Reviews: The Fan: Oliver and the Sea Wigs and Journey to the West


fan-200by Carole McDonnell

Oliver and the SeaWigs By Philip Reeve, 2014, Random House BFYR Age range 7-10 years 208 pages ISBN: 978-0385387880
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Okay, this is a kid’s book — a middle reader chapter book. I read it and loved it. And because it doesn’t fit into next month’s review of YA fantasy I felt it belonged here.


Philip Reeve writes wonderful steampunk YA novels but this is the first Middle reader of his that I’ve read. Even so, Oliver and the Seawigs made me laugh out loud several times. I highly recommend it for kids aged seven to fourteen. It is the story of young Oliver Crisp. Oliver has lived all his life with explorer parents and at last time has come for the family to settle down in their unused house by the sea. But as luck would have it, Oliver’s folks see some nearby islands badly in need of exploring. The urge to discover new things takes over and the next thing you know, they have disappeared. Oliver is now stuck with the task of finding them.

He sets sail. Along the way, he meets Iris, a plump near-sighted mermaid, a snooty albatross, some sea monkeys, a mopey disheartened island, and some very cynical sneery weeds among other sea-things. The name of the weeds will be withheld in this review because their introduction into the story is one of the best wordplay ever. If you know a child who likes British tongue-in-cheek humor, get this book for her.

The worldbuilding is spot on. It borrows from what we know of the world but manages to play with it in such a way that kids, whatever their knowledge of sea-lore, will understand. Oliver accepts the oppressed, outcasts, and rejected without making a big deal about it. He’s plucky but not overly-perfect. The female mermaid character is strong but not stereotypically so, and the found family created by our cast of eccentrics are worthy heroes to follow as they save the world because, they are only dimly-aware that they are saving the world. And the villain and his name issues are a hoot.

The whole idea of sea-wigs is hilarious and one will never be able to look at an island in the same way after one discovers what sea-wigs are. The book is full of humorous illustrations which fit perfectly with the funny narrative. Highly-recommended. (Oh my! Writing this review makes me want to reread the book again.)

journey-300wJourney to the West (Chinese, Hong Kong) 2013 fantasy. Directed by Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok. Based on a Chinese literary classic written by Wu Cheng’en.

As Journey to the West: Conquering the demons begins, a vicious sea demon is attacking some fishing folk. In such a situation, the most important person to have around is a demon hunter. (This is a Chinese fantasy film, after all.) And a demon hunter just happens to come around. Well, actually, several demon hunters happen to be around. Demon hunters abound in this film.

After a long heart-racing battle with the sea demon, one demon hunter, Chen Xuan Zang — a demon-hunter who looks like a refugee from a hippie commune — has apparently triumphed and now the demon has been transformed back to its human form. (In some Asian religions and folklore, a demon is a human being who died while holding a grudge.) And this demon is sitting naked before our demon hunter ready to be exorcized. But instead of doing what we folks in the west would expect of a demon hunter, our hero begins singing healing nursery rhymes. He has been taught by his Master that no one is fully evil. Therefore, bringing healing to the wounded hearts of demons is the truly Buddhist thing to do. The look the demon gives him is priceless.

A female demon hunter arrives just in time to save our Chen from the demon’s beatdown. She’s Duan, and she’s tough-talking, filthy, and now that she’s met Chen she is deeply in love. Oh, did I say she was filthy? Yes, she is. Everyone in this film is messy looking. I loved that. This is not pretty Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon rarefied world. Chen resists Duan’s overtures because he seeks a higher love. But she is determined to get his love. Luckily so, because she is always there to save him from demons he’s hunting.

The movie is hilarious, dark, and sweetly pious. It’s Buddhist to the core and it all works. The hero’s piety is perfectly interwoven with the story elements and worldbuilding. Even without the comedic scenes, the story doesn’t feel preachy at all. The female demon hunter is typical of the easy feminism one finds in martial arts and wuxia films: she’s just out to save the world from evil and find true love… Highly recommended. A good fun flick.

Carole McDonnell is the author of The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.

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