Nathan‘s Review of And Put Away Childish Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky
*Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. All opinions are my own.
146 pages (hardcover)
This Book is For You is You Like:
- Middle grade portal fantasies
- Unlikable protagonists
- Sly and clever humor
This Book is Not For You if You are Looking For:
- Protagonists that you can root for from the beginning
- Complex villains
- Books without terrifying clowns
Harry Bodie’s been called into the delightful fantasy world of his grandmother’s beloved children’s books. It’s not delightful here at all.
All roads lead to Underhill, where it’s always winter, and never nice.
Harry Bodie has a famous grandmother, who wrote beloved children’s books set in the delightful world of Underhill. Harry himself is a failing kids’ TV presenter whose every attempt to advance his career ends in self-sabotage. His family history seems to be nothing but an impediment.
An impediment… or worse. What if Underhill is real? What if it has been waiting decades for a promised child to visit? What if it isn’t delightful at all? And what if its denizens have run out of patience and are taking matters into their own hands?
Adrian Tchaikovsky does it again with another winning novella (seriously, how does he publish so much good stuff?). I consider Tchaikovsky to be one of the masters of the novella format, and while To Put Away Childish Things doesn’t quite reach the heights of Elder Race or Ogres, it is still a compelling and entertaining read in a relatively small package.
And Put Away Childish Things follows Henry (or, if you would rather, Felix), a pretty unhappy and down on his luck B-list celebrity. In many ways he is more famous for being the grandson of a fantasy author famous for her middle grade portal fantasies (think the Narnia books) from the 1950s and 1960s. When Henry goes on a documentary reality series that explores that past of famous people, he gets wrapped up in realms of magic, secret organizations, and a dying fantasy world.
And Put Away Childish Things falls into the modern interest in interrogating the entire middle grade portal fantasy genres, but with its own Tchaikovsky spin here. While Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series focuses on the darker elements of childhood desires and Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy focuses on the tragedy of aging out of our favorite childhood worlds, Tchaikovsky explores generational trauma, science, the definition of family and the lengths people will go to save the ones they love.
Tchaikovsky injects much of his famous wit and humor into this novella. He cleverly skewers the tropes of the middle grade portal fantasy novella, with particularly targeted barbs at Narnia itself. What I enjoyed most about the humor of this book is that it was obvious the pokes and jabs were coming from a place of affection. It was clear that portal fantasies are something Tchaikovsky has a deep nostalgia for, and this is both his take down and love letter to the genre (I particularly enjoyed that all of these other portal fantasies exist in this novella, so that the Earth characters can comment on them!). I am already ready for a re-read because I know I missed so many little jokes and Narnia-easter eggs that Tchaikovsky left along the way. Seriously, this book is funny if it is your type of humor; I laughed out loud at the climatic battle towards the end of the book.
Because this is a novella, the plot moves a really nice pace. I never felt like there were moments that were dragged out nor did I feel that the plot raced ahead without me totally on board. Many novellas I read struggle to avoid not enough plot or too much plot, but And Put Away Childish Things sails through its approximately 200 pages. I don’t know how Tchaiksovsky was able to inject so much history to the fictional world of Underhill and Harry’s past in such a short amount of time, but he nails it. The depth to the characters and their histories also set up some really solid plot twists that kept me flipping the pages. My only recommendation would be to jot down some notes about the family tree, since the names come hard and fast!
This novella is also filled with a bunch of fun characters, particularly the zany creations from the fictional land of Underhill. They all start out as your stereotypical fantasy archetypes – the helpful yet mysterious faun, the evil giant spider, etc. – whose connections to other major fantasy works are evident. Some of the characters are legitimately terrifying; don’t tell me that you read this book without at least getting a little creeped out by Gombles the Clown. However, the real star of the show is the main character Harry, and your level of enjoyment of the novella might depend on how much you require the main character to be completely likable. Particularly at the beginning of the novella Harry is pretty easy to dislike. He’s selfish, he’s whiny, and he’s entitled. By the end, he shows remarkable growth in realistic ways as the novella progresses.
I think where the novella falls just short of Tchaikovsky’s greatest works is the relatively shallowness of this novella. As I mentioned earlier, it is funny and clever, but the deep themes of trauma, depression, and perspective we got from Elder Race or the commentary of classism from Ogres isn’t present here. I had a really great evening with this novella, but I don’t think it is going to stick with me as long as some of Tchaikovsky’s greatest works. Again, this is not to suggest in any way this is a bad novella, but it fails to reach that level of sticking with me required for a solid five star review.
The other thing that didn’t really work for me was Tchaikovsky’s inclusion of the COVID-19 pandemic (although it is never officially named in the novella). It was clear that Tchaikovsky was working through his own feelings of the government’s response to the pandemic, but the thematic line he tries to draw between what Henry sees in the real world and what he is seeing in Underhill (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers) never really comes together. I think the inclusion of the pandemic was just one plotline too many for the novella format; to really make that work this would have to have been a full novel.
Tchaikovsky’s contribution to the adult-portal fantasy subgenre is another treat for fantasy fans. While not as good as some of his previous novellas, this is a fun and fast read with surprising levels of horror, sadness, and thematic heft. Come for the quirky fantasy world and hijinks, stay for the examination of the purpose (both good and bad) of family.