Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Dr. Dan's Elixir
Potent Magic for Young Minds
    by Dan Shade
April 2006

Girl Who Owned A City, The by O. T. Nelson
Dell Books, Copyright © 1975
Age Group: 10 up

A horrible plague has swept the earth killing everyone past the age of twelve. Nothing is said of the initial reaction to the situation, but you can tell from the children's actions that most are extremely fearful. Some have hidden in their homes and not emerged other than to peep out the window. Others have formed huge armies of 200 to 400 children who roam the city and sweep up everything eatable in their path leaving only destruction and despair behind. Few are as smart as Lisa who is nearly twelve and is caring for her 10-year-old brother Todd. Lisa has reinforced a hiding place in their home to sleep and hiding places for supplies. Every day she rides her bike to other homes in close by neighborhoods looking for supplies. She finds plenty of food and wonders why other children are not doing the same thing. Lisa may only be eleven but she is very serious about survival and her responsibility to Todd. Every move she makes is well thought out to all the logical conclusions of which she can think. She even learns to drive her father's car so she can find better supplies. Good thing that beat up old Cadillac has an automatic transmission.

Her first strategy is to form an army for protection out of all the children who live with her on Grandview Avenue. The first thing they do is rig alarm systems around every house with string and tin cans. They stock up on supplies. Twenty-two caliber rifles are brought out and the militia practices with them. Next they practice and drill their strategies for defense. Yes, they are better organized. However Lisa is not present when Tom Logan's mob attacks and the Grand Avenue Militia drop their guns without a single shot. On the other hand, these are just kids under the age of twelve and many much younger. Nevertheless, they lose their supplies, guns, everything to Tom Logan. If Lisa had been there, and stood up to Tom Logan, it may have ended in a draw or truce.

It takes Lisa a couple of days to think of a better solution. She settles on the nearby high school as the perfect place for a city. It's defensible like a castle, it has lots of room, a kitchen and cafeteria, gym, etc. It even looks like a castle - tall walls of massive stone, a wall around the roof with a tall clock tower in the middle. The bulk of the novel is about Lisa's struggle to make Glenbard High School a viable city that can take whatever the enemy throws at them. She would like to see Glenbard become a city of 800 child-families.

This is the story of tragedy beyond our scope to imagine. It's a story of character and the differences between people's values. Lisa is a strong-willed girl who is determined to keep every part of the heritage left for them by their passing parents. Not only does she want to turn a high school into a city, but she dreams of making airplanes fly again, and trains run, etc. She wants it all back the way it was and she is willing to make any sacrifice to see her dreams come true one step at a time. She spends hours, sometimes nights, alone with her thoughts. Some of the child-families don't think she ever sleeps. One thing Lisa never thinks about that I'm very curious about is what happens to a child when they turn twelve? Is the disease still around? Do they catch it and die?

Lisa simply sees the world differently than most of the other children in the book and I'd go so far as to say most of us. To her "fun" is working hard and earning the right to own or do something. Fun comes from not having planned ahead to be prepared for every contingency. Even though that is fundamentally impossible, and Lisa knows this, the better prepared you are the lesser the fear will be and the more fun life will be. The fun and loss of fear that Lisa talks of both require lots of work. Perhaps that is why she always calls Glenbard High School "her" city. Even when confronted by older children serving on her counsel of advisors. Again, please note that Lisa's idea of fun is not the victory party after the battle. It's the fun of hard work in becoming prepared for the battle. Sometimes she is up all night planning and having fun. I have a friend who can fix anything on an automobile and build anything even an entire house. He often remarks that he loves to make a plan and see it come together. The coming together is his fun.

Nineteen-seventy-five may seem like an old copyright. I didn't discover the book until 1999 or so. I think the fact that the book is still in print says something about its timelessness. The Girl Who Owned A City is in my list of top ten post-apocalyptic novels. I recommend it to you with no excuse for the fact that its page number does not reach 200. O. T. Nelson knew how to write efficiently. Read the book and be moved. I bought ten so I could give it away.

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
Razorbill (Penguin), Copyright © 2005
Age Group: 14 up

I have mixed feelings about this novel. The story is over the top and Mr. Westerfeld's opinion of young adult sexuality is too low for me. Let me explain.

The scope of this story is impressive. Mr. Westerfeld's intense research has enabled him to create a parasite responsible for everything from cats stealing your breath at night to the Salem witch trials to vampires and werewolves. If I understand it correctly, this particular parasite was a side effect of the Bubonic plague seven hundred years ago. And if my guess is correct, Mr. Westerfeld's parasite is modeled after AIDS. Like AIDS, Peeps is transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids (i.e., not airborne). A person can also test positive for the Peeps parasite and exhibit only the more harmless side effects of the disease. Such people are called carriers and are used to hunt down Peeps for treatment. A Peep is someone who is positive parasite and exhibits all the symptoms. Cal is a carrier. He has super strength and agility and all of his senses have become more acute. He also has an intense craving for raw meat and sex. His job it to hunt down and bring in Peeps for treatment. It's mostly a night job.

