What is it about children’s fantasy lit that attracted two of Canada’s comedy writers and performers? A cynic would say it’s the urge to cash in on the success of J.K. Rowling et al. But there’s another element that dominates former This Hour Has 22 Minutes writer Edward Kay’s first novel for children and comedian Seán Cullen’s fourth, one that testifies to their backgrounds in television. These two new novels are highly visual, and play out as if onscreen, emphasizing physical appearances and relying on familiar stereotypes and special effects. In The Prince of Neither Here Nor There, the first book in Cullen’s new series, Brendan Clair, plagued by all the zits, smells, and clumsiness possible in adolescence, finds the spiral scar on his chest flaring in agony when he is confronted by a “breathtaking, terrifyingly radiant” woman playing otherwordly music on a harp. She tells him he is a Faerie who has been adopted by humans. (Cullen distinguishes “Faeries” from “fairies,” which, the narrator tells us, are “ineffectual little things that flit about in children’s stories.”) Brendan denies his true identity at first, but a fast-paced chase through Toronto with his school friend Kim, a Faerie guardian, introduces him to the trolls, kobolds, and silkies of the city’s subway and harbour, and goes some way toward convincing him. Not until he ends up on Ward’s Island in the Swan of Liir pub (strikingly similar to Rowling’s Leaky Cauldron) does he accept his destiny, and realize that it is up to him to repair the rift between the human and Faerie worlds. His complexion clear and his many Faerie powers evident, he returns home prepared for whatever awaits him in the next book in the series. Prince is an uneasy mix of dumb adolescent humour (body odour, pants-wetting, jaunty footnotes from the narrator), the overblown grandiosity of epic fantasy (“I have wrought a Sending”; “the tone was fell and it throbbed with power”), and cliché (“her voice was irresistible as a hurricane, as inevitable as an earthquake”; eyes “blue as sapphires”; “his feet weighed a ton”). The prose is often startlingly banal, especially where characters’ feelings are concerned. Cullen clearly gets a kick out of describing Toronto and its environs and peopling it with animated action figures, but his lack of flexibility and originality as a writer is daunting. And although I myself appreciate a Deirdre who is “tall and dire” with a “gorgeous face,” an author who reveals that he is using his son’s name for his hero, then claims that the hero thinks “his father [is] just about the coolest person in the world,” is being a bit squirm-worthy. Vivid characters and playful language are more in evidence in Edward Kay’s STAR Academy. Amanda Forsythe is an 11-year-old genius, and when her photon-sail space travel project is mocked at the science fair, she’s shattered. But then she’s offered a place in a school she’s never heard of before – the Superior Thinking and Advanced Research (STAR) Academy. After some initial hesitation, her parents allow her to enroll in this elite boarding school, and Amanda is soon working with her team to win the school challenge to “investigate the nature of synapses in the human brain and suggest a means of blocking the ones associated with memories.” Amanda and her friends gradually realize that the school’s eccentric headmistresses, Leitspied and Oppenheimer, are aliens whose aim is anything but benign. The students have to resort to ancient methods such as carrier pigeons and smoke signals – not to mention plain old courage – to free an imprisoned classmate and foil the aliens’ plan. Kay has his moments of body humour (references to Uranus and a five-page riff on vegetable-beef-soup-smelling B.O. among them) and his own crew of conventional characters – such as a couple of buffoon cops and A-list student Eugenia Asperger, who is always surrounded by sycophants. But his interest is in his heroes’ courage and enterprising intellects, and his long, calm sentences, if somewhat abstract in vocabulary and distant in tone, show an affectionate respect for his readers. A phrase such as “this riotous collection of mouth-watering scents gave her the appetite of a Dickensian waif in a workhouse” doesn’t have pizzazz, but it does have character. Although Kay’s plot is thin, the very notion of a collection of young geniuses able to outstrip adults in their knowledge of quantum physics is cheering. But in the end, we are still left with something more televisual than literary. Both Cullen and Kay emphasize situation comedy and costume. More noticeably, their prose often tells instead of showing, and is chock full of passages that read like stage directions. Telling us that a character “radiates subtle strength, authority and power,” as Cullen writes of one Faerie, may give an actor something to go on, but it ducks the real work of storytelling, which is to convey implicitly – through dialogue, action, and imagery – everything that is beneath the surface. Such are the true special effects of literature.
Comedian Seán Cullen’s many stage and screen credits include the CBC’s Seán Cullen Show and Seán Cullen’s Home for Christmas Special, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, the Showcase series Slings and Arrows, and the Toronto stage production of The Producers. He is the winner of three Gemini awards. Seán is also a member of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival Acting Company.