- William Stark
Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard by Jonathan Auxier: Adventure, magic, and mysterious books
Updated: Jan 4
see also Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes
Overall rating: 9/10
Quality of writing: 9/10
Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): less
Age level: 12 and up
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When the young bookbinder Sophie Quire receives the mysterious “Book of Who” from an unknown stranger, it sets off a chain of events that will lead her from her home in Bustleburgh across the entire land. She discovers that the Book of Who was originally owned by her mother (who was murdered under mysterious circumstances, and the book was stolen), and that it is part of the “Four Questions”—a legendary set of books that bestow great power upon the person who unites them. Unfortunately, Bustleburgh is no place to go seeking anything magical—there, the nefarious Inquisitor Prigg has sworn to destroy all stories, magic, and “nonsense” in favor of progress and technology. Thus, Sophie eventually (reluctantly at first) sets out from Bustleburgh to find the remaining three books and prevent Prigg from gaining them.
Joined by Peter Nimble, the famous blind thief; and his companion Sir Tode, Sophie combats not only Inquisitor Prigg, but also the brutish Torvald Knucklemeat and the witch Madame Eldritch. Sophie and her allies travel to various locations (including the amusingly named “Last Resort”) before ultimately returning to Bustleburgh to oppose Prigg’s “Pyre Day”—a festival celebrating the burning of all magical items and books.
This book deals with themes of sacrifice, imagination, and friendship; in it, Auxier’s characteristically dexterous and humorous prose produces a story that is not only enjoyable, but also meaningful and well worth reading.
The plot of this book is more convoluted than that of Peter Nimble (with which it shares several characters) and includes a series of complicated traveling escapades involving teleporting bookcases, carriages, and various other methods of transportation, as Sophie goes about searching for the Four Questions. Plot twists abound (which I won’t spoil), and while these may not always be perfectly believable, they nevertheless remain exciting and in keeping with the fantastical tone of Auxier’s fictional world. Through these various complexities, Auxier does a good job of keeping the plot moving forward— this relative intricacy could possibly prove to be an issue for particularly young readers, but is in general a plus.
However, another point worth noting is that while the main plot deals with Sophie’s search for the magical Four Questions books, the underlying conflict is essentially one of ruthless progress for progress’s sake against imagination, magic, and what Inquisitor Prigg terms “nonsense.” Auxier does an excellent job of weaving this theme and ideology through his writing in Sophie Quire, and it ultimately adds greatly to the book by showing exactly why the bad guys are bad. As Inquisitor Prigg says at one point, having ignored countless laws in an effort to capture Sophie, “Ends over means.” (8/10)
Characters are certainly one of this book’s strongest points: Auxier has crafted an extremely varied and unique cast, to say the least. Not only do Peter Nimble and Sir Tode make an appearance (Sophie Quire is set some time after the events of Peter Nimble), but Auxier also introduces many new characters, ranging from the fanatical Inquisitor Prigg and the devious Madame Eldritch, to the fiercely loyal talking tiger Akrasia and the enigmatic Scrivener Behn. For readers already familiar with Peter Nimble, this book offers an opportunity to see Peter’s character development following the events of the previous book; we also see Sophie grow and develop over the course of the book as she learns the abilities of the Four Questions and fully accepts her role as a Storyguard (one who protects and uses the Four Questions). Auxier’s special forte is placing his characters in situations that highlight their bravery, loyalty, or other qualities. For example, Peter is repeatedly defeated (despite having gained various skills and powers in the previous book) by a sentient mandrake root belonging to Madame Eldritch, which forces him to rely on his characteristic cunning instead of force. Similarly, at the end of the book, Sophie realizes that nothing she can conjure with the four questions can defeat an evil monster summoned by Prigg, which forces her to rely on her own bravery instead.
Furthermore, Auxier’s main villain (Inquisitor Prigg) is much more well-rounded as a character than that of Peter Nimble. Whereas in the previous book Lord Incarnadine was motivated by a nebulous desire for power, Prigg’s motives are crystal-clear: to get rid of the “nonsense” (aka all books, fantastical items, etc) in Bustleburgh. More minor villains also appear in this book, giving the antagonistic side of the story a somewhat more realistic feel. (9/10)
While the general style of writing in Sophie Quire is very similar to that of Peter Nimble, its plot is a bit more complex (as far as various travel and storylines). The characters’ intent is clear throughout, but the actions they take to achieve those ends lead them on a circuitous path that could potentially confuse some younger readers. However, as with Peter Nimble, the general tone and diction throughout is light and easily comprehensible, generally humorous and engaging. (I found a few veiled references to Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, so keep an eye out for those!) Overall, the style of this book is not difficult, but its plot can be somewhat complicated at times (overall length in my edition is 444 pages), earning it a 4/10 rating on difficulty.
Quality of writing
Auxier does an excellent job, as always, combining lighthearted humor with deeper and more serious elements to produce a story that is not only engaging and amusing, but also gives readers a good look at the protagonist’s inner struggles and character development. This is due in large part to his clever style of narration, which uses an omniscient POV to occasionally make conversational remarks to the reader and allows a greater degree of explanation throughout. Auxier’s characters are also rather well-crafted (possibly even more so than in the previous book), and their conflicts have a particularly natural feel, as if their personal inclinations are simply playing out throughout the story. The premise of the story is inventive and unique, much like the fictional world Auxier has created, and the story continues to offer surprises as one reads through. Overall, this book is quite well-written for its age range and merits a 9/10 on quality of writing.
This book’s concerning content level is relatively low, but a few points bear examination. First, although the book is largely free of problematic language, one of the antagonists does call the main characters “d**nable.” Second, the character Madame Eldritch makes the occasional mild sexual implication or reference—nothing overly terrible, but present nonetheless. For example, she notes at one point, “Everyone wants to be desired—it is only a question of for what and by whom.” (Since I can’t quote every instance of this, I’d encourage parents of younger readers to read through the book to get a better feel for this.) Finally, as in Peter Nimble, there are a few instances of violence—characters are stabbed by swords or other instruments, choked (by an enchanted hand), and scratched by magical briars at various points. While Auxier keeps the description largely age-appropriate, readers should be prepared for a certain amount of wounds occurring in the story.
Based on this book’s slightly higher level of concerning content and plot complexity, I recommend it for readers ages 12 and up. While readers younger than this can certainly read and enjoy this book, their parents should use their own judgement on whether this is best.