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
August 2007

The following two book reviews come from His Dark Materials trilogy as found in the 2007 Omnibus. They constitute the first and second volumes.

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Alfred A. Knopf, Copyright © 2007
933 pages, $21.99, Trade Paperback Omnibus
Age Group: 12 up

Harry Potter Preamble

Over the past year or so, it has become a habit to keep my review books on hand so that I can take advantage of every reading moment (red lights, stuff like that). So lately I've been toting the omnibus mentioned above. It seems as if everywhere I go people look to see if it's the latest Harry Potter installment (this omnibus is even larger than the Potter book). When they see the omnibus they look at it with a blank gaze. When I try to explain this trilogy, I get an "if it isn't Harry Potter, I don't what to know" look. Even my busy cardiologist is reading the most recent Harry Potter and asked why I wasn't. I'm not against Harry Potter and have read most of them myself. Beside, my hat is off to J. K. Rowling. Any writer, who can get children and young adults to read books of 800 or so pages, is my kind of author. The problem for me is that Potter has blotted out the rest of the books. So for all of you who are or have young adults (12 up) lost in the Potter's field, the three books in this trilogy are of the most complex and fascinating books I've ever read. I'm talking in the same ballpark as many of the greats such as The Lord of the Rings or The Sword of Shannara trilogy. So, if you are a parent trying to wean your child(ren) from Potter and into other good books, these are an optimal place to start.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
5/5 stars -- I LOVED IT!

This novel begins with an attempted murder and ends with the discovery of parallel worlds. How's that for a range?

Lyra begins the story as the ward of the scholars at Oxford College in England. She doesn't know who her parents were or if they are still alive. Her life is a simple one. She eats, sleeps and plays war games with other groups of children -- the kitchen servant's children against a group from town. The famous being the great mud fight of the year before. Although not a servant, Lyra is left to her own devices. She pretty much can do what she wants when she wants to and hangs out a lot with Roger, son of a kitchen worker. Nor is she a dim whit. Rather Lyra is extremely bright, creative and a fast learner. She has some special skills as well. For one, Lyra is an experienced liar. She probably picked up this skill at Oxford staying out of trouble. It quickly becomes her greatest tool in manipulating people into doing her bidding. She can lie with so much conviction the reader almost believes her. She uses this skill to get out of tight spots in the book. She has lied and gotten away from thugs, noblemen, murderers, and more. Lyra doesn't just spin a tale; she uses lying as a tool to get people to do her bidding. She manipulates people so well that she is able to use them as vehicles to accomplish her goals. To be fair I need to mention that Lyra's goals are always selfless. She misses home but that's not nearly as exciting or important at saving someone's life.

This is a story of alternate worlds, unbelievable cruelty, devious schemes to control the world(s) and the fate of all children. There are witches, daemons, zombies, and more. The daemons play a special role in this story. They are attached to a human through some kind of mind link. This attachment between humans and daemons has evolved into a nearly symbiotic relationship. Consequently, no human on Lyra's world is ever alone. Horrible things happen to a human and the daemon when the attachment is broken. Furthermore, an individual and his/her daemon can only be separated by a few yards before they begin to suffer great pain. This is not so with the witches' daemons. They can separate and for all intents and purposes be in two places at the same time. Witches often use their daemons as messengers or spies. Also a story of good science gone awry and bad science in its hey day. Character development in this novel is astounding. It seems that with every turn of the page, Lyra has becine more mature and a better liar. From the very first page you can't help but love her. Especially when you realize she is the center of so many people's machinations. She is at risk all the time.

Lyra finds herself in a melee. She is determined to save her uncle's life whose intended fate she has overheard while hiding in a closet. Lyra leaves Oxford on her world (not the same as ours, quite different) to this end. It seems that with every turn of the page Lyra takes on more responsibility. How she carries the load of all the people she intends to save and all the evil things she intends to change is a mystery. Nowhere in this volume of the trilogy was I able to ascertain Lyra's age. However, given what she says, does and accomplishes, I put her at least fifteen-years-old -- although at times she does seem younger.

Lyra also fulfills a prophecy of the coming forth of a highly special woman child. Because of this she is watched over by the witches, humans and the Armored Bears. They do not know her task, but they know it is essential that she perform it. Lyra seems to have a perpetual amount of compassion, concern and courage. Prophesy or no, others would easily be enlisted in her cause. Especially since she is willing to spin many a complex yarn to enlist those whose help she desperately needs.