Humans infected with this parasite exhibit many of the behaviors that have become a part of the Vampire legend. For example, they become super strong, their bodies become gaunt, they are cannibalistic in early stages of the disease, often bite, hate the sun and therefore only come out at night, cannot stand their own reflection and thus avoid mirrors and even fear the crucifix if they are religious. Furthermore, any aspect of their former life becomes anathema to them (a cleaver Westerfeld addition). Say one was an Elvis fan, then pictures of the King would cause them to cringe and try to hide. You could push one of these Vampires into the back of a van by slapping Elvis posters on the walls (both sides) of a room, the open doors and the doors of the van. Those who hunt the Peeps often use this strategy to corner them for capture and treatment. I should add that one can never be cured but the disease can be controlled.

The story is about a 19-year-old young man named Cal who must find and bring all of his unintended victims to treatment. He uses his heightened abilities mentioned above to do so. The other characters in this book are cardboard stand up figures. Even Lace who becomes his love and partner by the end of the book. They are made of some ethereal material and could be easily substituted. However, they serve the function of helping to tell Cal's story very well. Westerfeld does wonders with the rats in the story.

I think there are two flaws in this novel. First, every other chapter is a 2- to 3-page treatise on what a particular virus does in our body. A different parasite every other chapter. I found these info chapters to be a disruption and distraction to my reading of the novel. I read them because I am a reviewer and I can also state that I found they do nothing to contribute to the story. Therefore, the story is weakened by their presence. Like a brick wall, they stop the story on a dime and leave us wondering where this stuff came from. The explanation off the parasite the novel is based upon was more than sufficient and germane in the text of the story.

My second problem with the book is the amount of references to Cal's sexuality. I am categorically against the inclusion of more references to human sexuality than are absolutely necessary. I have found that in general it adds nothing to the story but instead is a distraction. In this particular novel we need to know that the parasite is transmitted only through the exchange of bodily fluids. That's a must; however, must we be so personal? There are four statements in the story about Cal's loss of his virginity of which he seems most cavalier.

Of course it had to be explained how Cal became a carrier of the parasite, but it did not require multiple references. If he regretted losing his virginity, that would be one thing; but Cal seems to be proud that he has lost his innocence. Other sexual references that I found offensive include, but are not limited to, the following: give a boy the loss of his virginity and not much else is remembered, shagging one another and getting laid all over town. And why does an increased sexual drive need to be one of the enhanced aspects of being a carrier or a Peep? I mean, here we had an innocent youth who once he losses his virginity goes around like a wind-up toy and unknowingly passes the parasite to a large number of girls. So many that his first task is to hunt down all his victims and bring them in for treatment. Does this make sense to you?

Having been a student or professor of child development and family relations for over thirty years, I am well aware of the research findings that show teen pregnancy and the spread of STD's to currently be at epidemic levels. Do we think we are helping teens adjust to their sexuality by including it so much in the books we write for them? Granted this book is far from most of the erotic vampire stories written for this age group. What is the message we want to send? That it's okay to give up your most precious gift on a whim or to save it for someone who deserves it. Is giving it up more important than keeping it safe? After all, it can only be given up once and then it's gone.

And so, my review is mixed. I think it was ingenious to use a sexually transmitted disease (AIDS is my guess) as a model for spreading the disease. However, all of that could have been explained with a little distance rather than making it so personal to our protagonist Cal. Yes, intercourse is how he acquired the disease. No, we don't need to know that he is proud of that moment. In this instance it is more a tragedy than something to be celebrated since it turned him into a monster. Cal doesn't seem to connect those two things. He fondly remembers losing his virginity when he should be angry about the circumstances in which he gave it up. Please pardon my parochial attitude.

Z For Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien
Simon Pulse (Simon & Shuster), Copyright © 1974
Age Group: 12 up

Ann Burden is alone. She is also a remarkable young woman (not quite 16 in the beginning of the novel). The world as we know it has ended by nuclear disaster. We are, appropriately, given little to no details of the war because that's not what this book is about. Z is about inner strength and how it rises to the surface when faced with horrible adversity and circumstances.

Ann has survived because she lives is a deep valley surrounded by an enormous mountain range. I picture it to be somewhere out west in the Rockies. Ann's mountains are so closely packed together, and so tall, that the wind and storms cannot carry the deadly radiation into the valley. The rest of the nation is a charred and barren wasteland while Ann's valley is fertile and verdant.

The circumstances that leave Ann alone in this valley are almost comical, but are also so true to human nature. We just have to know, don't we? And we have to see it with our own eyes, right? After being cut off from the outside world and from the first town over the mountain, Ann's father becomes anxious to receive news regarding their situation. When Ann's father says he's going and nothing will stop him, Ann's mother willfully states she is going too. They leave Ann and her little brother in charge of the farm until they return. However, while the wagon is sitting outside ready to go and people are doing last minute things, Ann's little brother climbs under the tarp and hides himself in the wagon. They ride off in the horse drawn wagon and leave Ann all alone.

