Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wednesday, October 1, 2014: Kids' Maximum Shelf: The Accidental Highwayman

Tor: Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp

Tor: Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp

Tor: Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp

Tor: Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp

The Accidental Highwayman

by Ben Tripp

Ben Tripp's funny, wise and suspenseful first novel for young people, The Accidental Highwayman, takes readers through the perilous paths of 18th-century stagecoaches, riddled with bandits and populated by faeries.

Tripp admits in an opening "Editor's Note" to discovering the jottings of Kit Bristol, the tale's narrator, in an old sea chest that belonged to one of his ancestors, unopened for 150 years. Kit--whose full name is Christopher Bristol--recounts his youthful adventures with the benefit of hindsight. As an orphan taken in by Master James Rattle, Kit discovers that his master doubles as the notorious highwayman Whistling Jack. But there's nothing accidental about him. No, the title refers to then 16-year-old Kit, who rides to get help for his injured master on the man's majestic black horse, Midnight, and is mistaken for Whistling Jack. Unable to save Master Rattle, Kit receives from the man a legacy: a strange map that he can't make sense of, his French bulldog, Demon, and, of course, his horse, Midnight.

Along the way, Tripp explains the odd workings of the British aristocracy. James Rattle, as the third son of a wealthy and influential lord, nonetheless had no claim to his father's estate, and therefore resorted to this strange vocation (robbing the rich by night). Kit finds himself pulled into that life out of necessity--his horse and boots are identifiable as his master's and he has no other means of income.

His master's dying wish is for Kit to travel to the deepest part of Kingsmire Forest, to an old witch who'll keep Rattle's beloved French bulldog safe while Kit goes on a quest of the woman's making--a mission left incomplete by his master. Along the way, Kit has many adventures, the first of which is an encounter with the Princess Morgana, daughter of a human mother and the Faerie King, who has promised her to King George III. Kit, who never knew Faeries existed, accepts the help of Faeries Willum and Gruntle in order to free Princess Morgana. Alas, she lets him know in no uncertain terms that she has no further need of him. She is proven wrong. (A wonderful, humorous scene depicts Kit rescuing the royal from certain death in a bull's pen.)

Kit had a previous life as a trick-rider in a circus. His skills on horseback are what first attracted Master Rattle, and they serve the teen well now. Kit's path becomes entangled with one of his friends from that era, Lily the high-rope dancer. Her Uncle Cornelius has an "extraordinary conveyance" that they use as a "cover" to further their mission, sneaking into towns and eluding the Goblings of the Faery world. Fred the baboon also joins up from their former circus life.

The author combines all the elements of farce, yet achieves a highbrow blend of literary mystery, buoyed by clever use of language and Old-World 18th-century English locution. At one point Kit says, "Forgive my pride: Respectability is like wine. It goes straight to the head of one who hasn't had it before." The hero gets pulled into a world of Faeries he never knew (or believed) existed, and receives lessons from Willum and Gruntle on the pecking order within the world of magic, and on the Eldritch Law, a code of ethics that guides the magical creatures.

Tripp's deliciously drawn villains include Captain Sterne, who hates Whistling Jack because his fiancée fell in love with the brigand, and who's obsessed with capturing him, and a one-eyed pirate duchess, whose soul was captured by the Faerie King and resorts to true horror tactics in an attempt to capture the Princess Morgana. And at times the Princess Morgana is her own worst enemy.

How Kit deals with these situations shows readers his true nature--kindness and integrity prevail. He is an orphan with no special talents (save for trick-riding), yet in each situation, he does the right thing. His constant questioning of himself (does he really love the princess or is he merely enchanted by her--literally?) endears him to readers. And his sense of humor about his inexperience and naïveté telegraphs his compassion for his less experienced self. His voice comes through as a mix of intelligence and naïveté, wonder and understanding. And his command of language puts readers in mind of a time when words were used more precisely. (Footnotes define archaic words and contraptions; these never intrude, but rather illuminate the goings on. One example is the delectable word "slubberdegullion," which means "all-around wretch, completely without virtue.")

While this novel comes to a rousing, thoroughly resounding close, two more books will star Kit and his further adventures. --Jennifer M. Brown

Tor Teen, $17.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 12-18, 9780765335494, October 14, 2014

Tor: Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp

Ben Tripp: "You Choose Your Own Adventure"

photo: Tanya McClure

Ben Tripp describes growing up in a household where "fairytales were stock in trade," as the son of children's book illustrator Wallace Tripp (best known for his artwork on Peggy Parish's Amelia Bedelia books). "I grew up immersed in all this stuff, faeries and pixies, and reading Tolkien at an age when I could still be frightened by it," he explains. As the author of horror books for adults, Tripp shifts gears quite dramatically for his first YA novel, The Accidental Highwayman (Tor Teen, October), about 16-year-old Kit Bristol, mistaken for his master, a notorious brigand. Tripp and his wife live in California.

How did you decide to write a book for young people?

