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 2007

Fire-Us Trilogy: Book 1 - The Kindling by Jennifer Armstrong & Nancy Butcher
HarperCollins, Copyright © 2002
283 pages
Age Group: 10 up

Sometimes you can find the greatest books just browsing in the public library. I have a tendency to go to Borders and buy whatever I want to read instead. Then I usually end up giving it away. Recently I went to the library on a flash to find two good young adult novels that were not Science Fiction, Fantasy or Horror. Well it's impossible to just find two good YA books, but that's another story. While pulling books off the shelf for a closer look, I stumbled over a trilogy sitting on the top shelf. They say you can't judge a book by it's cover, but that's what first attracted me - the artwork. A closer inspection revealed that the trilogy was post-apocalyptic. If you've read my column before, you may know that this is my favorite sub-genre. Well, it has all turned out to be so much better than I had hopped. Each of these books deserves a review. Consider this paragraph the introduction to the May 2007 reviews.

A killing virus, from who knows where, hits the nation, perhaps the entire world. The virus only attacks adults. It gives them a really high fever that kills. Left behind are all the children and infants. Many of the children die of starvation, from animals that turn wild (dogs & cats), real wild animals that are drawn down out of the hills by the smell of blood, other hazards and accidents. The very young, infants and preschoolers, are the most likely to die, as they are too small to defend themselves. Teddy Bear, one of our family of children, watched an alligator carry his baby sister off while he screamed for help from dead parents.

Our family of children consists of ten children who found themselves together in the darkness of Fire-us day and decided to stick together. We have Angerman, Action Figure, Hunter, Mommy, Teacher, Teddy Bear, Baby, Doll, Puppy and Kitty. The book begins with six of these family members and adds the others as the story proceeds. Not remembering much at all about the "before time," their names come from the roles they play. Mommy cares for all of them but mostly the little children. Hunter forages for food and clothing. Teacher teaches the younger children and records in "The Book" everything that happens to them including children's dreams. Action Figure is my favorite. He helps Hunter most of the time but is very like Peter Pan. The little one's names are age appropriate.

Mother is 14-years-old. I figure the rest of the older children are 14 plus or minus 1-2 years. The oldest seems to be Angerman. I base this on his size and the huge amount he remembers about the before times.

Teacher's book is a very special book. Teacher consults the books for help in making decisions whenever they are faced with a new crisis (and life after the fire is all crisis). From the past experiences recorded there and the pasted in ads and brochures, Teacher is able to gain wisdom that is life saving in many instances. What she does is almost magic as she divines over the pages and draws inspiration from what's written there. Here are some examples of wise statements from the book: "Kids Under Ten Eat Free," "Buy Now Pay Later" and "Crop Losses Mean Higher Prices." On the other hand, here is an example of Teacher's writing:

When Fire-us came in summertime 2002, First Mommies and First Daddies tried to run away from it. They put us in the cars and we left our First Homes. But then Fire-us caught them and they burnt up, andus kids were left alone here in the hot place (Florida). We lost our names. We lost our brothers and sisters. But now we're Teacher and Mommy and Hunter, and we have little ones with us. We're a family.

The Book is a very special and sacred object. Teacher doesn't let it out of her sight. For your information, midway through the book we learn that Fire-us day was in the summer of 2001. I prefer the 2001 date, as it seems to fit with the ages of the children and what they remember.

One day Angerman decided they should leave because there is next to nothing left in Lazarus, Florida, in the way of food and water. He suggests that they leave and travel to Washington to find the president or some other adult who may have survived. Angerman wants to know what caused the Fire-Us and if the family will get it and die.

This idea tears the family apart. The biggest obstruction to all going is that the mother is agoraphobic and there are family members who feel they should stay with her. Just as Angerman and some of the children set off, Mommy comes running out of the house yelling, "Wait, we'll all come."

Here begins one the most outstanding adventures I've read to date. I love the character development in this story. They are deep, rich, and each has been touched by the Fire-Us in a different way. They're all a little bit crazy and as Billy Joel sings, "It just might be a lunatic you're lookin' for." It takes a little craziness for four teenagers to lead five children out into an unknown world that possibly holds disaster at every turn. But they are resourceful, smart and dedicated to their family. This is the glue that holds them together through the rest of the book. Enjoy!

