Monday, October 29, 2007


Book Report

Just a brief note this time out, before the silence descends. I'm still winding my way through GRRM's A Clash of Kings, but in the evenings I've been working my way through James Gurney's Dinotopia series, starting with the original Dinotopia and ending with the most recent offering.

As I think I mentioned a little while back, I picked up the first Dinotopia book shortly after it was published, and it knocked my socks off. There was something about the way it treated something clearly fantastically in such a frank, straightforward manner that reminded me of Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet's Gnomes books, which I'd obsessed over years before. At the time it didn't occur to me that Dinotopia was being marketed as a children's book, just that it was a book with a broad all-ages appeal that would have ripped the top of my head open if I'd encountered it as a kid.

Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time

Rereading Dinotopia now, a decade and a half later, I think it holds up brilliantly. And I look forward to introducing Georgia to it, when she gets a bit older. It's in the loving little details that the work really shines, the little textual glosses to the illustrations that don't even get mentioned in the accompanying narrative. But the narrative itself, ostensibly reproduced from Arthur Denison's travel journal, stands nicely on its own, as well, a Lost Worlds adventure in the grandest sense. And while the style may lack some of the color or poetry of the imagery, which carries most of the water here, it suits perfectly the somewhat uptight Victorian scientist.

Dinotopia: The World Beneath

A few years later I picked up the second entry in the series Dinotopia: The World Beneath. While I pored over the images, though, looking through it carefully, at the time I don't think I actually read the text, for reasons that escape me now. My reading this week was the first time to properly go through the book, then. This second installment continues the adventures of Arthur Denison and his son Will, this time picking up threads introduced in the first volume, and returning Denison to the titular world beneath the island of Dinotopia, where they find the remains of a lost superscientific culture. Storywise, this is great stuff, and the images and textual glosses are every bit as engrossing as in the first book. The narrative, though, perhaps suffers a bit from being written in a straight third-person narrative, instead of the limited first-person of the first book. Rather that the text being an object of this world, just like the images supposedly painted by Denison's own hand, the text here is a more traditional third-person narrative, told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. Things that worked well in the voice of Denison's journal have a tendency not to work as well here, or perhaps to be fairer it works, but to a different effect. This is much more clearly a work intended for children, it seems, rather than the more all-ages appeal of the first installment. There's a lot to love here, but I felt at times as if I were eavesdropping, as though I wasn't part of the intended audience.

Dinotopia: First Flight

A few years ago I picked up a second-hand copy of Dinotopia: First Flight online, having somehow missed it when it was first released, but I read it for the first time this last week, having not even had much opportunity to look through the images before now. This is the most clearly juvenile of the series, but works excellently on those terms. With a brief framing sequence that sets the narrative up as a legend read by young Will Denison, the story itself is set at the height of the superscience culture Arthur Denison discovered in the previous book. There's some clear nature vs. technology dichotomy at work, as the hero, a student at a flight school where pilots control mechanical drones by remote control, leaves his superscience home and strikes out into the more naturalistic world beyond, befriending a host of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, finally becoming the first pterosaur-rider. The book also includes a board game, worked into the cover itself, which I'm looking forward to testing out with Georgia when she's a few years older.

Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara

Finally, the latest installment, Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. This is something of a return to form, with the narrative again being a journal in Arthur Denison's own voice. But more than that, this is certainly the best book in the series since the first, and arguably the best overall. The narrative seems surer, the images somehow richer and more details. And the level of invention is nothing short of brilliant. The Fibonacci Gardens, where the structure of seedpods and flowers contains hidden mathematical laws. The Saurian Tree, carefully cultivated over generations to represent the phylogenetic structure of the entire dinosaur order. The Celestial Navigator of the township of Bilgewater, a community made of repurposed Pilgrim sailing ships, now ready to sail off into the heavens when the last trumpet sounds.

Accompanying Denison's journal are all of his sketches and paintings, complete with textual glosses, as in the earlier books. But in addition, Gurney has incorporated something little used in the earlier installments, but used here to phenomenal effect: the architectural cut-away. I was reminded of David Macaulay's series of architectural books (Castle, Cathedral, Pyramid, etc) that I obsessed over as a kid. Gurney may have done this sort of thing once or twice in the earlier installments, but if he did they didn't make much impression, even just a week later. But in Journey to Chandara he does it again and again, each time with a lovingly obsessive amount of detail. We get the interior layout of one of the Bilgewater ships-cum-buildings, the layout of the mountaintop city of Thermala, the interior of one of the Seated Colossi (complete with the brown-stains running down the outside where the privy hole runs out), and an amazingly detailed look at a windmill.

Journey to Chandara is a true all-ages book, perfectly suitable for younger readers but with a great deal with which to reward old fogeys, as well. And the production quality on the present edition is unassailable, with the boards bound in a faux-dinosaur-hide pattern, with a ribbon book-mark bound in, and a detailed map of Chandara printed on the reverse of the dust jacket. If the previous (and now out of print) installments in the series are reissued in editions like this, I'd be seriously tempted to pick them up in new editions, just to have the complete set.

In reading the series all in one go, I was somewhat surprised to see all of the locales visited in the later installments included in the maps of Dinotopia in that very first book. And looking at the map again now, I can see that there are still a fair number of places still unvisited. I can only begin to imagine the amount of work that must go into one of these projects, hundreds of pages of fully painted images, to say nothing of the kind of research and design that must be involved. But I hope that it doesn't take too long, and hope that Gurney is already at work on the next installment, because I'd love to take another dip into his world.


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