Sunday, May 19, 2013

Erasmus Hobart and the Golden Arrow by Andrew Fish

Middle school teacher, Erasmus Hobart, creates a successful time machine. He travels to medieval times to meet Robin Hood and see if he really existed. Erasmus bungles his arrival and unwittingly upsets the legend-in-progress, dangerously changing history if he can't put things right. Swashbuckling, thieving, and a lot of running ensues.

Andrew Fish's literary hero is Douglas Adams. That is either a cause for concern or celebration because it either boils down to utter pain or mild joy for the reader. I am so pleased to say that Fish mostly succeeds in his goal and I hope he continues to mine that vein for some time.

If you are expecting similar subject matter to the Hitchhiker books, you're out of luck. However, if you have an open mind about what can be done with the flippant, yet laser-like insight of Adams, you're in for a good time. Fish's hero, Erasmus Hobart, is a middle school history and physics (little mind-boggly there) teacher at an all-boys school in present-day England. He's a product of the system and has a weary affection for the antics of his prepubescent students. As a former bullied child, he takes smug pleasure in thwarting the swaggering sandwich-smashing upstarts, sometimes with a well-aimed board eraser, while also trying to teach the hapless victims not to further their miseries with kick-worthy comments. I took a lot more glee in these bits than I probably should have - in America this screams litigation - and the book is full of these kinds of small incisive details that creates instant empathy with the characters.

I haven't read many time-travel novels, but the science-y stuff is kept to a minimum. Fish and Erasmus' real passion is history. What really happened? Who were these people who have come down in history as pure heroes and pure villains? What role did they play in directing the course of history? These are the questions that Erasmus needs answered. So he builds a time machine from an interesting resource on the school grounds. Being a thoughtful and respectful modern citizen, he is very cognizant of the major possible repercussions of his intrusion into the past and he tries to keep his paddle out of the river of time.

As any viewer of any iteration of Star Trek knows, this is totally not possible. The ripple effects of his first trip don't appear lasting, but his next visit sets off a chain of events he is hard-pressed to make right. His adventures in the Middle Ages are unequivocally hilarious and charming. The large cast of characters are varied and well-defined, a feat in such a pacey and fun read. It's pretty obvious that we are mostly seeing the benevolent side of a harsh time in history, but I appreciated Fish's big-picture insight into how what we now consider legends motivated important actions that led to, among others, the Magna Carta and the formation of Parliament. It's a subtle but powerful message that one person can influence a people to think and move towards progress and justice. How's that for a light fantasy read? Overall, Fish keeps it that way, although Erasmus can sound a bit like a teacher.

Fish also has excellent command of making the absurd plausible. It helps that the book is about Robin Hood and time travel. I think this book will appeal to those that appreciate British humor - it's occasionally a bit dry and bitter with a streak of cheerful c'est la vie. Erasmus is adorkable and a lot braver than he gives himself credit for. Erasmus Hobart's appeal can be appreciated by male and female YA readers who enjoy whimsy and humor in their fantasy. I hope there are many of them out there so we can find more by this author soon.

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