alley. Despite the fact that the only blurb on the back was by R.L. Stine, an author I have neither read nor desired to read in over a decade, I plunged in with great enthusiasm.

Well, Lemony Snicket it ain't.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the most attractive qualities in A Series of Unfortunate Events -- the flair for the utterly bizarre, the confident, stylized prose and the promise of a massive, shadowy conspiracy -- are mostly absent in the first of Michael Buckley's fairy tale series. R.L. Stine's praise is split evenly between the action and the humor. He's right: there's never any shortage of action, whether it involves stinging pixies, malodorous giants or magic mirrors, and there is plenty of humor, especially if you like the slapstick variety. The attractive and often laugh-out-loud illustrations by Peter Ferguson help a great deal.

The plot is decent, as far as plots go. Two orphans, Sabrina and Daphne Grimm, ages 11 and 7, respectively, are on their way to a new foster home in Ferryport (Fairyport), N.Y., where a woman claiming to be their grandmother awaits. Sabrina, an unusually jaded and cynical preteen, immediately dismisses Granny Relda as an eccentric old crackpot and Ferryport an unrelievedly boring backwater town. She is wrong on both accounts: Granny Relda is a direct descendant of Wilhelm Grimm and, as such, is something of a cross between witch and parole officer -- over the inhabitants/inmates of Ferryport, most of whom are Everafters. As the two young Grimms learn, an Everafter is an immortal entity from a fairy tale: they are the actual beings who starred in such well known tales as "Snow White," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Jack & the Beanstalk." Which is good, because Ferryport is about to acquire a very non-imaginary giant problem. Granny Relda is kidnapped by giants almost immediately. It's up to our two trainee fairytale detectives to live up to their Grimm heritage and save the day from all sorts of magical riffraff, from a most uncharming Prince Charming, three not-so-little pigs and a slippery fellow named Jack. Of course, nothing turns out to be quite what it seems....

Despite having action, humor and plot, The Fairy Tale Detectives falls short of being really charming. Part of the problem is that the characters are colorful in a two-dimensional, cartoony way, and it's hard to really like or know any of them. This is particularly true of the Everafters. So many of them make brief, perfunctory cameos, as if to say, "Hello! I am a fractured fairy tale!" but few of them actually have anything interesting to say about that tale. Sabrina's perspective is unrelentingly gloomy, and two interesting characters -- Granny Relda and her enigmatic companion Mr. Canis -- spend most of the book conspicuously absent. Clumsy, inexact prose throughout ("When he tried to pick up the handset, it fumbled in his sweaty hand") is distracting enough to detract from both action and expository scenes.

Still, The Fairy Tale Detectives is a quick read, and a reasonably entertaining one. The interesting setup and dangling threads probably aren't enough to compel me to read its sequels, but I don't regret having read it. The target audience of 9-12 year old readers will probably enjoy the series, though there are plenty of better fractured fairy tales out there. Adult fans of juvenile fantasy are better off sticking with more substantial fare from Philip Pullman and Diana Wynne Jones.

by Jennifer Mo
10 June 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.