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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"The Bestiary" by Nicholas Christopher

Official Nicholas Christopher Website
Order “The BestiaryHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

Ever since the overwhelming success of Dan Brown’sThe Da Vinci Code” (2003), there’s been a spate of similar-themed thrillers/mysteries that have been released, including James Rollins’Map of Bones”, “The Testament” by Eric Van Lustbader, Ian Caldwell’sThe Rule of Four” and countless others. Based on first impressions you could probably throw “The Bestiary” into that mix, but that would be doing the book a disservice since the latest work of fiction by Nicholas Christopher, who’s also put out four novels, eight volumes of poetry and a non-fiction on film noir, is a much superior and different breed of book.

Starting in the Bronx, sometime in the 1950s/60s, we’re introduced to protagonist Xeno Atlas who, through a first-person narrative, revisits his childhood, including his estranged relationship with a father that is never home, a mother that he never knew, a spiritual grandmother who passes on to him her affinity & love for animals, and the Morettis who were as close to a traditional family as he ever had. From there, readers will join Xeno as he attends a boarding school in Maine, experiments with drugs & love, gets drafted into the Vietnam War, and embarks on a quest for the legendary Caravan Bestiary that spans centuries and the globe, including Hawaii, Paris, Italy, Africa and Greece…

Combining a coming-of-age tale with historical information, animal mythology and a dash of the supernatural, “The Bestiary” is a fascinating novel that delivers on many different levels. For instance, if you love characters that are sincere, easy to relate to and emotionally complex, then there’s plenty of that to be found in “The Bestiary”. And I’m not just talking about Xeno who is a wonderfully wrought main character, full of personality and haunted by inner demons. I’m also referring to the many supporting players, such as the MorettisBruno, Lena, etc., Xeno’s nanny Evgènia, his history teacher Cletis Hood, and others who each have their own touching tale to share. In truth, the book sometimes verges on the desolate for the characters, but when something positive does happen, it’s made all the more poignant because of the hard times they’ve had to go through.

On the other hand, if you appreciate the more scholarly aspects of literature, then “The Bestiary” offers plenty of that as well. History buffs in particular should appreciate the detailed research put into the book as Mr. Christopher skillfully weaves fact with fiction, specifically with such real-life past figures as Andrea Dandolo doge of Venice, Antonio Pigafetta of the Magellan voyage and Lord Byron author of Don Juan. Nicholas Christopher also takes certain liberties with Noah’s Ark and the Book of Life, and provides numerous legends & fables from around the world on many different animals both mythological and real including phoenixes, foxes, panthers, etc. This was actually one of my favorite parts of “The Bestiary” and I particularly enjoyed the selection of Fabulous Beasts from the Caravan Bestiary, which is included at the end of the book.

Writing-wise, “The Bestiary” is quite impressive. Prose is vibrant and lyrical, probably due to Mr. Christopher’s extensive poetry background. The aforementioned characterization is superb as is the author’s meticulous historical research. Descriptions in the book of people, places and things are eloquently rendered, in particular the many exotic locales that Xeno visits, which are brought to life with vivid clarity. Additionally, Mr. Christopher’s experience in poetry plays an important role in the more fantastical elements of the book. While certain events in “The Bestiary” could be considered somewhat mystical, for the most part the supernatural occurrences are metaphorical in nature, representing universal themes of family, death, love, loss, loneliness and rebirth. In short, virtually every aspect of “The Bestiary” is skillfully executed by Nicholas Christopher, and because of that, the book is an absolute joy to read.

In the end, there were only two issues I had with Nicholas Christopher’sThe Bestiary”. One, I wish the book would have been longer and two, the ambiguous, open-ended conclusion left me somewhat disappointed. Other than that, I thoroughly loved “The Bestiary” and highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates high-quality fiction. All I ask is that you don’t mistake the novel for a Da Vinci Code clone or other run-of-the-mill historical thriller and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the intelligence, depth, emotiveness and magic that “The Bestiary” has to offer…

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I just finished the book and I heartily agree with everything that the reviewer has said...if only the book had been longer! But it took the author 4 years to write it, so i suppose we should be happy it is in print now. Hopefully it won't take 4 more years for a sequel!

What happens next to Xeno and friends (mythical and otherwise)?

Xeno Atlas (love that name!) is a marvelous and fascinating protagonist...

Robert said...

I'm glad you liked the book so much. I'm working on interviewing Mr. Christopher soon and will definitely ask about the future of Xeno, etc. Also, look out for signed copies as well!!!

Waci said...

I loved reading "The Bestiary" by N. Christopher. As a child I was told various stories about such creatures. To this day, I still refer to my sister as a "NUE." The characters in the book were appealing and interesting and as always the author storytelling leaps off the pages.

Robert said...

Waci, thanks for the comment. Still one of the best books that I've read in the past few years :) I can't wait for the author's next one!

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