Fire-Us Trilogy: Book 2 - The Keepers of the Flame by Jennifer Armstrong & Nancy Butcher
HarperCollins, Copyright © 2002
280 pages
Age Group: 10 up

Eleven children (a new family member joins) ranging in age from five to fifteen continue to make their way north to Washington, DC, to find the president, if he's still alive, and get some answers to pertinent questions regarding their survival and future in a nation of children.

We rejoin our original cast of characters in this second book of the Fire-Us Trilogy (another child joins the family towards the end of the book). I have a problem calling all of these characters children. Clearly the older children have taken on serious adult roles as parents and protectors. All of these older children are responsible for providing different family needs such as mothering, providing sustenance and serving as a buffer between the harsh world and the younger children. Even the younger children are often fearless and capable.

And the world that has been left to this family is indeed hard. There are no adults to lead the way towards manhood and womanhood. These steps must be discovered. There is, likewise, no one to care for the family. Food and water can usually be scrounged up, but not as easily as shelter. There are empty houses and motels everywhere. Often with clean sheets and stores of some kind. Even a map of all the chain motels in the state can provide much-needed information such as the main roads to Washington. It brings the story closer to me to know they are traveling north on the I-95 interstate since I live along that corridor myself.

Things begin well in this second installment. And we do meet a group of adults called The Keepers of the Flame. At first the adults seem kind and genuinely happy to see the family. Since they live inside a shopping mall, it is easy to provide new clothing, shoes and three square meals a day. This family has never had it so good. The adults appear to be sincere but there are signs that mark them as having a darker side than we are shown at first.

The Keepers appear to have formed a religious cult that turns out to be very cruel. There are few children with the adults and they separate our family group immediately. All of this looks for the good until their underhanded motives are slowly discovered. The family must escape from these people, and one of the Keepers' children, Cory, helps them. If not she would be wedded off to some mysterious man (she is physically becoming a woman) called the supreme leader and never seen again. The exact nature of many aspects of this group is never revealed. I think the authors had a great idea here. Not telling everything keeps the reader wondering and reading as well as reduces the size of the book. In fact, the Keepers could take over the entire book if the authors hadn't been careful. Lots of story material here.

Angerman is clearly the oldest, for when he's not talking to that stupid mannequin he calls Bad Guy, he actually makes sense and seems to know a lot of stuff. I would say that Mommy, Hunter, and Cory are about the same age, say thirteen to fourteen. Cory has yet to take a particular role. Teddy Bear, Doll and Baby appear to be between seven and ten. Then the twins, Kitty and Puppy, would be the five-year-olds.

Each of the older characters are well developed. They have unique and different personalities and they don't always get along with each other, as different people often don't. They have already taken on a life of their own in book one. Angerman's character is developed to the fullest. He is highly intelligent, can grasp a situation and ferret out the solution quickly. He also remembers the most about the before time (i.e., before the adults all died) and in greater detail. There is also the crazy side of Angerman that talks to the mannequin. He has conversations with it that sometimes get in the way of important things he is doing. I can't wait till he gets rid of that thing. More often than not it appears that he is going to dispose of it, but in the last moment he can't part with it. He has reduced it down to the head only and I see this as a positive move.

As an aside, none of the other family members have ever yelled at him or complained about Bad Guy. Even though it keeps him from being able to carry any of the much-needed supplies in his backpack.

Mommy is perhaps the character with the most authority over the family. Even Angerman will listen to her, whether it is in the middle of an emergency or just to stop his conversation with Bad Guy. For her age, Mommy takes her role very seriously. She is angered when the Keepers take her children from her. Mommy must have had a wonderful mother for a role model. Her ample skills as a Mommy cannot be picked up along the road to Washington.

Hunter comes next. He might have at one time been equal to Mommy in power, but he is quick to hand over the power if the idea is better than his. When the family takes a vote to leave the Keepers of the Flame, he is the only dissenter. He never grumbles about it but goes with the flow of the family decision. Hunter is the scrounger for food and supplies. He's proud of this role and performs it without being asked.

Teacher has little authority when it comes to decision making unless she has been asked to seek an answer or inspiration from the book she keeps. Her book is simultaneously magic 8-ball, scripture, and the family's journal. In it Teacher records everything that happens to the children, even their dreams. She turns to the book frequently and, as holder of the volume, is the natural teacher of thesmall children.

Cory is in this older age group but is so new to the family she does not have a role yet. However, she can be counted on in a good fight.

Action Figure is next in age I believe. He really has little authority and responsibility. He is very like a feral child and reminds me of one of the lost boys in Peter Pan. He scampers around a lot, climbs trees, runs ahead, etc. He will stay put when told.