In this beautiful valley surrounded by majestic mountains, Ann lives in her parent's house on the family farm. She has everything she needs to survive (i.e., cows, chickens, fields to grow food) except human companionship. Having waited long past her family's return date, Ann has come to terms with being alone for the rest of her life and is somewhat excited (yet wary) the day Mr. Loomis comes walking over the mountain. His green plastic suit covers him completely as he pulls a cart covered in plastic tarp of the same color and material. Mr. Loomis' arrival changes everything.

Robert C. O'Brien is the master of writing about surviving alone; and of his three major books, Z is his best. He paints with a very fine brush and his small strokes cover every detail. The reader is held captive from one page to the next watching Ann Burden deal with tragedy after tragedy. The reader is plunged into Ann's world as she spins ever deeper toward total disaster but, amazingly, without despair. Ann just keeps on going. She's like the Energizer Bunny only tougher and smarter.

One final, good thing about this book is that Z for Zachariah is great for introducing people to post-apocalyptic science fiction, whether they are old or young. Especially those who are a bit wimpy and would not survive such classics as No Blade of Grass by John Christopher, or Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, or newer works such as Shade's Children by Garth Nix. Although dark in its subject matter, Z for Zachariah is palatable for most readers. Awful things happen almost before you realize what has gone down. I have read this book so many times I've lost count. I keep ten on hand at all times to loan or give away. It seems to be the kind of book that cycles through your life and speaks to you saying, "It's time to read me again." There should be no question in your mind, dear reader, that I recommend this book without any reservation. Enjoy.

Poison by Chris Wooding
Orchard Books, Copyright © 2003
Age Group: 12 up

Somewhere, right now, there's a pale and thin, 16-year-old woman with long black hair and violet eyes. She is writing our story and thus our lives. If she were to stop, our world would begin to fade and we all would begin to die. The fading and dying would get worse by the minute. Then, as she takes up her pen and writes, our world and ourselves would be renewed and we'd have no memory of what had just preceded that moment. Sounds fantastic doesn't it? Well, she's out there at the place where the realm of humans connects with all other realms (fairy, troll, elves, etc.). Pray she keeps on writing.

Poison has grown up in the black marshes, the poorest region in the human realm. The realm of Human is controlled by the Phaeries and man has been pushed back to the most undesirable regions. There is some talk of a great war but not even enough to draw a speculation.

There is little to eat and many diseases in the Black Marshes. Longevity is short and the Black Marsh people live in huts held up over the marsh by stilts and there are plank walkways between huts and the shore. Everything feels unsure beneath their feet, as it is all constantly swaying with the currents and wind. Most people are born in the marshes and die in the marshes without ever having ventured far enough to see what's over the next hill. It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from there.

The Marsh People have few traditions, but they always celebrate naming day. On the naming day, the day when you are considered an adult, a 16-year-old may give himself or herself any name they wish. Foxglove (Poison's real name) chose to name herself Poison to spite her stepmother. Poison's stepmother thought it fit her perfectly. However, as the novel progresses, we learn along with Foxglove that she is much more than Poison. She is many more things.

Not long after her naming day, Poison's little sister is taken by the Phaeries and swapped for a gruesome changeling. Poison vows to go to the Phaerie Realm and bring her sister back. Along the way, she picks up a few people who become friends and help her in her task. As in The Wizard of Oz, upon Poison's arrival at the central station where all realms meet, she finds out she must perform a very difficult task to get her sister back. And there is no guarantee that the Phaerie Lord who holds Azalea will keep his word. Nevertheless, Poison and her friends embark on the quest to save Azalea.

This is a rags to riches plot and a coming of age story. Character development is very good. Poison learns more about herself as you turn each page. She learns that she has courage, that she has compassion, that she can love others, and that quit is not in her vocabulary. Support characters change and grow as well. Not to the depth Poison does, but well enough to help fill out the story. I particularly like Bram. He begins by giving Poison a ride from her town and goes every step of theway with her, becoming a true father figure in her life. Whenever she asks him why he is willing to go past their first agreement, Bram replies, "It just wouldn't seem right to let you go in their alone. And then what would I think of myself?"

The plot twists around to an ending that will come as a surprise to most readers. I wasn't prepared for it, but it sure seemed right once I got there. If you like dark fantasy with a bit of morbidity and at the same time light humor, then you will love Poison. If you like watching the protagonist struggle and grow, you will love Poison. If you like coming of age stories, you will love Poison.

It could find no major flaws in this novel. It's not an outstanding story but is very entertaining and interesting. It's not a page-turner, but it will draw you back to read. I highly recommend it to you and may you enjoy it as much as I.


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