Nancy Farmer

Firebird / 311 pages / Reissue edition (January 14, 2002)

ISBN: 0141311096

After having read two of the four initial offerings from Penguin Putnam’s new Firebird imprint I’m prepared to recommend the entire line wholeheartedly. If every imprint was coming out with titles of this quality, we would be able to reach those last few holdouts that J.K. Rowling didn’t and pull them away from television and video games and get their noses back in books, where they belong. Of course, Firebird has stacked the deck by selecting only award-winning novels for young adults, but these are books that go beyond medals to win over every age.

The Ear, The Eye And The Arm is a fantasy for today and tomorrow, although we can only hope it is not the toxic, dangerous tomorrow Nancy Farmer creates. Don’t look for usual heroes or villains in this novel; The Ear, The Eye And The Arm takes readers far away from the familiar Celtic, American, Roman, and other “traditional” fantasy settings to Zimbabwe, 2194. This is a place and a time when the “English tribe” is a small and well-defined group and mostly certainly the minority, though not truly discriminated against.

Two trios constitute the heroes of this suspense-filled adventure, and neither group is what you might expect. Tendai, Rita, and Kuda are the over-protected children of the powerful and feared General Matsika. Their tutoring has been extensive in many ways, but in so many others it has left them totally unprepared to face the world when they decide to slip out of the compound for an adventure in the city. Trouble immediately finds them in the imposing form of the She Elephant and her people of the Dead Man’s Vlei. Just the first of many wrong moves and dangerous enemies they will make.

The other trio is quite possible the most unique in all of fantasy — strange, shocking, and irresistibly endearing — the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. Physically deformed from birth by the toxic legacy of their village, they also possess special abilities corresponding to their appearances. It is these gifts that make them the finest detectives in the country. Whether it is these abilities, their disfigurements, dealing with both since birth, or some influence we will never know, it has also made them some of the kindest, most empathetic human beings it would ever be your honour to meet. Who else would Mrs. Matsika turn to find her beloved children?

The Ear, The Eye And The Arm is one of those books you finish and immediately want to call everyone you know to recommend. Hmmm… I suppose that’s what I’m doing right now.

In a book that speaks so eloquently about the deceptive nature of appearances, it may seem odd to compliment the striking cover art by Mark Harrison, but even the cover speaks to that same theme. Of course, The Ear, The Eye And The Arm is also a coming-of-age tale and an important illustration of the, often ignored, reserves of strength and ingenuity in children. As the detectives work ever closer to rescuing the lost children, the children are working just as hard at surviving and rescuing themselves.

It makes for a breathtaking journey and a much-needed nudge in the ribs for all of us.