Tell Me a Story: The Saga of the Turtle Knight
You could be forgiven if, upon glancing at the muted cover art of Tell Me a Story, you made the assumption that the tale contained within was written expressly for children. While there is a bright-eyed childish quality about it (and this is meant in the very best sense), and while its form takes that of the fairy tale and/or the sleepy-time read-aloud-until-you-drop-off story, it is still not quite geared for children. Talking animals may have identified children's stories in the past, but magic realism (at least by virtue of having been noticed and accepted) changed all that. No, this story of hopeful, tragic love and loyalty may work for younger audiences as well, but it most certainly aims for adult sensibilities.
Multiple Stoker Award winner Brian A. Hopkins again turns in a deceptively simple tale that, if taken at face value, might seem no more than light-weight entertainment. And it is entertaining, as a friend of the author emails him expressing her boredom and her desire for him to spin a story, presumably to amuse her until more pressing matters can intrude once again upon her reverie. Hopkins is up to the task, indulging the request much as an adult would while picking out a child's "special book" from the nighty night shelf.
But as Hopkins dives into this tale of a turtle-riding knight who appears one day in the kingdom run by a bored princess and her oft-absent (in more ways than one), snoring prince, one sees themes begin to jockey for position. The gentle knight, an incurable romantic, falls immediately in love, as he is wont to do, and begins regaling the princess with stories of a knight spurned by a queen and how the knight's heart was broken. There's no doubt the knight in the story and the knight telling the story are one and the same, a man made tragic by unrequited love about to be unrequited again.
Meanwhile, the turtle-steed takes up with a squirrel and the princess's cat, who play Scrabble in her closet. It's also apparent in this fable that the turtle shape hides the loyal companion's true nature, though we are left to guess why for a while. But the turtle's an empath attuned to the knight's pain, and she can transmit it both ways. Sadness abounds as the princess selfishly uses the knight against the prince, who in his jealous rage fires up the torture chamber with a glee most unlike any found in a child's story. The knight's body suffers for the love he feels and for the love the princess chooses to suppress. But then—wait, now you'll want to know what happens, and that would be skipping to the last page just before dropping off. We can't have that!
The story's full of visual charm, yet it manages to raise questions about love and loyalty in thoroughly literary ways. It plays with emotions and with the reader's sense of grounding when it references modern-day things such as Oakland and Internet porn surfing (what the prince does while the princess feels ignored). Perhaps all the characters hide their true nature just as the turtle does, and perhaps they all have reasons to tell stories about themselves in the third person. With straightforward prose and humorous parenthetical asides (only one or two of which may intrude just a bit too much), Brian Hopkins lets the gentle quality of the story's aura carry it through even the unexpected hardcore portions which function well whether literal or metaphorical (think dungeons of the body or mind, think of song lyrics such as "I am shielded in my armor"—everyone will connect slightly differently).
This is the sort of unclassifiable work one expects from a talented writer whose excuse for writing is not to sell to a market, but to explore the human condition in ways he perhaps hasn't yet attempted—or in ways that lend themselves to multiple readings so as to better gauge each level of meaning. Brian A. Hopkins displays confidence in his well-honed narrative skills, allowing himself the risk of the misunderstood to bring together a story which, while distinctly humorous, is also distinctly sad. Like his recent El Dia De Los Muertos, but perhaps more subtly, the Saga of the Turtle Knight tugs at emotions rarely exercised in horror—and that makes everyone who experiences it a little richer, if only for a moment.