The rest of the children from Teddy Bear to the twins are not as well developed and also of a much younger age wherein they cannot assume much responsibility.

This second volume is a rip-roaring ride around religious fanatics. Strap on your seat belt when you read this book. It comes with as high a reputation as book one and can be found at Alibris.com for as little as $2.95. I have rarely read a trilogy as exciting as this. I literally cannot put it down and carry it with me everywhere and secretly read in it when no one is looking. Enjoy.

Fire-Us Trilogy: Book 3 - The Kiln by Jennifer Armstrong & Nancy Butcher
HarperCollins, Copyright © 2002
244 pages
Age Group: 12 up

I don't think I mentioned before that the Fire-us trilogy is a dark post-apocalyptic novel. I said it was apocalyptic but have never rated it on its darkness. Book one isn't very dark. It's a book about coming together, becoming a family and setting out on a quest. Book two is about returning from the quest and is somewhat darker. Our band of 10 children survive and welcome a new member. Book three, this volume, is overcoming the monster and returning from the quest. It is much darker than the first two books.

Of the three books I believe this one should be rated as 15 and up. Younger teens, and those pre-teens into whose hands the book may fall, may be surprised to encounter someone more evil than Darth Vader manipulating families and their children. We don't have to worry about Darth Vader because he can't touch us. However, the monster in book three was once someone's father, uncle or brother. That brings the horror of book three much closer to home.

There isn't anything in book three that should be kept from young adults. I think it comes as a horrid surprise, and my reaction to the knowledge was much on par as the characters in the novel. I was apprehensive and concerned for those involved, if not somewhat struck by the horror of it all. From the point of the author, if there needs to be an evil character behind all our heroes go through, he must be made to look evil. Nor are the ways in which the "supreme leader" is evil something that young adults don't already know about or have not studied in school.

Once more our band of eleven children, ranging in age from five to fourteen years, set out to save the world. It's really not as grandiose as that sounds. What they really set out to do is make the world a safe place to live for the younger members of their "family." One must wonder how these children think they can stand against the leader of a huge religious cult. The family doesn't even know what they are going to do, but it doesn't stop them. It could be their stubbornness that is one of the traits that makes the reader come to love these children.

After studying the family scrapbook, much like we might peruse scripture, Teacher decides it's time to go or they will be too late. They have a plan but they don't know if they can trust the other person upon whom the plan depends. One or all of them might not return, and still they go. The children they care for are brought into the supreme leader's compound right in front of them and still they move forward. They fear that these children they have picked up and call their own will be "tested" while in the compound and still they go on. The last strains of the manmade virus must be destroyed or they'll have no place to go back to. So, they move ahead. They are admirable and that makes their lives important to the reader.

Once again we encounter adults. There is a feeling of foreboding when this is discovered. However, these grownups turn out to be a bunch of Grandma's who survived in an old folks home call "The Woods." Fortunately there is a doctor there who can see to our family's health and well-being. The doctor, named Nana, has a theory that the virus only strikes people between puberty and old age. Since all of the women at the Woods had gone through the change of life, they were no longer susceptible to the virus. On the other hand, men are safe between puberty and very old age. So the virus killed all of the men who were at the Woods. Plus we learn that the virus has a short lifespan outside a human host. If it can't find one it soon burns all its energy and dies. Armed with this knowledge only, the family heads out for the supreme leader's head quarters.

There are excellent plot twists in all three titles but none so well executed as in volume three. As I've said elsewhere, it's easy to love the characters and hold them dear. A threat to them is a threat to the reader. What we have here is a well thought out plot with vivid characters and a great setting. The conflict began with the great fire that killed billions of people around the world. There are also conflicts within the family that must be resolved. The good news is that the end of the third novel sees the resolution of all things. We can close the book with deep satisfaction.

I have had as much fun reading this trilogy as any other save The Lord of the Rings. I usually hate to get involved in a trilogy or series because it's so easy to get locked into them and lose your freedom to become well read within the fantastic fiction realm. I know people who are so locked in the The Lord of the Rings that they have read nothing else. Anyway, I would like this trilogy to have produced one or two more volumes. I want to see the family settled and safe from harm. I want to see what couples emerge and their children. I want to see the children in this novel grow up. I'm also interested in the state of the rest of the planet. Would it be too much to ask for a couple of short wave radio communications from Europe? Alas, it is not so and we must be satisfied with the fine ride we have had at the hands to fine authors, Jennifer Armstrong and Nancy Butcher.


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