I wrote the book as a whimsical outburst as a response to writing a horror novel [for adults]. I thought, "I can write this jolly story." It didn't have any "language" in it, because it wasn't required, and it didn't have grisly bits because Kit wouldn't have described that kind of thing; it turned out to be completely suitable to YA.

What was the genesis for The Accidental Highwayman?

I had the premise, the idea of a young fellow stumbling into the role of a highwayman and then into the world of magic and the rescue and all that, but I didn't know what all the incidents would be--sort of like the Nicholas Nickleby type story: the moment you move somewhere else, you have a new subplot.

I come from screenwriting originally, where plotting is absolutely rigorous. The minimum shooting unit is an eighth of a page, and the writing is more like haiku than prose. It's a different form, and you have 90 pages to tell any story, from the end of the world to the Bible. You need colossal discipline. In a novel, you can wander off for a while and you can come back, and you haven't broken it. You can take the room you need.

Some of your drawings appear in the book. What was that like for you?

Somewhere about halfway through writing a novel, I get sick of it, so what I'll do is draw the cover. I'll go into Photoshop and do the type and the drawing, and then it looks like a real book and then I'll finish it. Writing is 1/10 writing the story and 9/10 convincing yourself it's true.

I didn't really envision illustrating it. Then I thought I should illustrate it because then it would be a true adventure story, like the Wyeth storybooks. This represented a happy collision of interests. My father liked the drawings for this book. He's an actual genius, so I never pursued illustration as a course.

We loved Kit's voice and command of language, with words like "slubberdegullian"--which is a real word, we discovered.

Kit's voice emerged whole, in a lot of ways. A person like him would speak in a particular way. He's writing this as an older person, looking back at his naïveté in a lovely, nonjudgmental way.

We've put up a Web site with a glossary of lesser-known words, obsolete words, then words more advanced than a typical YA book--which arises from the fact that I didn't know who I was writing the book for. [The designer of the web site] keeps thinking I've made things up--like slubberdegullian--so I've had to prove it. It's fun, 'cause I get to write my own definitions for words like tatterdemalion and galligaskins. The use of "tharn," the whole thing about the Feyín, that etymology is completely made up. We talked about this when we were doing the audio book with Steve West, a lovely English actor. He and I were in correspondence about exactly the stuff you're talking about: What is this word? How is it pronounced? And did you make it up? Just because I can write it doesn't mean it can be said.

Where will Kit go next?

In the second book, you get to go to Faerie. That takes things in another direction. There was a tradition in the 18th century where novels take you in other directions and then describe them. The only one surviving is Gulliver's Travels. They'd go to Africa and come back and tell people what they'd seen and it was usually a pack of lies, of course. I'm taking that tradition and cheerfully updating it.

And how did you come up with the Eldritch Law?

I'd be in hard shape if someone were to ask me to publish the Eldritch Law, because I wrote the bits that I thought of, and assigned them chapters and pages and things. The faeries are forbidden from kissing or they're considered to be married, which complicates things. That's a norm, whereas the fact that they're rendered senseless in the presence of water is more a question of their biology. But it all falls under the category of Eldritch Law.

The Red (Blind) Duchess is such a fascinating villain. To take her soul seems like the worst sort of punishment.

There was a passage I'd taken out because I thought it was too scary and weird, and I put it back in--the scene with the phantalorum and the looking glass. That's true horror. The duchess is a mad pirate and has no reservations about anything. Fitting her into the book is a challenge. You have to treat the scenes carefully or they're out of bounds of the genre.

When I worked at Disney Imagineering [designing theme parks for five years], there was a huge reference library; they'd taken Walt Disney's personal library into this larger library. There was a 17th-century book on piracy. It had a library card pasted into it, and had been taken out by four people: two animators, me and Walt Disney. I think I memorized the entire book. These were real pirates, not Pirates of the Caribbean. The duchess is a distillation of all of them. You read about Blackbeard and what he really did, and we're getting into all of it but the bits about the burning at the stake and the burning shoes. You wonder, "What on earth would make you behave like that? You couldn't have a soul and do that." And that's where the duchess came from.

Do you believe in Destiny? Free will? That we can alter our destiny through choice? That's a big debate in this book. Is the map altering Kit's destiny? Or is Kit altering the map?

According to quantum physicists, time has all already happened. From that standpoint, there is no free will. On the other hand, they also say there are an infinite number of outcomes. All will occur. If you look at it that way, you choose your own adventure. In your life, you're born into certain circumstances, you overcome them or you don't, you make peace with the things you can't change, and you win or lose. At the end of it, other people decide whether it was fate or not. In fact, I think writers do that. That's our job: we decide what was fate and what wasn't.

Kit's a good example of that. He's a variation on the theme of the orphan with a mighty destiny; he's just some guy who's good with horses. But he chooses to engage with every event that comes to him, and in doing so forges an unusual fate for himself. What if you aren't somebody special, what do you do then? If you rise to the occasion, maybe you are somebody special after all. --Jennifer M. Brown

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