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
May 2006

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer
Hyperion, Copyright © 2001
Age Group: 12 up

Harry Potter has turned to the dark side of the force. He has become a minion of Lord Voldemort and changed his name to Artemis Fowl. As Fowl, he twists the good magic he learned to the under side where magic is used for one's own exultation. Fowl thinks of himself as the world's greatest criminal mastermind and we, the reader, are expected to accept this affirmation without a second thought. J. K. Rowling can relax. The Fowl series will not overcome the Potter heritage.

Twelve-year-old Artemis Fowl is the most ingenious criminal mastermind in the history of the world (or so he says). Artemis Fowl needs to save his family from going broke due to some criminal mishaps of the previous generation of Fowls. Artemis plots to plunder the leprecons of most or all of their end-of-the-rainbow gold. Aided by his personal assistant Butler (clearly as ingenious a name as Fowl) he sets out to put his plans into action. However, he does not expect to deal with an agent from LEPrecon (Lower Elements Police Reconnaissance unit) named Holly and her boss Director Root.

Perhaps it's just me, but I have a hard time caring about a protagonist who's really the bad guy. Fowl is not even a reformed bad guy trying to gain redemption. Nor is he a good guy being forced to do evil by some greater power or seduced by a greater power. I look for a character with depth, a sense of moral justice, and a personal weakness that makes him/her someone with whom I may identify. There is nothing charismatic about Artemis Fowl. I prefer a reluctant hero such as Ender Wiggin or Thomas Covenant. Someone who doesn't want to play the game in which they find themselves. Thus, Artemis was annoying. I wanted to see him fail in his efforts to rob the fairy world of their gold to save the criminal dwindling dynasty of his family. I did not find the plot to be fantastical; most of the other characters were annoying (especially LEPrecon director Root). Holly the LEPrecon agent sent in to solve the problem was ineffective. The only character with depth was Foaly, the centaur. Reminiscent of Q from the bond series of movies, Foaly is the creative inventor of all of LEPrecon's gadgets and is as quick with a witty or sarcastic remark as Bond himself.

Many have called this book a "romp" but I think of it more as a "stomp." It stomped my desire to ever read another Artemis Fowl romp right out of my head. My feelings about this book and my reading experience are ho hum. It's as well written as any constant reader would want, but there is no real surprise to the ending because Colfer never really makes Fowl as dark a character as is needed for this story to work. Fowl instead comes off as a bad sort with a hidden heart of gold (no pun intended). Yes, at the end Fowl does the right thing, er, at least half the right thing. The narrative reads well and fast. Save the Fowl series for when you have nothing better to read -- like on vacation with your parents. Vacation usually casts an entirely different light upon the things we do and read. In other words, Artemis Fowl's attraction could increase exponentially compared to the third visit to Sea World or some other attraction or activity your parents think you will enjoy or is good for you.

Eoin Colfer is not a bad writer. Check out The Supernaturalist. It's one of my most favorite books.

Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment by James Patterson
Little-Brown, Copyright © 2005
Age Group: 15 up

Maximum Ride is a young adult science fiction novel based on another thriller known as When The Wind Blows by James Patterson. Book bios say that Mr. Patterson is the worldwide best selling author of thrillers. Nevertheless, having read both they have run together in my mind as one story. So the review I'm writing here is somewhat generic in nature. Even so, Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment was the best read of all, and if you read it you don't need to waste your time with the other.

It is a story of genetic engineering and the associated tragedy and trauma. It is also a tale of survival and triumph. It is the saga of several children who belong to the same "flock" ranging in ages ten to seventeen. They take a daring chance at escape from the doctors who have manipulated their DNA. In the lab they are kept in animal cages and treated with contempt. Often put to sleep for insignificant reasons. Did I forget to mention that these youth have been genetically designed for flight? With nine and ten foot wingspans, these kids can really fly. As my pilot brother said of Superman: The Movie, "It's the best flying I've ever seen." Every time they went into a rapid dive or climbed to great heights on thermal winds, in my mind's eye, I was there and it gave me chills.

