The Land Of Somewhere Safe by Hal Duncan (book review)

September 21, 2019 | By | Reply More

‘The Land Of Somewhere Safe’ is also known as the Land of Nod. It’s where Keen and Able went, for Keen didn’t really kill Able as the groanhuffs have it in their book. No. ‘Keen rewrote Able out of reality, into this hideyhole playground. And went in after him, to the land where every scruff plays safely now in their sleep.

The quote is from Gobfabbler Halyard-Dunkling, esquire and begins a long tale about the Stamp, Scruffians, the Isle of Skye, dragons, magic ships, strange demons and other weird and wonderful things. Dunkling tells the story to a group of scamps in a stream of foul-mouthed verbal diarrhoea with loads of slang, made-up words, interjections and other tricks that decent orderly modern prose shouldn’t have. I liked it.

The Scruffians are street urchins who have been Fixed by the Stamp. They were made immortal to be perpetual slave labour in the Institute but they stole the stamp and burned down the building that housed it. This adventure involves them with Peter and Lily, school kids orphaned by Nazi bombs and evacuated to the Isle of Skye where they are taken in by Clan Chief Lady MacGuffin of Dunstravaigin Castle along with the four Bastable children, who are Scruffians. Peter and Lily discover a box of magic snuff that lets them fly and the adventure begins.

The villain of the piece is Reverend Earnest Blackstone, really Herr Ernst von Schwarzenstein ‘not just a German spy but one of Himmler’s Ahnenerbe’ with occult interests and he’s after the Stamp. This Nazis after a mystic artefact facet of the story brings to mind ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ and also reminded me of James Herbert’s ‘The Spear’ but Hal Duncan is a very different sort of writer. Here’s one of the few passages without swear words.

All day they treks and scrambles, stinked with sludge and slickery with sweat, clambering up and down corries and ridges, to the very peak of Mount Blabbing, scamps, the very peak. It’s a well weary bunch comes plodding down t’other side, following a trickle as becomes a burn as becomes a cascade as becomes, oh, the flabbergasting phantasmagnificent Dunachin Falls they stands beneath, scamps, in its thundering, steamy spray, gobsmacked. Because that water…

– It’s hot, says Lily. It’s a hot waterfall.

-A hotterfall! says Peter.

So, showered, soothed, they’s lazing peaches-and-creamy dreamy when’s the centaurs attack.’

I assume Mister Duncan turned his spellchecker off.

This style crams in a lot of plot. The author really catches fire when they get to the Land of Nod and hits you with an avalanche of various mythical creatures. According to narrator Dunkling, various parts of this story and others from that land have been dimly perceived in dreams by groanhuffs and made into stories that weren’t quite true because of the groanhuffs inbuilt prejudices. The name ‘Peter’ is significant.

Like the Scruffians, Hal Duncan is clearly not a lover of imperialism, organised religion or authority in general but that’s a subtext and he doesn’t hit you over the head with any particular message. This can be read as a wild fantasy adventure. Oddly, perhaps because of the very British wartime setting, it reminded me of black and white adventure stories in old British comics like ‘The Victor’ and ‘Lion’. Nearly all of those venerable and venerated publications were made in Hal Duncan’s Scottish homeland. I get an impression, perhaps wrongly, of genuine childish enthusiasm in him for old-fashioned children’s stories. It also reminded me of Michael Palin’s ‘Ripping Yarns’. You have to love a thing before you can lampoon it.

Unfortunately, ‘The Land Of Somewhere Safe’ can only be read by adults, unless you want to increase your children’s vocabulary to that of a very rough sailor. In a way, this is a pity as it is a great kids adventure with some attitudes and lessons that would do children no harm. Hal Duncan created this odd masterpiece, I think it is that and, like any creator, has his own way of doing things and makes his choices. Even so, if someone went through the book and removed all the swear words it could be a bestseller with a wider audience. It would also be considerably shorter.

When offered this book for review I used the ‘look inside’ facility on the seller’s website for a peek at what I’d be getting. I’m a fan of the odd, the different, the wacky and loved the style straight away. It’s like Alan Moore on speed with Tourette’s syndrome. It won’t suit all tastes and if you don’t like ‘bad language’ this certainly won’t be your cup of tea. Non-British readers may also find some of the slang incomprehensible, albeit not enough to spoil the story. With these caveats, I’d recommend it.

Eamonn Murphy

September 2019

(pub: NewCon Press, 2018. 93 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.49 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-910935-90-3)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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