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Cronan The Librarian by Steve Westcott

01/02/2009. Contributed by Susan Stewart

Buy Cronan The Librarian in the USA - or Buy Cronan The Librarian in the UK

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pub: Soft Editions/Frontier List Books. 319 page enlarged paperback. Price: 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84350-102-2.

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Oh, dear. Steve Westcott is going to wonder why I chose his book to review. Humour is a very subjective thing and it's not Steve's fault that the title 'Cronan the Librarian' made me smile, somewhat wryly, and choose his book. I'm a sucker for puns. Even bad puns.

I should know myself better by now. The title shows what type of book this is and the path it's likely to tread and I admit that it's not a path I usually follow. For example, I chose Robert Rankin's 'The Witches Of Chiswick' on the strength of its title. I think I enjoyed it. I certainly finished it, but I can't remember a thing about it now. I actually avoided Rankin's 'The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies Of The Apocalypse' because I thought it could never live up to its title.

So there's the problem. I expect an enormous amount from books with funny titles. Too much, probably. That's why I'm usually wary about them but I chose this one, so Steve Westcott is stuck with me as his reviewer, for better or worse. Though not until death us do part, luckily.

I forestalled the problem of forgetting it all, though. I made notes. And I wanted to like this novel, I really did. It's about a race of underground dwellers known as the Ogmus. They have been compelled to live beneath a mountain, in a refuge called Hope ('live in Hope'- geddit?) by dragon-riders called the Blackabbots and while they are not literally black or abbots, their dragons are. Black, that is. Black, that is, not abbots. Of course, they are evil.

The mechanics of how and why the Blackabbots came to drive the Ogmus underground are presumably dealt with in the first book. It's only touched on in this one, which is apparently 'Book Two of the Black Dragon Trilogy'. Not having those details isn't a handicap - all that you need to know is that Cronan, librarian to the Ogmus, has spent most of his life trying to decipher a cryptic book. It's a Book of Prophecies (by Nostra-Ogmus, no less) that seems to foretell the return of good dragons to overthrow the black ones and to rescue the Ogmus from their plight. Unfortunately, the book is stolen before Cronan completes the translation and guess who is sent off to find it? That's right. Cronan the Librarian. Plus his assistant, Tobias and it's Tobias who eventually takes the central role, although the title sets up a different expectation. In fairness, I suppose a title like 'Tobias, Assistant To Cronan The Librarian' isn't very catchy.

That's it, really. It's the tale of Tobias's quest (because it does become his quest, not Cronan's) and what happens to him and the people he meets along the way. Because he isn't just Cronan's assistant, he is The One who will help to bring the good dragons back. The good dragons, meanwhile, are trying to fulfil their side of the prophecies, just as you'd hope they would.

Oddly, this novel sometimes felt like one that hadn't been through the wringer of a tough critiquing and editing process. I know that's extremely unlikely given how difficult it is to get published now, but that's how it seemed to me and I found it rather frustrating. It was as if I could see the ghost of what the book could have been. That's why I stopped taking notes after a while: I kept wanting to do line edits. Never mind.

In spite of the ghost-presence of itself, the book is quite funny and trundles along briskly, though some of its paths are well-worn. The black dragons are bad and untrustworthy. They communicate telepathically with their riders. There is a character who is a dwarf, so of course he has a short, hairy wife who looks like a strong-arm wrestler and sounds like a Neanderthal from a 'Carry On' film.

Actually, there is quite a lot of British referencing in this book, so if Meelan is a nod towards the 'Carry On' tradition in general and 'Carry On Cleo' in particular, she works reasonably well. I'm thinking of Snorkel and Meelan as being like Hengist and Senna Pod, by the way, not Antony and Cleopatra. There are American references, too. Dubbing Tobias, the gangly, red-headed assistant librarian, as 'The Terminator' is a nice touch because it means that you get 'The Shermanator' from 'American Pie' thrown in. In fact, reference-spotting can keep you entertained for quite some time.

These homages or 'nods' to successful comedies can be taken a bit too far, though. Finding 'The Two Ronnies Four Candles' sketch put to work as a scene-filler came as bit of a shock. Not a brilliant idea, then, especially as it's a scene that gives itself away too much on the page even though it works brilliantly on screen.

The idiot dragon called Spot was a great success, though. I really liked Spot, right up to the point where he began communicating telepathically, too. In idiot-ese. It's pretty close to the end of the book, fortunately, so it didn't undo all the good work he'd put in up to there. If it had, I might have cried.

The plot develops more or less as you'd expect, with a couple of nice twists. The characters hardly develop at all, but they don't really have to. They're really just cute little machines that the puns and the slapstick work on. They work pretty well, too, but despite all that and the cliff-hanger ending, I don't feel inclined to read the third book or to go back and find the first.

This second book of the series can stand alone and, for me, it will. I didn't actively dislike it, though elements of it (the female characters, especially) made me cringe. If you can just consume it like popcorn, it probably works and I'm sure that there are plenty of people who will enjoy it. It's just that I can't put my hand on my heart and say that I did.

Susan Stewart

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