James Kennedy, The Order of Odd-Fish (Delacorte Press, 2008)

I should start by making full disclosure: I am acquainted with James Kennedy, but had no idea he was a writer until I heard from a mutual friend that his novel had been published. I mentioned it the next time I saw him, discovered that it falls into one of our favorite categories here -- young adult fantasy -- and James kindly provided me with review copies.

There -- now we can all relax a bit.

The Order of Odd-Fish is one of the more singular young adult fantasies -- or fantasies, period -- I've run across. In fact, I'm prepared to call it unique, as much as any book can be. It's also the very devil to describe.

Jo Larouche is a thirteen-year-old girl who lives with her aunt Lily ("aunt" by mutual consent) in the "ruby palace," a great wandering ramshackle place in the California desert, near the town of Dust Creek, where the median age of the inhabitants seems to be around 80. Jo's advent was somewhat unusual. She was found in Aunt Lily's laundry room with a note:

This is Jo. Please take care of her.
But beware.
This is a DANGEROUS baby.

As Lily puts it, Jo is "as dangerous as a glass of milk," but that is about to change, although home is a quiet place, unless Lily, a retired star of the silver screen, is throwing one of her periodic costume parties, and then anything is likely to happen. And at this year's Christmas party, it does, ultimately removing Lily and Jo from California and into Eldritch City, courtesy of a wannabe villain named Ken Kiang and a large fish, in the company of Colonel Korsakov, a Russian officer who takes the advice of his digestive system in all matters, and a three-foot cockroach named Sefino. And there Jo begins to learn about the Order of Odd-Fish and her own bizarre and frightening history.

This one's astonishingly hard to get a grip on, for writing about, at least. The story itself is at its core something of a coming-of-age story, focused on the basic themes of learning who you are and becoming who you are. Jo is, when all is said and done, a fairly sensible girl on the edge of being a resourceful and intelligent young woman (although subject to the influences of peer pressure and perceived expectations, which have their own influences on her life at that point).

What marks The Order of Odd-Fish as singular is the sheer explosive inventiveness of Kennedy's universe-building. Eldritch City itself is a treasure, as is the chapter house of the Order (as it happens, Lily and Colonel Korsakov are members, exiled these past thirteen years), and, despite the prevalence of what I might dub "small boy imagery" (mmm -- talking cockroaches? centipede newspaper columnists? all elegantly and sometimes flamboyantly dressed), the book is unexpected enough to make it thoroughly enjoyable.

However -- there's always a "however" in there somewhere -- there are times when the novel's pyrotechnics work against it to a certain extent. The first ten chapters are nothing less than a roller coaster ride, as Kennedy introduces new and ever more bizarre circumstances and characters. By the time we get to Jo's adventures in Eldritch City, when thankfully we have a moment or two to catch our breath, we're so used to the breakneck pace of the beginning that what under other circumstances would be a normal narrative seems to drag a little -- although I have to confess, it's only a little, and probably only by contrast.

One the whole, this is a wonderful book -- funny, bizarre, action-packed, and even thoughtful, and stocked with a gallery of larger-than-life characters. And you don't have to be a teenager to enjoy it. Trust me on that.

[Robert M. Tilendis]

James Kennedy is online at, believe it or not, JamesKennedy.com.