Babies for the Angel Experiment are acquired through bogus clinics across the country. The stolen infants are spirited off to the secret lab somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. If the book has a weakness, it's because we never know who the real villain is. We don't ever know who's funding the experiments, why they are doing this, where the money comes from or who will benefit. Are they thinking of an army of winged soldiers who don't need parachutes? Do they want to harvest the stronger hearts and other organs that have increased capacity for flight? We never know and are forced to accept the doctors and lab technicians as the only enemy when we know there's someone else. Is it the CIA, FBI, NSA, DOE, CID or some other government agency? It is suggested in the book that it is the government, but whoever it is must have very deep pockets.

At first one is left to feel that some of the doctors are involved for pure science while others are forced to participate to save their lives. However as the book progresses one soon becomes introduced to all the doctors and none have redeeming qualities. Here's a good example of how all the people who interact with the flock behave. The winged children call the head of the security team "Uncle." In the lab he brings them treats and tells them he loves them. Later he uses this love to get them to go peacefully when it's time for that particular child to be put down or hunted in the mountains after escape. Uncle comes along, talks them down from the tree by telling the angel that he loves them. Once he has them at hand, it's back to the lab.

Maximum Ride (Max) is the brain behind the escape and a co-leader of the flock. Max is so smart that the doctors at the lab put her to work entering data and such. This kept her from having to spend as much time in the animal cages and provided the opportunity to explore the data and find out what was going on within the organization. In doing so she learns just enough to get them out of the lab and into a limited freedom.

This was the second delightful book I read about children who could fly. In this case, however, the children could really fly and without the aid of helium filled water wings. The descriptions of their graceful flying makes one feel like jumping out of a second story window. For anyone who ever wanted to fly, this is the book. You might want to also check out Growing Wings by Laurel Winter.

Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson
Hyperion, Copyright © 2004
Age Group: 12 up

Here lies a perfectly plausible prequel to Peter Pan. I think Barrie would be happy with this book rather than turning over in his grave. (Can the dead really do that? I wonder.) Peter and the lost boys are orphans being sent to King Zarboff to be slaves. Also aboard the ship is a strange trunk. Later we discover it's full of starstuff.

Who are Starcatchers? They are the very ones who collect Starstuff. Point in fact, they find it and stash it to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Starstuff is very powerful for something as ethereal as Pixie dust. Just a tiny bit can make you fly like a bird. A whole trunk load would allow you to conquer the world and live forever. Starcatchers keep this from happening by collecting all the starstuff that falls from the heavens and then guarding it forever. Makes one think of the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail. Just imagine what King Zarboff could do with it. Starstuff is so powerful that just touching the truck wherein it hides can lift you off your feet and make you hear tiny bells ringing. That alone can be very addicting.

Peter finds himself in the midst of a struggle to keep the Starstuff out of evil hands. He is also introduced to Molly who at age thirteen is herself a starcatcher. Peter comes to her aid and is soon her ally in the battle to keep Starstuff out of pirate hands. It is here that we meet the future Captain Hook, although in this book he has both hands and goes by the name of Black Stache, so named for his very long mustache. We also discover the origins of all the characters in Never Never Land.

There is only one thing that annoyed me during the reading of this book. Black Stache has a very limited vocabulary when he's upset. Throughout the book he calls anyone who crosses his path and makes him angry an idjit. Idjit? From the mouth of a ferocious pirate? Without resorting to swearing, surely the authors could have found or created some other words he could call people. Like, you twit or you dope. I looked idjit up in several dictionaries and could find no definition of the word. Idjit appears on nearly every page of the book and becomes as annoying as a fly buzzing around your head. It's a ridiculous word, especially from the foul mouth of a pirate. I'm sure the authors were trying to conform to young adult reading standards but they needed to vary Black Stache's swearing vocabulary. It's not hard to come with alternatives. Just watch: you peeling puss dripping porpoise waste. You lump of whale barf. What about traditional sea going threats like; another word out of you and a good keelhauling is what you'll get. You incompetent nincompoop. Shut up you barnacle. Get out of my way you giant piece of pulsating whale blubber. Shall I go on or is it clear that Captain Black Stache could have been more expressive without resulting to real swearing? It requires a huge suppression of disbelief to accept a pirate as the meanest and vilest in the world when the only word that comes out of his mouth in anger is idjit.

