This book is gorgeous. I knew as soon as I picked it up that it had to be mine. And it didn’t disappoint.
Conn Iggulden is best known for his Dangerous Book for Boys, a 2007 runaway bestseller that counteracts today’s culture of overprotected children by suggesting “dangerous” activities they might engage in. Tollins, published in 2009, follows suit. A Tollin is like a fairy, except bigger and not as fragile. And by “not as fragile,” Iggulden means that they can be used as an ingredient in fireworks, with non-lethal results. Fairies are actually used and abused by Tollins throughout these stories. It feels wrong to laugh at “fairy cushions” and “fairy handkerchiefs,” which are not cushions and handkerchiefs made BY fairies, but rather actual squashed and snotty fairies. At the same time, well, fairies have had their day. These stories are about Tollins, and if a few fairies get crushed in the making, it’s hard to be too broken up about it.
Tollins have always led idyllic lives, drinking nectar in the summer and waiting out the winter in underground tunnels. But when their way of life is threatened by the arrival of a train station, fireworks factory, and other developing human innovations, they must find a way to cope with the changing world. The book is made up of three stories, all starring a Tollin named Sparkler who dares break the First Law of Tollins: don’t speak to humans. Granted, what Sparkler says to humans involves the fact that it is not strictly necessary to use Tollins as ingredients in fireworks, but this still gets him in a bit of trouble with the High Tollin. For such short stories, there manages to be a good deal of adventure, cunning, and humor packed in.
What I like most about these stories is the fact that Sparkler is an aspiring scientist and solves his problems using the scientific method, as well as a fair degree of trial and error. In learning what makes fireworks colorful, how to cure gout (without amputation), the mechanics of travel by hot air balloon, and harnessing steam power, Iggulden essentially creates a second industrial revolution on a much smaller scale. I enjoyed watching the Tollins grapple with technology and scientific theories that previously had no place in their lives. It’s not often you get to watch fairy-like creatures engaging in scientific thought and debate.
The illustrations are marvelously done and add an important element to the stories. Some combine enlarged photographs with drawings of Tollins, providing a sense of scale. There are maps and diagrams, too, along with a final illustration that delighted me (though to say why would ruin the surprise). The illustrations are what sold me on this book from the moment I opened it, though I’m glad to say the writing was a pleasure as well, making the book is all-around entertaining read.
Here’s an excerpt, to give you a flavor:
Small Tillets were still told the tale of the Tollin who wrestled an apple off a tree and dropped it on the head of a young man sleeping below. The young man’s name was Isaac Newton and, as a result, he discovered gravity. […] Just taking that book had been an enormous risk. After all, the first Tollin law was that no one spoke to humans. It always led to trouble, or sometimes gravity. (21-22)
Recommended for intermediate readers, reluctant readers, parents, and everyone else who likes their magical fantasy worlds mixed with a dose of reality and lots of tongue-in-cheek humor. I would love to see more stories of Sparkler and his Tollin friends in the future!