Before we get started with chatting about Freddy the Magician, I need to make something clear: I love magicians. The more spectacular and unrealistic a stage trick is, the more I love it. I can see the cups and balls trick done over and over and over, and I can even fall for the passing solid rings through one another every time.
So if you are expecting an unbiased review about a book featuring a talking pig performing magic tricks with the help of a talking cat—well. This isn’t going to be that review. (With the hasty assurance to the Powers That Be At Tor.com that I shall be returning to nice unbiased reviews soon.) Because, guys, HE MAKES A RABBIT DISAPPEAR INTO A HAT. A pig! Making a rabbit disappear into a hat! Plus, bonus mind reading tricks!
(Stage magicians love me.)
Freddy the Magician begins with the animals of the Bean Farm picking up after the tail end of a hurricane, a reference, perhaps, to the way the entire country at the time was picking up after World War II—although this is the only even casual reference to the recent war in a book that seems determined to focus on happier things. The storm has left things in chaos both at the Farm and—grr—the circus, back, to my lack of enthusiasm. Freddy and his friends head off to the circus to help, where they encounter a skilled yet sinister stage magician improbably named Signor Zingo, and a smooth talking, adorable bunny rabbit named Presto.
Sidenote: Possibly the most reassuring part of this entire book was finding out that Mrs. Wiggins the Cow assumes, as I did when I first saw the trick done, that the Saw the Girl in Half trick is perfectly real. The considerably more sensible Mrs. Wiggins assumes that the girl sawed in half must have had a twin sister; I just assumed that the magician had used real magic to put the girl back together. (Did I mention that magicians love having me in the audience?) It totally freaked me out, and I am delighted, years and years later, to find my feelings fully validated by a fictional cow. Moving on.
It becomes, alas, all too clear that the adorable bunny rabbit has Evil Motives. I shall pause for a moment to allow you all to get over the shock of this. Are we okay? Moving on. Nonetheless, Freddy is able to use the adorable bunny to train him to do various magic tricks, and even put on a magic show. At which point it becomes obvious that the magic trick Signor Zingo is actually good at is the shell game con. Or, in this case, a slight variation of it. Freddy soon finds himself owing money to the magician, and the game of Dueling Magicians is ON.
Also, a bank robbery.
Unfortunately, for all this, Zingo turns out to be a very two dimensional villain, without any of the touches that made the villains in earlier books more interesting. Presto the disappearing and manipulative rabbit fares a bit better, but not much. And although most of the cast of now definitely in supporting roles characters make a brief appearance, in most cases (with the arguable exceptions of Jinx the Cat and the Sheriff), these appearances are very brief indeed. (Which is just as well with the circus characters; someone must have told Brooks that they were not that entertaining, so only the owner and the still highly vain Leo, freaked out about his mane, take up any time here—and at least serve to get the plot going and provide some closure in the end.)
No, this is definitely Freddy’s book, from everything between helping the storm, solving crimes, learning magic, and delivering bits of moral messages in Brooks’ deadpan tone. And let’s face it: the thought of a pig entertaining others through magic tricks never gets old—even if he can’t quite manage some of the card tricks without fingers. (A very nice touch.)
Interestingly, although Freddy carefully explains that thanks to the Code of Magic, stage magicians are not supposed to reveal their tricks, Walter Brooks does reveal the mechanics behind some common stage tricks—the ones described in any book of stage magic. As Signor Zingo explains, since these secrets have already been revealed, in print, they are not exactly secrets anymore. For most of the tricks, however, Brooks remains silent—we learn that Freddy finds out how the tricks are done, but those methods are not described. (Fortunately Wikipedia is considerably more willing to reveal the truths behind this sort of thing, if you’re interested.) And in some cases, I must remain skeptical that any magician could perform some of the tricks in the way described in the text—human magicians, after all, rarely have the assistance of intelligent talking mice, let alone wasps.
Cautious parents should also be warned that this book contains detailed instructions on How to Take Revenge on a Credulous Younger Sibling Who Will Not Shut Up, instructions I rather wish I had read when considerably younger. The younger sibling in question is Minx the cat, who has by her own account spent the time between books cuddling up to Gregory Peck—yes, that Gregory Peck—in one of the first major name dropping moments of this series; I can only assume that Brooks had had some contact with the actor at some point. While I’m warning, cautious parents should also be aware that reading this book may fill children with the desire to perform magic tricks and make rabbits disappear, at potentially considerable expense. Cautious readers should also be warned that the book introduces another new character, the woebegone Mr. Groper, who has a tendency to use large words that many alarm many readers, old and young.
However, if you can get past these parts, and the knowledge that this book does feature an Evil Rabbit, this well might be worth the risk.
Couple of quick additional sorta housekeeping notes:
1. I’ve been asked to let readers know about the upcoming Freddy the Pig convention, happening on October 26-28 at the Hanah Mountain Resort, Margaretville, NY. I won’t be in attendance, but it looks like attendees will be able to discuss Freddy and the Clockwork Twin and tour the home of Walter Brooks.
2. Harking back to an earlier reread, commenter (still) Steve Morrison has put up an ebook edition of Edith Nesbit’s The Wonderful Garden, which if you might recall was available only in audio format and otherwise pretty much out of print. He tells us you can find the file, at least for now, here. Thanks very much for doing this!
Mari Ness never did learn how to pull a rabbit out of a hat. She lives in central Florida, where she is still trying to figure out how one of her cats pulls off the completely vanishing trick.