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Cook: A silly tale for fans of Middle Earth
Off the Shelves book review
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You can pretty much guess from the title alone: "Muddle Earth," a trilogy of short novels following the adventures of a young boy magically transported to a whimsical world of elves and magical creatures, is largely a parody of the "Lord of the Rings" series by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Yet the world molded by author Paul Stewart and delightfully depicted in illustration by Chris Riddell is a creation all its own, and the story is a fun series of unexpected events with a cast of hilarious and colorful characters (even if two or three are clear imitations of Tolkien's famous Middle Earth inhabitants).

The story revolves around Joe, a regular boy who is dreading writing a paper for school, which he can't seem to do in peace with his noisy family distracting him. While taking his dog Henry for a walk, he is whisked away to the storybook world of Muddle Earth by a bumbling wizard in training, named Randalf — yes, even his illustration looks like a caricature of Gandalf the Gray. Here we also meet Randalf's familiar Veronica, a wise-cracking parakeet (the book refers to her as a "budgie"), and Norbert, a tender-hearted ogre who is Randalf's assistant and cook.

Joe has been summoned to be a "warrior hero," because warrior-heroes happen to be in short supply in Muddle Earth and Randalf believes he can make a few gold coins by being Joe's "manager." It turns out, however, that Muddle Earth is in serious peril from the devious Dr. Cuddles, a sinister mastermind who has kidnapped all the true wizards for his own nefarious plans to overthrow the egocentric Horned Baron and gain control of the land.

Obviously many of the references in this story would only be understood by those who have read "Lord of the Rings," but on its own "Muddle Earth" is entertaining to Tolkien fans and newcomers to the fantasy genre alike. What is particularly fun is watching how all the events in the story, when they seem to start out as random, come full circle and weave together in unpredictable ways, such as the side adventure of a lost silver teaspoon, and the exploits of the Horned Baron having to deal with his domineering wife, Ingrid. We are also introduced to magical flying cabinets, an army of enchanted cutlery, a persnickety dragon and the female warrior Brenda who has a dark secret that only Joe and his companions can help her face.

While all the events of the story are very silly - happy hour at the local goblin taverns means having a pie thrown in your face - they are written brilliantly and with a natural humor that is not over-the-top, even through the circumstances get wild or absurd at times. Stewart and Riddell have woven together a fantastical world, as well as given their characters well-developed relationships to one another.

This is a fun read, and I think even for those who normally do not read fantasy, it is a good novel to introduce them to the genre without being overbearing or too complicated. In particular, this would be a good book for parents to read along with their kids, especially if they're looking for something different but in the same vein of whimsy and magic mayhem as the Harry Potter series.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review runs every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her at to tell her about it.