Of Magic Mules, One-Headed Monkeys, and Swamp Pirates: A Review of Jeff Sartini’s The Adventures of Shamis and Larry
If you appreciate dry humor, wry wit, and satirical fantasy, then you are in the right place. If you love The Princess Bride or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or A. A. Milne's lesser known Once on a Time, then you will appreciate the wordplay in Jeff Sartini's The Adventures of Shamis and Larry. Jeff has skillfully designed a tale children will enjoy for the adventure and adults will enjoy for the subtle (and many times, not so subtle) puns and the humorous exploration of the limitations of language.
The story centers around rhetoric and reputations: What names do people put on things, particularly themselves? Are those names fitting? How will people misinterpret them? In what ways are those names intended to mislead others purposefully?
But my description is too academic. Fundamentally, the story pulls us in because we are drawn to the two brothers, who must go on a "perilous" quest as punishment for pulling a prank on their mother. She sends them out into the world to obtain the magical Engagement Water, which she hopes to use to win the heart (and money) of the Prince. Shamis and Larry then stumble out into the wide world, dressed in their "questing kilts," ready for grand adventures.
Jeff intentionally does not give us much description of these two. There are no drawings representing them, and no passages give us a hint of what they look like. Yet they come alive in classic fashion through their banter. Shamis is the one who perhaps takes most after his mother in spinning "Master Plans" and in embellishing every account of their adventures to the next person who will listen. He wants to follow the "rules of adventuring" so that they will complete a "proper quest." On the other side, Larry most often is the grounded one, the one who sees through the flowery words to the practical matters. Although the brothers support each other, Larry frequently finds himself poking holes in the things that his brother makes up.
The two make for entertaining company as we follow them from town to town in the mixed up story-world. They soon pickup sidekicks in the form of a One-Headed Monkey (Yes, I relayed that accurately) and a Magical Mule (that is 1/2 horse, 1/2 donkey, and 1/2 canary)--capital letters and rules on the proper use of them abound in the story. Both provide ample entertainment: Where will the monkey perch next? How many heads does a monkey normally have? Why is the mule magical, and how does he climb to high places (including the crow's nest on a pirate ship)? These questions pull children in and make adults smile.
The foursome then make their way to the Castle of Doom, where they discover three tests of valor are not what they seem. Is the castle surrounded by a "Moat of Death" or a "Moat of Inconvenience"? Is Roger a "troll" or a man with a shaggy haircut? Is Rob a "Dark Magician," a retired "Swamp Pirate," or just a reclusive poet who doesn't write very well?
Through adventures with palindromes and anagrams, Shamis and Larry follow clues from one place to another until the Oracle Bob tells them to find the Engagement Water with the Swamp Pirates. The brothers are good-hearted and learn adventuring places them in situations where they can help others connect--as they lead Loomis to a life of adventure and assist a mattress-maker in finding a curious new stuffing for his beds.
One of my favorite episodes is the presentation of the true captain of the pirates, "Slobbery Brown," and how they defeat him. And the illustration by Donny Palmgren makes the character even that much more endearing. Palmgren's illustrations (as shown on the cover shot of Merlin in the crow's nest) add a warm depth to the book and make it that much more accessible to children.
The modified pirate flag, with a jester's cap on the skull and a quill replacing one of the bones, is also a creative addition. Don't skip over that illustration or description. It's an important clue for interpreting the story and for understanding the author.
If you're curious to discover where the story goes and who an Evil Vegetarian is, if you want to see the Pirates' Lair and learn whether they find the Engagement Water and what their mother does with it, if you smile at "The Chapter Where Nothing Exciting Happens," then this is the book for you. All throughout, the brothers banter back and forth, facing "perils" and "arduous" journeys, uncovering "magic" in its various forms. Wordplay abounds, and I look eagerly for Book Two.