I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve not read much children’s fiction as an adult. Growing up, I read voraciously on whatever I could get my hands on (and that my mother would allow me to read). “The Monster of Marnmouth Valley” is a book I would have loved as a child. Charlie J. Greene has crafted an excellent first book, particularly for young girls who have always wanted to experience adventures like their brothers or male friends. It’s not a perfect book (because there are no such things) but it is delightful in so many ways.
The heroine of our tale is Ellian Woodborough, a plucky, energetic young girl of only twelve years of age. The first chapter of the book introduces us to our principal character deftly, written with spirit and precociousness. Raised on stories of valor and daring adventures, Ellian wants nothing more to become an Adventurer, even applying to the Tepporwood Bureau of Exploration and Quests, the guild of her local town that assigns out Adventurers and Guides (aka Sidekicks) to complete missions.
That there is a guild out there that would assign a child a potentially dangerous and life-threatening adventure seemed off-putting to me at first. But there is a long history of this in fiction, particularly fantasy fiction. It’s a well-worn trope that Charlie Greene subverts well, since we’re given information that Ellian has taken steps to improve her chances as an adventurer. She’s a proficient hunter and has taken the time to learn how to survive in the wilds around her home of Tepporwood. It’s rare that authors like this take the time to explain that adventuring requires certain skills to ensure survival, and I applaud Charlie for covering that in her story.
The fateful day arrives, and Ellian is given her first quest by the Bureau. But it is not what she expected, and that is the second-best subversion found in this story. One would expect that since Ellian is our chief character that she would be the heroic adventurer, but that is not the case. She’s the sidekick, the Guide who helps the Hero complete their quest through any means necessary. And the Hero is not what you would expect either.
Our second lead character is a refreshing take on the Heroic Lead in Beth, a spinster of advanced age who is “The Chosen One”. Fate plays a role in choosing who is the star of a particular quest, and it is the role of the Guide to make sure that Chosen One can complete their destiny. It’s a well-worn trope that made me initially groan when it came up. But then Charlie Greene played into it further, revealing that although one may complete a task, that doesn’t mean they want to. Beth chooses to complete the task, just as Ellian took the role of Guide to help her do that.
The world the characters live in is fleshed out well, with a fair amount of world-building. Since this is a book mainly aimed at children and it’s a relatively short novel, it’s not as in depth as some other books, but that fits the potential audience for the book. All the characters introduced feel like actual people, with no one standing out as a mere cardboard cutout meant to provide exposition or a stock nefarious character. The standout to me were Ellian’s Mother, who provides a valuable lesson to Ellian about finding her place in the world and the things she is passionate about. Another wonderful character is Saul, the woodworker who is introduced later in the story, that helps complete the quest. Since this is a fantasy story, there are obstacles and monsters that impede our heroes on their quest. I loved how Charlie Greene set these up and provided interesting solutions for them. I won’t spoil any of them, but I found their resolutions to be ingenious and well within the capabilities of the characters. Nothing stood out to me as out of character for how they could come up with a way to get around or solve the obstacle being faced. There is a contrivance near the end of the book that I can easily forgive because it reveals more of who Beth is and why she is in the circumstances, she’s in when introduced to the story.
From beginning to end, this was an enjoyable reading experience and one that I would whole-heartedly endorse for any child, particularly young girls who are fascinated by fantasy stories. The themes of heroes never standing alone and forgiving one’s self for past mistakes are lessons anyone can take to heart, particularly adults who understand the mistakes they make have consequences. If you’re a parent who wants to introduce their child to fantasy fiction, this is a good place to start. It has a more modern feel to it than classic children’s fantasy, but they can find here all the elements of those classic stories.