Death first comes to Otto Hundebiss on the battlefield. Surrounded by Otto’s friends and comrades, he offers to take Otto with him as well. Otto declines, and Death and his ghostly army vanish. So begins Sally Gardner‘s twisted take on the Hans Christian Anderson tale of the tinderbox. And it doesn’t get any more light-hearted after that…
Otto staggers through the woods in which the battle took place, a bullet in his side and a sword wound in his shoulder, and eventually passes out. When he comes round, he isn’t sure whether or not he’s dreaming: all around him hang boots and shoes. A beast is stoking a fire next to him, and Otto realises it is not a beast at all, but a horned animal mask on the head of a man. Otto asks about the shoes, and the half-man (as Otto calls him) explains they are the shoes of the dead.
Between the haze of battle, meeting Death, and now observing the shoes of the dead with a half-man, things have gotten to a somewhat delirious start for Otto. The half-man takes his leave, but not before leaving Otto with a set of five dice that will tell him which way to travel. With that, Otto is off.
From there, the plot twists and turns in a dream-like quality through dark woods and enchanted castles. Otto meets thieves, wolf-men, witch-like women, and a beautiful girl in a red cloak named Safire. Safire flees when she realises the enigmatic Duchess’s men are after her, and finding her again becomes Otto’s only goal. His journey will eventually lead him to the Duchess’s kingdom and his fate.
One of the problems with basing a novel on the familiar Hans Christian Anderson story of the tinderbox is that fairy tales don’t follow the rhyme or reason of a conventional (and satisfying) story: magic is largely unexplained; mythical creatures enter and exit without reason; characters are completely at the whim of plot. This can be frustrating, especially as many readers will find a character-driven plot much more appealing. But Tinder does manage to hold its ground. Whilst the book does, at times, feel propelled by various stages of the plot (from the dark woods to the dark castle to the dark village), Otto’s dark past combined with his drive to find Safire give the story more substance than the sum of its parts.
The prose is often striking and beautiful. Gardner conjures dark images through language that isn’t flowery, and it is in fact her economy of words that is one of Tinder‘s greatest strengths.
But the most wonderful part of the book is David Roberts’ illustrations. Gardner said that as a young adult, she lamented that books no longer had pictures any more, and she had a vision that Tinder would include illustrations. Combined with the text, a truly terrifying atmosphere is evoked in what feels like a really original addition to the story. For that alone, this is definitely a book worth picking up.