Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Vango Book One: Between Sky and Earth by Timothée de Fombelle, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

Book One: Between Sky and Earth
Timothée de Fombelle
Translated by Sarah Ardizzone (from French)
Originally 2010, I read Walker Books 2014
429 pages, young adult, adventure

Many thanks to Walker Books UK for providing a review copy of this book. 

Moments from completing his ordination to become a priest, Vango Romano finds himself fleeing from the Paris police. Climbing up the side of Notre Dame, he just manages to dodge the bullets that threaten his life - and escapes into the rooftops of Paris under the shadow of the Graf Zeppelin. This is not the first incident when the innocent Vango has had to flee for his life; it only confirms Vango's fears (perhaps even paranoia) that he is being watched - and that someone wishes him dead.

Racing from shelter to shelter, all the events of Vango's strange life come back to haunt him. He stows away on a zeppelin, flees to the remote Mediterranean island where he grew up, travels incognito in France, perches on the roofs of Paris - and meets up with Ethel, a fast-driving Scottish heiress and his old flame.

Meanwhile, in Soviet Russia a man whose daughter thinks he is a gardener orders Vango's execution.

A beautifully inventive adventure novel, this story reminds me of nothing more than the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo - but set in the 1900s and meant to be read by a younger audience. This is, by the way, the highest praise I can give to an adventure novel - The Count of Monte Cristo has been one of my favorite novels for about a decade. Vango has the same ingenuity, the same imagination, as Alexander Dumas's work, with a never-ending series of fantastic events that the incredibly talented main character negotiates with aplomb.

This doesn't mean that the book is emotionally shallow. On the contrary, again much like Alexander Dumas, de Fombelle seeds his work with strong emotional backing. The characters are never two-dimensional, and even relatively minor characters have motivations and interests that make their actions realistic. This includes the depiction of children; Stalin's daughter, for example, does not know who or what her father is, but she is still afraid of what he does. She has noticed that several members of her family have disappeared, and she misses the happy times before her mother died. It is de Fombelle's adept characterization that solidifies the real, poignant emotional underpinning of what might otherwise be a fluffy adventure novel.

The only real negative about this book is that it seemed too long at times - though you have a suspicion about Vango's origins, the answer is never revealed in the 429 pages of this first book. The beginning of the novel is quick and engaging, but the ending drags a bit - just to put off revealing Vango's real name. I don't know if younger readers would be bothered by this deliberate slowness; perhaps the problem lies more with my jaded reading (and *cough* knowledge of Russian history *cough*) than with the book itself.

This is a two-part series, and I am very excited to start the second book. Although brilliantly written, Between Sky and Earth gets annoying toward the end if seen as a stand-alone novel. That being said, I highly recommend this book for all young adults, either in age or at heart. Anyone who loves a brilliantly imagined adventure tale will enjoy this book.

Vango: Between Sky and Earth can be found in the US at Amazon and Indiebound, in the UK at Amazon and Hive, in India at Amazon and flipkart, and anywhere in the world at wordery

Further Reading: 

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