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
June 2006

The Cup of the World by John Dickinson
A David Flicking Book, Copyright © 2004
Hardcover, 432 pages
Age Group: 14 up

The inside flap of the dust jacket on my hardcover copy of this book speaks, "This is one of those books which hides within itself a secret, a story deeper than is possible to convey from this blurb or from the cover." If there is a deeper story within the one I read, then I'm a blockhead and missed it. I found the characters to be shallow enough to render them unbelievable and not memorable. They are what I call cardboard stand ups. In spite of positive book reviews from The School Library Journal and Booklist, the book simply didn't work for me and there was little pleasure in reading it. I slogged through each page waiting to discover the secret to the last page. I have a rule that demands I give every book a one hundred page start. If the book has anything that interests me, I finish it. Although I read the book, I feel like I violated my rule. If not for this column, I would have set this book down at one hundred pages. As the saying goes, so many books and so little time.

We begin with Phaedra, daughter of the Warden of Trent, in some unknown kingdom that is loosely in a fantasy context. She is 16-years-old and ripe for marriage, or so the custom of the land suggests. Yet Phaedra does not want to marry any of the dozens of princes and knights who come courting. Most distressing to her father is her rejection of even the king's son. Her heart belongs to a secret man who visits her in her dreams and has done so since childhood. One night she tells her dream lover that she does not wish to wed and asks if he can help her. Yes, is his answer and he comes for her later that night. They are soon wed and all appears to be a fairy tale come true. Not long after, we realize the truth -- that Ulfin is not the man Phaedra thought as he leads the country into civil war and practices black magic. But we are never told the price he pays for his magic. Remember, there is always a price or trade of something for the use of magic. It is possible the secret to be discovered, which comes very late in the book, is how exactly he uses his magic.

Enter secret combinations, espionage, political machinations, promises broken, nothing forgiven and nowhere to run. The reader shares the ignorance of events that perplexes Phaedra. We know only what she knows. There are no chapters about Ulfin's activities and use of magic to achieve his goals. He remains aloof throughout the book and most of what we learn of his actives comes as rumor and speculation. We, like Phaedra, must assume everything. I found this technique to be very annoying.

As you might expect Phaedra finds herself alone after a few weeks (honeymoon) with the man she loves. She rarely sees him and eventually takes to following him and showing up everywhere, to his everlasting chagrin. The ending is the result of the book merely grinding to a halt. Much like the worn out and squeaky brakes on a very old car. This was a painful reading for me and I suggest, if the positive aspects I mentioned above are enough, that you wait for the paperback.

Shade's Children by Garth Nix
EOS, Copyright © 1998
Paperback, 352 pages
Age Group: 12 up

Imagine you woke up one morning to find that everyone over fourteen years old was gone. Not dead, no bones, no ashes, just gone. As you wander the street in search of your missing family members, children begin to bunch together in groups seeking security. You're herded into large dorms, raised by drones and when you reach the ripe old age of fourteen you are sent to the meat factory where your body and brains are harvested to make the Cyborg soldiers the Overlords use in their war games. I, for one, cannot imagine a darker future.

In such a world it would not take long for our culture to disappear as new generations are born into a world devoid of anyone to teach them. Did I forget to mention that a few girls are allowed to grow older than fourteen? They are used to breed additional children, as the Overlords need large armies to fight their games. Cyborgs, when not hunting stray children or patrolling, fight the war games of the Overlords and many are destroyed. Harvesting the brains and muscles of children enables the war games to go on infinitely.

So, here we have a world of children who have been raised by machines incapable of showing love and to whom nurturance is a foreign concept. I'm not sure how long the world has been this way, but it is clear that the children live and die at the will of the Overlords. They are fed and clothed, herded here and there, grope at one another as puberty nears and whisper the myths about long ago. Although the collective memory of before times is little more than shadow, it is enough to drive some children to escape from the dorms. Most who do so are quickly caught then killed or harvested. Some, who are a little brighter or have better instincts, may survive long enough to be recruited by Shade.

And just exactly who is Shade? A college professor before the 'change,' he manages to be the only adult present other than the Overlords. Is he friend or foe? Guardian or Golem? Parent or punisher? And are the children his progeny or his property? I'll never tell.

Into this grisly background Nix inserts four humans the reader cannot help but love: Ella, Drum, Ninde and Gold-Eye. Each of these children has a special gift -- a change-talent. It is truly ironic that the very power that destroyed their world would also gives the children gifts to help them combat the evil they face. But as in all good speculative fiction, there is a price to pay for the use of one's change-talent or magic.

