Joe Jefferson is an ordinary schoolboy until a mishap occurs when he is out walking his dog. Joe the normal soon becomes Joe the Barbarian when he finds himself summoned to Muddle Earth and expected to be a brave hero. He has been summoned by Randalf the Wise, Muddle Earth’s leading Wizard (*only wizard) to slay ogres, wrestle dragons, and bravely confront villains.
But there’s more going on than meets the eye. Darkness stirs in Elfwood. A power, more terrifying than even the sheep-squeezing ogres, threatens to overshadow the land. A name, dark and evil, spreads in hushed whispers. Can Joe become the hero he was always meant to be and thwart the villainous plans of the mysterious Dr Cuddles of Giggle Glade?
THE BOOK BY THE COVER
Chris Riddell is one of my all-time favourite illustrators. No matter the author, if I see his illustrations on a book, I’m ten times as likely to give it a chance (all the illustrations in this post are his and you can follow him on Instagram here). Imagine my delight when I discovered the author was Paul Stewart. Stewart and Riddell are the Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake of this generation. I know this is a big claim to make, especially since their writing/illustration styles are so different, but it’s true. I first discovered Stewart and Riddell through the Edge Chronicles (which I highly recommend) and was excited to find they had written a fantasy parody.
ON THE INSIDE
If you are a writer, Muddle Earth should be a high priority on your reading list. Not only is it a well-written story in and of itself, it is also a good study in tropes and cliches. The story is about a boy called Joe (a very ordinary boy of course) who ends up being summoned to a fantasy world named Muddle Earth.
It will shock you to find out that not only is Joe the Chosen One, but his mentor is a ‘wise’ wizard, the last of his kind. Randalf is determined that Joe is the hero they all need. Together with the help of Randalf’s sarcastic budgie, Veronica, and his ogre assistant, Norbert the Not Very Big, he has utmost confidence that Joe will vanquish the coming evil.
They trek far and wide from the Enchanted Lake, through the Perfumed Bog, Across Troll Bridge to Goblin Town and the Ogre Hills (via the Horned Baron’s Castle, the Musty Mountains, and Mount Boom), having numerous (mis)adventures on the way. But, of course, being the Chosen One, Joe must face his destiny eventually. That destiny leads him into the Elfwoods, and the dramatic climax of good versus evil, played out in Giggle Glade.
You will not find a book more crammed with tropes and cliches which is as entertaining as this. Though it is a story which pokes fun at so many of the things which have come to be expected of fantasy books, it’s also a fun and entertaining story in its own right.
As ever in Paul Stewart’s writing, the world-building is second to none, right down to the small goblins that cook their dinners in the pockmarked roads (what did you think potholes were for if not for pots?). He is a good storyteller but his ability to build incredible and fantastic worlds from scratch and still make them feel real and compelling is what sets his writing apart. That and Chris Riddell’s illustrations.
Muddle Earth is a book that was first read to my brothers and I as a bedtime story and I’ve enjoyed it on every re-read since. Parody is difficult to pull off but Paul Stewart has done the job. This is a book that can be read and loved by children but enjoyed on a different level by adults who are more familiar with some of the subtle references.
This book is 100% safe for children. It’s one that works well read aloud and is suitable for a wide age range. Younger children will enjoy the adventure and the silliness of creatures like the halitoads (toads that kill you with their bad breath), and older children and adults will begin to appreciate the different levels of satire and parody layered through the book. Though it is sold as a children’s book, it is one that adults won’t get fed up reading to their kids. The illustrations scattered throughout only add to the experience.
This is a book that my family still reference in conversation. Though my brothers and I are all in our twenties now, we keep a copy on the shelf and go back to it from time to time.
For new writers (or more experienced writers who need to be reminded) this is an excellent book to learn about tropes and cliches in fantasy. The humour is gentle but highlights so many overused or badly-used elements in the genre that it is helpful to learn from. On top of that, though it’s taking the mick, Muddle Earth also serves to remind me why I love some of the tropes that I do, and how to write them with a fresh and funny perspective.
Favourite Character: The Horned Baron.
Favourite Part: When Joe gets his armour, or maybe when the Horned Baron meets his old flame at the custard pie place.
Randalf the Wise indeed! I’ve worn wiser pairs of underpants!
Age Range: Six and up.
Rating: Four out of five of Norbert’s freshly baked snugglemuffins.