Everybody seems to know who Tony Plumb is, even the boy at the bus stop, except Tony Plumb himself. Stuck in the care system since five years old, he knows his parents jumped off a waterfall, but it seems the deeper truth about why he’s there has been kept from him, and he’s never been found a real foster family.
Enter Ms. Bendy Leggett, a social worker who isn’t going to let the council waste away money politically correcting children’s fairytales (and one of my favourite quotes in the book), and who knows Tony’s situation requires more focused (and very expensive) attention. Tony is sent to Ellodian, an underground school of sorts, where the people and creatures that live and work there are delightfully odd, somewhat concerning, and willing to live by restrictive and isolating rules without question. Pretty much everyone is not what they seem. In fact, nothing is what it seems when you’re not above ground…
‘I guess you’re wondering if I can understand how it feels to be pushed out or excluded? If I can understand what it’s like to feel at the mercy of those in authority? I guess Daisy Bank didn’t help.’ 'Get lost’, said Tony quietly. Mrs Heapey went on. ‘Maybe even worse than realising your parents were a couple and loved each other, is the prospect that they didn’t really want you.’
I loved this book. It’s brilliantly written - the prose is descriptive and interesting without being flowery, distracting or patronising, and the interwoven inner monologues by Tony and his “spy” serve as excellent tools of a boy’s conflicting emotional journey. There were so many touches that melded excellently into the story, and that my brain cottoned onto on the way rather than trying to second guess beforehand (for example the crash helmets), and I really loved the thought chariots and the mini boats - excellent uses of how the mind can work and proceed to heal (and protect) itself in confusing and overemotional times.
Tony Plumb and the Moles of Ellodian deals with a fairly dark and unsavoury matter of a boy trying to discover the cause of his parents’ deaths, in a way that (in my humble opinion) allows both younger readers and adults to comprehend how the unwinding of a distressed young mind may be realised, and the capacity for it to happen, both at the right pace and at the right time. Tony is highlighted as a bright boy by Bendy, but one who may just be lost in the system without the right help - and the right help is not only monetarily expensive, but mentally so.
The writing itself wasn’t overly dark, but the themes covered were – an important example (without spoiling) being two of Ellodian’s teachers, Mrs Sherbet and Prospect, and the characters of Bobbi and Perfax. They were all expertly examined and unwoven by the author as carefully as Tony himself. Indeed, one of the best features of the book is that Tony was just as ignorant as we were to his true predicament and the unravelling was done along with him, instead of waiting for him to catch up.
Where I thought perhaps the book was going into the standard strange fantasy world of weird mole creatures and a boy that goes adventuring, I was pleasantly surprised that there was a much deeper story to be told, and found myself far more invested than if it had been the former. I was devastated at finding out the secret of Tony’s childhood, and desperate for him to get all his answers, but it was important that not everything concludes precisely how our constant need for perfection might want. Truth is hard, as is the realisation you may never know certain things, and how you deal with it is what’s important. After all, it’s the journey and not the destination that ultimately counts.
J. M. Smith is a fantastic writer, and Tony Plumb and the Moles of Ellodian is essential reading for young or old readers alike, who prefer a good wallop of depth and intrigue in their grounded fantasy reading list.