The world Garth Nix has created in Shade's Children is unique and provocative. Nix's world is a tight construction that begs many questions. Would some, if they had the means to create it, desire such a change in the world? Is there a part of each of us that identifies with the Overlords? Do we admire them and desire to wield their power? Is our society becoming hardened to children? Have we ceased to value children as were once highly valued? How far removed from the day cares of today are the dorms of Garth Nix's future?

Garth Nix writes with a fluidity and depth that is soul satisfying to the avid reader. His characters are more complex than they appear at first glance and one cannot help but care about them and their future. I have so enjoyed this book and find myself so impressed with Garth Nix that I have ordered everything that he has written that I may embark on a Garth Nix marathon.

Shade's Children won the following recognitions:

  • 1997 American Book Association Pick of the Lists
  • 1997 Aurealis Award Nomination
  • 1997 CBCA Notable Book
  • 1998 American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults
  • It has been short listed for the Heartland Prize (US), the 2000 Pacific Northwest Reader's Choice (US), the South Carolina Reader's Choice Awards, the Evergreen YA Award and the Garden State Young Reader's Award.

Wolf Brother: Book 1 in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver
Harper Collins, Copyright © 2004
Hardcover, 304 pages
Age Group: 10-15

Torak, a 12-year-old, finds himself alone and with a terrible burden that he does not understand. Torak has spent his life living in the forest with his father. They are part of no particular clan. It's been a good life in spite of the fact that it happened six thousand years ago. The book opens with the death of Torak's father who was mauled and then attacked a second time by a bear possessed of a demon spirit. Torak is given last-minute instructions from his father who knows the bear will return for him. His father instructs him to go to the Mountain of the World Spirit, collecting three sacred objects hidden along the way, before the moon turns red in order to destroy the demon-bear. His father also instructs Torak that he has a gift. He is the Listener but his father is not able to tell him more because of imminent bear attack. Thus another task is set before Torak. He must discover for himself what it means to be the Listener and a warrior.

And so we find a Torak who is overburdened, overwhelmed and overwrought. If he does not succeed, the bear will continue to kill everything alive until the forest and clans are destroyed. Sometimes just from rage the demon-bear will pull trees from the ground or break them in half. The demon-bear kills for the sake of killing. It doesn't appear that the bear receives any pleasure from the destruction and havoc it creates. It just kills.

Having seen this huge, horrible, haunting bear-thing and having lost his father, Torak is cast into this quest alone. Along the way he meets the Raven clan where he will be given important advice, find a companion for the journey and a rival as well. He is helped in escaping the clan by Renn, a girl about his age who is more warrior than the mage she has been trained to be although those skills will come in handy along the trail. Torak and Renn encounter many obstacles and hardships on their trek to find the spiritual artifacts and reach the mountain in time. Their resourcefulness and tenacity are all that keeps them from giving up every step of the way. This section of the book, the middle for want of a better name, is quite the entertaining read and moves along at a brisk pace. At times the action and suspense is breath taking and the reader can barely wait to turn the page. The characters are real and take on a life of their own seemingly sprung from the page and looking over your shoulder.

Probably the lightest part of the book regards the wolf cub that Torak finds alone among the bear-ruined remains of the cub's pack. The wolf and boy seem to adopt each other and it is in this relationship that we learn the most about the Torak's gift. He seems to be able to communicate with the wolf as well as being in tune to the thoughts of others animals. Furthermore, the cub appears to be the guide Torak's father said would come to him in the forest and at times does indeed show the way. Yet Renn, of the Raven Clan, does her fair share of leading as well. The wolf cub seems most helpful when they come to forks in the path. Together they make a comical threesome.

I have a couple problems with the book that made it an unrewarding read when the last page was turned. One, Torak rarely acts like a 12-year-old. His actions, strategies, and words make him seem to be nineteen or so. Occasionally Paver has him make a remark about his lack of confidence in himself or how overwhelming it all seems. So would any one when facing a demon possessed bear and given such a heavy charge. Two, Torak never really faces off with the bear. The reader is lead to believe some kind of face-to-face confrontation must occur for Torak to complete his task. I waited for this face off until the very last page of the book. There always seems to be something that makes it possible for Torak to avoid actual combat with the bear. Of course we know from what the bear did to his father that Torak hardly stands a chance. On the other hand, he has the magic of the three artifacts he has collected along the way.

