Eva Whippoorwill and Sven Beaver always wanted a cub (what all young plush are called regardless of species), but the Environmental Ministry (the agency responsibly for creating the Cub List) never saw fit to grant their wish.
One day while working in the forest on the edge of Lanceheim (one of the four districts which comprises Mollisan Town) Sven finds a small creature, alone and crying. It’s obviously a young boy, but Sven can’t quite identify what kind of plush animal he is. Knowing he won’t survive alone in the forest, Sven takes the young one home where he is named Maximilian and formally adopted by Sven and Eva.
It quickly becomes apparent that Maximilian is not like any other plush animal. His covering, for example, is a strangely smooth, pale material devoid of seams. Maximilian also grows as he ages, something no other animal does since they come from the factory fully made. He is also wise beyond his years and, over time, begins speaking only in similes and parables.
When his teachings begin to gain him followers hungry for an alternative to the harsh constructs of Mollisan Town’s orthodox church, it is only a matter of time before those desperate to hold on to their authority resort to extreme measures to silence Maximilian.
Elsewhere in Lanceheim, celebrated composer Reuben Walrus learns he has Drexler’s syndrome, a degenerative disease which is poised to rob him of his hearing. He’s told he only has about three weeks before he’s completely deaf. Understandably dismayed at the prospect of never hearing music or composing again, Reuben beings a quest to find the mysterious Maximilian, who is rumored to have healing powers, in hopes his hearing can be restored. What Reuben doesn’t anticipate is that before he can find Maximilian he will first have to find himself.
Easily the most ambitious of the three Mollisan Town books to date, Lanceheim is a challenging read. Unfortunately, part of that challenge is literal. Lanceheim is presented in two parallel narratives. Reuben’s story is presented from his point of view, while Maximilian’s story is told by his official Recorder, Wolf Diaz, who also happens to be Maximilian’s friend since childhood and most loyal acolyte. And this presents my only minor quibble with the book. Not only did the story alternate between the two narratives, but Maximilian’s was not told in a strictly linear manner. Alternating narratives would have been fine in and of themselves, but the added jumping around in time in Maximilian’s portion of the story made the book a bit more disjointed than I would have preferred.
Lanceheim is also challenging thematically, but in this the book excels. Maximilian is obviously a messiah-like figure, and the conflict between him and his “new religion” and the established ways of Mollisan Town’s orthodox church is used to examine the concepts of where one’s faith really comes from, as well as how it holds up when challenged. Should faith be absolute and unquestioning, as the church demands? Or, since by definition faith requires belief in things which cannot be proven, is doubt actually a necessary component of true faith, as Maximilian contends? Those who are not particularly religious may find the extensive exploration of the concepts of faith and doubt to be a bit too much, especially coming from plush animals.
On the other hand, one may actually find it less intimidating and more accessible to explore those themes in the plush animals’ world of Mollisan Town than in a book with human characters or a work of non-fiction. The search for hope, the desire to have faith, to believe that one’s life has purpose and means something, these are universal concepts and author Tim Davys has tackled them in a fresh, creative way. And then just so you don’t forget we are in the dark world of Mollisan Town, Davys takes the entire premise of the book, turns it on its ear and asks, “And then what do you do if everything you thought you knew to be true, wasn’t?” The result is an absolute gut punch of an ending that I honestly did not see coming until it was too late. Powerful stuff, especially coming from stuffed animals.
Lanceheim is available from Harper (ISBN: 978-0425238691).
Coming Friday, a visit to Tourquai. And for anyone who may have gotten a bit spooked by the premise of Lanceheim don’t worry, there are cops and criminals and murder and mayhem galore in Tourquai.