The Charlatan's Boy by Jonathan Rogers

One of the challenges of reading young adult fiction is trying to determine what actual young people might think. As an adult I have different expectations, and experience books differently, and this makes reviews tricky. To be honest, I read YA fiction mostly because it offers some very creative approaches to fantasy and imaginative fiction that is often lacking in “adult” fiction.

This came up again while reading The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers.

Here is the publisher’s description:

As far back as he can remember, the orphan Grady has tramped from village to village in the company of a huckster named Floyd. With his adolescent accomplice, Floyd perpetrates a variety of hoaxes and flimflams on the good citizens of the Corenwald frontier, such as the Ugliest Boy in the World act.

It’s a hard way to make a living, made harder by the memory of fatter times when audiences thronged to see young Grady perform as “The Wild Man of the Feechiefen Swamp.” But what can they do? Nobody believes in feechies anymore.

When Floyd stages an elaborate plot to revive Corenwalders’ belief in the mythical swamp-dwellers known as the feechiefolk, he overshoots the mark. Floyd’s Great Feechie Scare becomes widespread panic. Eager audiences become angry mobs, and in the ensuing chaos, the Charlatan’s Boy discovers the truth that has evaded him all his life—and will change his path forever.

My first mistake was not really thinking of this as a young adult book. I guess I vaguely knew that but when I picked up the book I didn’t have that clearly in my mind and it affected my reaction.

But then knowing that it is YA what expectations should I have?

I love the setting and the personality and voice of the main character, Grady, but found the story dragged and held little suspense. But this might be due to “adult” expectations so your mileage may vary.

The premise of the story is far from unique: orphan boy seeks his real heritage; wants to connect with people and “home” in a way he has been unable to do since being given up by his real parents.

But the setting for this is more creative. The story takes place in Corenwald a sort of pre-industrial revolution old world type place with wagons and cow rustlers (which I believe is also the setting of his previous The Wilderking Trilogy). And of course the central plot revolves around the Feechie – a mythical swamp people that Grady and his mentor/guardian Floyd use as a money making ruse.

Rogers does a good job of introducing the characters and pulling the reader into the story. The dialog and character interaction evoke the author’s beloved South and give the story a unique tone and feel. He does a good job of situating the characters in this place in a way that is natural and feels authentic – it is smooth read.

But after the set-up the story just spins its wheels. Floyd and Grady travel around preparing the Feechie scare and I kept wondering when something significant was going to happen. Instead there were almost anecdotal chapters with Grady and Floyd in different towns. These chapters felt like filler rather than consequential action.

By the time the story picked up the pace again it was over – with a promise of more to come in 2011.

Now it could be that the author kept the story simple because it is for young people. But in the age of Harry Potter and other long and complex fantasy series is this really necessary? Or it could be taste. Maybe some like a story that is simple and ambles along without rushing.

For me the interesting setting, characters, and initial story line were not enough to overcome the lack of tension or pace. In the middle of the book I wasn’t sure what the point was exactly.  And not to be condescending, but I saw the ending coming from very early on.

And while I should know better than to be taken in by back cover blurbs, Andrew Peterson set me up to be disappointed. The fellow author claimed the story was “C.S. Lewis and Mark Twain rolled into one.”

Let’s just say the book didn’t quite approach that level for me. I can appreciate a literary novel that is more about language and the art of prose than it is about plot and action but Rogers often skillful use of Southern idiom and style just wasn’t enough to overcome the lack of more traditional “genre” ingredients. Besides, since when is YA fantasy fiction supposed to be approached like a literary novel? Will ten-year-olds appreciate the prose?

(For the record, it could be my innate Midwestern-ness prevents my enjoyment of the Southern nature and style of this story.)

In the end, I found The Charlatan’s Boy to be a cute and quirky story but one that held little suspense and failed to hold my interest for more than a few chapters.

Read the first chapter

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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