It is mostly this anticlimactic ending that disappoints me. I suppose after volumes two and three are released and one can read the sequels together that the ending won't be such a letdown. I am reminded of Stephen R. Donaldson's Mordant's Need. The set contains two, very large volumes (nearly one thousand pages each, that break in the middle at the end of sentence. The second volume starts with the next sentence. I was sure I would die until the second volume was released. Now you can get them both in paperback and not suffer as did I. Perhaps Paver plans on the next volume to connect as closely to the first as are Donaldson's The Mirror of her Dreams and A Man Rides Through. This may be a great publishing technique, but I prefer some kind of closure at the end of a book. Torak still has much to learn about himself and his gift. However, the demon-bear's destruction seems more contrived than a logical conclusion flowing naturally from the story line.

Downsiders by Neal Shusterman
Aladdin Paperbacks, Copyright © 2001
Paperback, 256 pages
Age Group: 12 up

Repeat after me . . . I, say your name, am no longer a Topsider. I have fallen through the cracks of Topside society. I renounce my name. I renounce the Topside. I renounce all its joys and evils. I shed all ties that held me there. Nothing holds me there. I swear never to seek the sky again for as long as I live. Having sworn so, you are declared fallen and have become a Downsider. Soon the fallen earn new names, as they become part of downsider society.

I have no trouble imagining a downsider civilization deep under New York City. I'm the kind of guy who drives by homes and wonders what the people who live there are like, what they do for a living and what they do for fun? Are they happy or sad? What conflicts do they face? Many a night driving across the country between Washington, DC and Provo, Utah, it was such muses that kept me awake behind the wheel. It takes little effort for me to turn my gaze to the ground and wonder if anyone lives under my feet.

Shusterman has developed a downsider society rich with traditions of hard work, family loyalty, dedication to the good of all and personal integrity. Downsiders by nature are devoted to the preservation of their society and to its isolation. They fear that contact with the topsiders (you and I) would contaminate their "nation" and ultimately destroy it. Saving fallers, topsiders who fall through the cracks of topsider society, is one of the few allowed contacts.

Our main characters are both 14-years-olds. Shusterman has given them a depth and richness than makes them larger than life. One soon comes to care about them very much. Talon lives in the downside. We first meet him with two companions as they save a would-be-suicide by induction into the downside (this occurs in a subway tunnel). Lindsey is a topsider and lives with her divorced father who has little time for her or her very mean stepbrother. Lindsey is a bright, self-reliant, confident teenager who is also very observant. It is little more than chance that brings Talon and Lindsey together. Talon craves contact with the topside and often comes all the way up to storm drains in public curbs and sidewalks where he can observe topside activity. Lindsey walks home from school the same way every day. It was only a matter of time until she spots someone tasting snowflakes under a storm drain grill. And when she does, Talon disappears. This does not stop Lindsay. Even though she is walking with a friend, she takes a headlong dive into the gutter to follow this mysterious boy.

Talon is a born leader but never aspires to any position. His leadership gifts are waiting inside for the right moment to open up. He's less a diamond in the rough and more like oil waiting to be discovered. When leadership is needed in the story, Talon can call it forth without fore thought. He can think fast, recognizes the most efficient way to solve a problem and goes about it without thought of remuneration. Aside from these special abilities, Talon is much like any youth in the downside. He enjoys the activities typical for his age and is obsessed with the topside. He is very resourceful in finding ways to observe topsiders. His clothes are made from patches of cloth worth saving from salvaged topsider clothing. He wears a Rolex on is right ankle because time is of low priority.

Ultimately Lindsey gets a tour of the downside even though it is punishable by law to bring a topsider into the downside. Talon is fast and no one knows the tunnels of the downside, as does he. He gets her in and out with little trouble. This, of course, fuels Lindsey's interest in the downside and their interest in each other. They come to know each other better when Talon later calls upon Lindsey to help him get medicine (something the downside lacks other than herbs) for his dying sister. Such faith in Lindsey is a foreshadowing of Talon's regard for Lindsey and his faith in her when she is the bearer of hard evidence that could destroy the downside.

Events conspire to threaten the very existence of the downside. This is such a delightful adventure fantasy and it's very hard for me to write this review without giving you details. Any that I let slip would ruin the freshness of the read for you. What cataclysmic event threatens to bring topside and downside together? Do the topside and downside meet? Is destruction of the downside imminent? What becomes of Talon and Lindsey? Who saves the downside and becomes their 'most beloved' leader? I highly recommend you read this book and find out the answers to these questions and many more. The story is fully resolved at the end and leaves one felling positive about life and its possibilities.


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