I used to love the Usborne Puzzle Adventure as a kid. But one volume in particular has had a lasting influence on me. That is (the somewhat underwhelmingly titled) Map and Maze Puzzles, written by Sarah Dixon, with illustrations by Radhi Parekh.
Let me explain why.
For a story that is only forty pages long - and with minimal text at that - it has some pretty big ambitions. Not only does it create an entire fictional world, but it interweaves five stories together, each set in a completely different time period. Thus you have Zoonal Duo, an alien from the far future, looking to save the planet Quirk from destruction; you have the Mythikan heroine Hercula, seeking to complete the Five Tasks of the Mythikan Deities in order to win the Ladle of Heroism (loosely based on the Labours of Hercules); you have Sir Gelfrid and his apprentice knight, Hildegarde, searching for the Singing Rock to restore joy to the land of Leon (loosely based on Arthurian mythology); you have Waldo Widget searching for the legendary city of El Taco (loosely based on the explorations of Sir Walter Raleigh); and you have Agent Mistral on the trail of the sinister Elite Gang and their leader, the wonderfully named Lucasta Bombasta (loosely set in a 1920s environment).
So far, so quirky.
But what fascinated me as a kid, and what still fascinates me now, is how these fives stories interlink. Names shift over time. For example, Vaeralyn, an Enchantress that Sir Gelfrid encounters, is later referred to as Vaeralinna. Cultures introduced in one time period will beget a detail or symbol that re-emerges in a later culture (the tortoiseshell lyre, for instance, crosses continents with one of the characters). And through it all, there is the background tale of a strange stone, sometimes called the Singing Rock or the Jewel of Joy, which all five characters interact with at some point. It's a masterclass in cross-referencing.
I love the fake documents, and the carefully drawn maps that fill every page (it was probably here, years before I read The Lord of the Rings, that I fell in love with the idea of fantasy cartography). I love the slightly stylised drawings, which have probably informed my interest in Mughal miniatures and other forms of non-Western art. But above all, I love the idea of a world of mazes. It's one I've stolen in my own writing. There are probably other things I've unconsciously pinched as well. I'm pretty sure my fascination with the 1920s dates back to the sepia-tinted drawings on the Agent Mistral pages
One day I'd love to attempt a similar idea: a story where five narrators, spread across time, go on quests that inform and interact with each other.
But I'm pretty sure I'll never be able to compete with the concise complexity of Map and Maze Puzzles.