River Rats by Caroline Stevermer
Harcourt, Copyright © 1992
Age Group: 12 up

I was enamored with this book when I read it ten years ago. Having just re-read it for this column, I find I love the book even more. I must admit that post-apocalyptic science fiction is my favorite genre -- that may prove to introduce some bias on my part. All things being equal, River Rats is one of those kinds of books that never leave your mind. I give my highest recommendation of this book and wish I were a river rat myself.

The River Rat is a paddle-wheel steamboat built to be a museum. For a long time after the flash (sounds nuclear but was a neotyphoid or some other pestilence), she served as an orphanage for children. That should tell you that she is a full size boat with lots of cabins. A huge storm comes up and to save the River Rat several children who have been studying how such ships were handled in their day, come together to save the ship. They stoke up the fire and fill the boilers with water. The River Rat gets away in time to keep from being dashed to pieces against the pier.

Eventually the crew of the River Rat comes down to six kids ranging from twelve to sixteen or seventeen. The crew consists of Esteban (pilot), Toby (captain), Spike (boiler room and engines), Lindsy (Karate Kid), Jake (soundings, engine room, pilot) and Tomcat (prime soundings). The story is told from Tomcat's point of view.

Each of the characters is unique and we are given enough information about them to keep them from becoming cardboard stand-ups. For example: Toby is captain of the ship. A 14- or 15-year-old girl who wears a baggy coat and a top hat. No one would guess she was a girl. Toby is an excellent captain and gives unbiased orders in a soft but stern manner. None of the other crew would dare to argue with her. Esteban is pretty colorful as well. He has a habit of walking into a discussion and letting lose with one of his wisdoms. "Breath is the greatest strength. Physical strength must be the handservant of spiritual strength" and even stranger things.

The Rats sail up and down the poison Mississippi and survive by trading rock concerts (each plays a different instrument) for food and supplies. They also carry the mail up and down the river. This, and foraging in the ruins, keeps food in their stomachs and coal in the River Rat's fireboxes.

The River Rats have a rule -- no passengers. Passengers bring bad luck! Soon they are forced to take on a passenger to keep the man from drowning. His name is King and that's where the trouble begins. It isn't long before they are attacked and boarded by evil Lesters. The Lesters force the River Rat back up the river to a ruined city I imagine to be St. Louis. The Rats and Mr. King must search the city for the Pharaoh's tomb where it is rumored that guns exist. It has been so long since the flash that most people who had guns have run out of ammunition. With new guns and ammunition the Lesters could rule their world.

While in the city they are captured by the legendary wild boys. The wild boys are reminiscent of the lost boys of Peter Pan fame. They are indeed wild but not too wild to have a leader and others of rank or hunt together to support themselves. When you join the wild boys all of your hair is cut off. You can tell how long someone has been a wild boy by the length of his or her filthy hair. The wild boys are an interesting and fun diversion but they really have little to do with the main plot.

River Rats has won the following awards: The Minnesota Book Award, The Golden Duck Award for Best Young Adult Science Fiction, An ALA Best Book for Young Adults Award and A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age. Give it a try, as there's nothing to lose.

Invitation to the Game by Monica Hughes - Contains a great premise for a story with the potential for very likeable and real characters. Invitation comes as close to being good writing as paint-by-numbers comes to being art. Don't waste your time.


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