Gollancz, p/b, 224pp, Â£8.99
Reviewed by Martin Willoughby
(WARNING! Spoilers in the review)
Iâ€™ve admired Mitch Bennâ€™s comedy routines and songs on BBC Radio 4â€™s The Now Show for some years, so I was eager to read this book and see if his humour translates to the written word. It does…mostly.
The opening is witty and full of the tension that a good comedian builds before hitting you with the punchline, while the rest of the book follows suit. But itâ€™s not just a comedy, itâ€™s also a satire on humanity, discrimination and society. It has its weaknesses, the end of the war for one, but on the whole itâ€™s a book I can recommend, and can be read by children as well as adults.
Comedy is difficult to write well and very few writers manage to keep the laughs coming on every page. Most, thankfully, donâ€™t try, filling their books with moments of pathos, unlikely heroism and tenderness. Mitch Benn hasnâ€™t tried to make us laugh with every sentence, but has told a story with laugh out loud moments, while making observations about humanity and society without preaching.
The main character is a girl called Terra who was unwittingly kidnapped as a baby from Earth by Lbbp, a Fnrrn who was surveying the planet Rrth (their spelling) and caused an accident with her parents. He brought her back with him and raised her as his own child as an act of mercy.
Mlml is the nation Lbbp and Terra call home and is based around the study of science. The people in charge are the scientists, who guide the politicians to make the correct decisions. The politicians, who are very much in the background here, are people whose sole aim is to make themselves look good and get re-elected.
The first half of the book tells of Terraâ€™s first day at the Academy, her incident with a learning device that results in her hair catching fire (no one else on Fnrr has hair) and the friends she makes, most of whom accept her despite her alienness.Â Itâ€™s funny, warm and satirical in equal measure.
Then the war starts. The Gâ€™grk are a nation in the centre of the continent who are regarded as savages, bent on conquest. They promote and idealise honour, valour and war while repudiating science (think Klingons without technology). What technology they do have has been stolen. Despite this, no war has occurred on Fnrr for several generations, but now the Gâ€™grk are on the march and they quickly conquer everyone.
Benn tells of the heroism of some people, none of which comes as a complete surprise as he has built the characters up very well. The Grand Marshal of the Gâ€™grk wants to see the alien child.
This is where it gets awkward as the ending does come as a complete surprise and seems unreal. Terra starts singing, the Marshal hears beauty, talks about prophecy and ends the war. It was disappointing, but could have been made more acceptable with a bit more work earlier.
The war ends, the Marshal retires and negotiations take place that may result in the Gâ€™grk being given technology and given the role of protecting the planet.
At this point, Terra wants to go to Earth and returns with Lbbp. Iâ€™ll leave the rest of the story to Mitch Benn.
(END OF SPOILER ALERT)
The very last chapter was a surprise, but a satisfying one and not something that hadnâ€™t been presaged earlier.
Most heartening of all, book two is already on its way and I canâ€™t wait for it.