Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple, Pay the Piper: A Rock N’ Roll Fairy Tale (Tor, 2005)


Here's a book I was really looking forward to. I haven't read many of Jane Yolen's books, but I mostly liked what I read, and the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin has always been one of my favorites. Yolen wrote this particular book in collaboration with her son, Adam Stemple, who is a professional rock ‘n roll musician. Everything I read about this book in advance, appealed to me. When I saw that the dust jacket bore recommendations by Holly Black, Tamora Pierce, and my favorite author Diana Wynne Jones, it all just seemed to good to be true.

And perhaps it was. Maybe my expectations were simply too high, but the book left me a little flat and unexcited.

The heroine of this story is Callie (short for Calcephony), a 14 year old highschool student, who manages to convince her usually overprotective parents to let her attend a rock concert with a famous band that has for some reason come to her small town just before Halloween. Callie is a reporter for her school newspaper, and as such gets to meet and interview the members of the band, Brass Rat, and gets the distinct impression that things are not quite what they seem with these peculiar folk. She happens to overhear a conversation between the band's lead flutist (yeah . . . ) and the owner of the venue where they have been playing, and discovers that the band has been stiffed. A short while later, she witnesses the amazing sight of three rats dancing in a circle to the tunes of the flute.

With all this in mind Callie goes back home to work on her review for the school newspaper. Here's where the plot started falling apart for me: from these small fragments, Callie is just about able to piece together the whole story of the band, including the farfetched concept that the Pied Piper was responsible for the kidnap of the Princes in the Tower (remember Richard the Third?) in order to pay a tithe to the king of faerie -- and yet she fails somehow to note the significance of one of the most noticeable pieces of evidence, which is that a certain member of the band has looked like a 17 year old for the past 21 years. It might be fairy glamour clouding her mind, but I just found it jarring that Callie could be so perceptive and so obtuse at the same time.

Rather predictably by this point, the Pied Piper -- the flutist -- kidnaps all the children from Callie's small town and leads them into faerie, as payment of his teind. Callie alone, with her partial awareness and with her special connection to the band's guitarist, is not quite as enthralled as all the other children, and manages to keep her wits about her as she follows the others into faerie.

Interspersed with the episodes of Callie's life are short episodes that give a bit of insight into the thoughts and past of the Piper himself, whom Callie knows as the flutist Gringras. These fragments of fairy perspective are just a tiny bit less predictable and more compelling than Callie's view of the world. We learn that all the bad stuff can be traced back to Gringras' having been a middle child, desperate to attain a higher status in his family. Callie too, we know, is a middle child, sandwiched unhappily between her 21 year old brother Mars (short for Marsepolus) and her 7 year old brother Nick (short for Nickolodeon). This ought to have given her some kind of insight into Gringras' frame of reference, perhaps a special empathy that would help her help him -- but it doesn't. Perhaps the idea was to contrast what two different characters make of their similar lots, due to their different temperaments or perhaps an inborn sense of morality that Callie has and Gringras lacks. Or perhaps it is the capacity to love her siblings that makes Callie, in the end, better than Gringras. Whatever the underlying philosophy, these moral musings struck me as insufficient and unconvincing: I felt I was still looking for an explanation as to why Callie of all people was capable of ending the long cycle of kidnapped children. What makes Callie so special, other than being a middle child, a redhead, and the child of parents with an unfortunate penchant for peculiar names?

For Callie does indeed succeed in lifting Gringras' curse, and releasing him and all the children he has kidnapped over the centuries. I won't tell you how she does it, so as not to spoil the book for you, but I will say I was unimpressed by the solution. And Gringras did not deserve to have the curse lifted from him. I don't think he was sorry enough for what he did, I don't think he learned his lesson. He was a cold-hearted creature when he landed the curse upon himself in the first place, and he continued being a cold hearted creature while he allowed the curse to corrupt him and ruin the lives of countless families throughout history.

I also couldn't quite peg what age group this book will appeal to. Compared to some similar stories, like Holly Black's Tithe, Diana Wynne Jones' Fire and Hemlock or Neil Gaiman's graphic novel Books of Faerie, Pay the Piper is really quite tame: no sex, drugs or violence to speak of, and one gets the impression that the rock 'n roll would probably be of the soft and folksy variety. Tame is not necessarily bad: but then on the other hand the heroine is 14, and does fall in love . . . it just doesn't all fit together. It would be one thing if the heroine were a younger girl, an innocent, with no romantic interests: I have nothing against fantasy stories with no adult themes. But a faerie rockstar is just about the sexiest idea for a character I can think of, and I found myself wishing the sex had been played up a bit!

My favorite bit of the book was probably the authors' introduction, including a discussion of some of the myths and tales regarding the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, which may have been based on an historical event. The handful of ideas that were thrown out in the introduction was deliciously tantalizing: I wish the rest of the book had lived up to my anticipation.

Then again, I can't point out any really major faults. It was an overall okay read, just a little bit blah.

[Gili Bar-Hillel]