The Cockatrice Boys

Joan Aiken

Tor Books. $20.95
(trade paperback $12.95)

Britain is completely infested with monsters: Shovel-tuskers, Basilisks, Flying Hammerheads, Telepods, Cocodrills, Kelpies, the dread Mirkindole, and worse. Trolls now lurk dangerously beneath every bridge (where else?), and everybody knows that if you see a Snark you vanish. After five years, the population is seriously diminished, and people are tired of living underground on nothing but tinned food and tea made from dry grass: "'It's not a case of tightening belts,' says the Provost of Manchester. 'It's got down to eating them.'"

So a group of daring volunteers ride the Cockatrice Belle across England -- carrying supplies to beleaguered cities, fighting off Griffins and Peridexions, and hoping against hope that they can find a way to stop the monstrous invasion. Riding with the Cockatrice Corps are Drummer-boy Dakin Prestwich, his cousin Sauna who can sometimes see things before they happen, Mrs. Churt who stowed away but is a resourceful (and very welcome!) cook, the Archbishop Dr. Wren, and sneaky Tom Flint who won't stay lost.

The Cockatrice Boys has been released as Joan Aiken's "first" fantasy for adults, but don't let that fool you: This book is just as appealing to readers of all ages as her other novels have been. Aiken always entertains with her deadpan presentation of an outrageous plot as ridiculous as it is deadly serious. Her tone ranges from the unsettling ("I saw...not a dog but a face, running on six legs and looking up at me with a nasty grin as it went") to the gently amusing ("Radio contact was presently established from the mayor's electric shaver to Colonel Clipspeak's teakettle..."), with more than a tip of the hat to Lewis Carroll's "The Hunting of the Snark." Only at the very end does her fast and furious pace falter into preachiness, as the archbishop explains (sort of) why the monsters must have invaded.

The Cockatrice Boys has been expanded from a short story of the same name which originally appeared in the anthology Christmas Forever (Tor, 1993). The book also contains several black and white interior illustrations by Jason Van Hollander, which is a nice touch too rarely found in an "adult" novel -- or even a young adult novel, come to that. Publishers should consider doing it a bit more often.


This review copyright 1997 by Wendy Morris

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