Book Review: The King of Messy Potatoes by John Dashney

Messy Taters

The King of Messy Potatoes
John Dashney

You know what? I’m just happy I found this book.

I picked it up at a library book sale. I bought it because the cover image is both sweet and, for me, evocative: a boy marching with stick in hand and shield on arm, with a line of friends and companions by his side: a cow, a giant, a viking, a crow. This is what I imagined as a child. I read Tolkien and Alexander, Lewis and Anthony, and in every case, the story really revolved around the journey: the journey, and the companions. As a fairly solitary child, that was what I wanted. So I had to get this book. Plus: how could you ignore that title? I love potatoes more than I love epic fantasy. If given the option, I would certainly pour gravy on this book and eat it. Who wouldn’t?

For even more fun, the author has written several young adult adventure books, is self-published and small-press published, and this book is signed. It’s perfect.

Now as for what was inside: that was good. I won’t say it was perfect, but it was good — far better than most small-press, self-published authors I have encountered. This book hits a beautiful balance between fantasy and reality, using a frame story about a boy and his grandfather, an aged Episcopal priest and scholar who is writing a history based on Biblical times, a book about the kings of Mesopotamia. Which the boy hears as — Messy Potatoes. (I am proud to say I actually made that connection before I started reading, when I picked up the book and considered reading it next. I am impressed that Mr. Dashney actually had this idea and saw the beauty of it.). The boy asks about it, and though the grandfather laughs, he agrees to make up a story about the King of Messy Potatoes for his grandson.

Then we get the story of Spud. Spud lives on a very special farm, though he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t know much of anything, other than how to grow good potatoes, and that his older brothers are dimwits and the local nobleman is a jerk. But then Spud meets a new friend: a crow, who, if he bites someone and tastes their blood, can speak that person’s language for a full day. This crow tells Spud the truth, and helps Spud to begin his adventures, and pursue his destiny — as the King of Messy Potatoes.

Both of these stories are successful. The frame story of the boy and his grandfather is sweet and heartfelt, and rings very true — especially to me, with my staggeringly erudite and somewhat distant (because eminently dignified) grandmother, who nevertheless loved me dearly. The story of Spud is exciting and amusing and fun to read, and you want to hear both sides of this as you go through it.

It isn’t perfect. There are parts of Spud’s story that are a bit too short, and feel like they’re there just to fill space without really adding anything; the Viking part, for one. The villain is a great idea, but isn’t really pursued completely — understandable, as this is a young book, but still: kids understand evil, and hearing about evil that is vanquished is a good story for any age. Spud is given a dialect that just doesn’t fit and doesn’t make sense, neither for the character nor for the “author,” the Episcopal scholar grandfather. And at the end, I want to hear more of the story of the King of Messy Potatoes, but I never will. Which is too bad.
But overall? I was very lucky to find this book. It made me happy.

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