John Claude Bemis obviously knows and loves American tall tales, and he brings that passion and knowledge to The Nine Pound Hammer, the first novel of what is supposed to be a quintet of fantasy novels for the juvenile crowd. His premise, what if John Henry had been a real person fighting against great evil in the world?, captured me from the beginning. I loved the cover and Bemis writes excitingly and descriptively enough that I stepped right into that world revealed in that image.
The story centers on Ray, an orphan (are there any other kinds of juvenile heroes in the world these days?), and his younger sister as they’re on a train bound for what will hopefully be better lives. However, Ray knows that he’s too old for most couples to adopt. In order to give his sister a chance at a better life, he jumps from the train. Guided by a magical lodestone given to him by his father, Ray enters the forests and a series of hair-raising adventures.
I enjoyed the way Bemis sets the world on its ear in this book. Instead of setting the story in today’s world, he leaves it in place about 100 or more years ago, back when the United States were still young and the tales didn’t come any taller. The traveling medicine show was unique and fun, and I would have liked to have seen more of it.
What I found the author excelled at most was the sheer liveliness of the tale-telling, the way he blended so much American folklore into a new tapestry that fit perfectly everything that had gone on before. There were several good settings that possessed a lot of color and depth, and I had a blast with the gamut of characters he presented (a blind sharpshooter! A pirate queen on the Mississippi River!).
But I have to admit that I got lost along the way at times. The villain isn’t really clear cut for me even at the end of this first novel, and there were instances that I wasn’t sure what it was Ray was supposed to do next. I think it would have helped if the story had been more streamlined and Ray had been given more solid information along the way. Still, this was a first book and I like the subject matter a lot.
Bemis has a good ear for dialogue and a good grasp of his characters, though I expect they’ll grow and be more fleshed out along the way. I don’t quite understand his decision to take them all away from the train at the end of this novel, though. Railways were what really made the United States what it was at that time, and I would have loved to stay aboard the Ballyhoo to continue seeing new things.
I don’t know when the second book comes out. This is a new release. But I’m looking forward to seeing what mythology Bemis wraps into his next offering. Can Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox be far behind?