There are many memorable characters in The Golden Compass, both good and evil. I cannot not forget the bear king, Iorek Byrnison, leader of the armored bears on the island of Bolvangar. Not only is Iorek the pinnacle of bear-dom, he's a fine example to all of fierce loyalty (to Lyra), immense courage, true honor and great compassion. I can see Lyra riding him, clinging to his back, in my mind's eye with just a blink.

At the end of The Golden Compass Lyra makes a long walk to the clearing at the end of the trail.

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
5/5 Stars -- I LOVED IT!

This notion of traveling through different universes to reach other worlds is an interesting one and a topic with solid roots in science fiction. I'm reminded of Murray Leinster's "Sideways in Time" which was published in the 1930's. Leinster's story may be foundational for all I know, introducing the idea of travel between worlds. In his story, a once in a lifetime universe collision of planets is to take place. A college professor picks his finest students to go with him. If I remember correctly, they choose a primitive world for their transfer. They take with them all the supplies and firearms needed to conquer a world. They made the transfer from one world to another simply by riding in and out of parallel worlds that are lined up across an open field like fences.

It is much the same in Pullman's book. When Will uses the subtle knife, he can cut and close entrances to other worlds. Some are safe and some are not. It is a useful trick to slip into another world (universe) to seek safety from evil forces. Imagine being chased by a thug and getting far enough away to take the few minutes required to cut a door to another world to slip through and zip it up. Pretty nifty, huh?

The subtle knife is an interesting tool. However we can't discuss that without first introducing Will. He is about the same age as Lyra, say 15 or 16 years, and lives in New York City or thereabouts. Will's mother is suffering from a nervous breakdown and Will determines to find his father, a father he has never known, to help her. Will has found a doorway into another world and slips through in search of his father (this is before he obtains the knife). Hints and clues lead him to the place of his father's last location. On the way he is forced to fight a skilled warrior. It is only due to Will's tenaciousness that he prevails. Having done that, the knife claims the winner. In the fight he loses two fingers on his left hand reminding me of Thomas Covenant (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson).

This is just the beginning of Will's adventures that include fight and flight by Lyra's side and to his father at last. Will enters Lyra's world and the two become devoted to each other quickly. They cover each other's back as they would, say, on NYPD. And then Lyra disappears, but not before swearing that she will concentrate entirely on helping Will to find his father. When Lyra disappears, so does the Golden Compass -- a piece of curious workmanship with strange markings and directors. After all, Lyra had used this device multiple times to find help in every kind of situation. Truth be told, I'm sure Will would like to have Lyra and the golden compass back.

We are still immersed in numerous subplots. The witches are trying to discern how they can best help. Lee Scoresby dies in his hot air balloon, but not before bringing down a zeppelin. The gypsies have disappeared, and where is the king of the bears when we needs him the most.

And the black work of Lord Asriel that ripped a hole in the sky is causing havoc on Lyra's world. His hole in the sky leads to another world and can be reached via a stairway (I believe this is a metaphor even though Lyra observes beings moving up the stairs), the very stairway Lyra uses to ascend into that other world. Nevertheless, on Lyra's earth the weather is all twisted up. There are big storms and strong winds. The polar ice caps are melting and the deserts are beginning to flower. Animals in these habitats are headed for extinction unless they can find a way to adapt.

And so we come to the end of our discussion of volume two of His Dark Materials. This still remains one of the best fantasy novels I've read. Complex plot, multiple integrated subplots, characters you'll never forget and dark secrets in dark places. Pullman has done it again.

Finally, unlike many fantasy novels that are written to be read on their own two feet, these novels are so highly correlated that you can't read The Subtle Knife without reading The Golden Compass first.

The Amber Spyglass -- Next Month

The Eyes of Kid Midas by Neal Shusterman
Simon & Schuster, Copyright © 1992
182 pages, $4.99, Paperback
Age Group: 12 up
4/5 Stars -- I Really Liked It

What a great retelling of the Greek myth of King Midas. Instead of only turning things into gold, Kid Midas can think anything into being. No matter how far-fetched it may seem.

Our story starts with two regular seventh grade students. Kevin and Josh are pretty typical nerds. Neither of them can get a date, though they're not bad looking, and they both make good grades. The two prime ingredients for nerdiness. Also, for some time Kevin has been the class bully's prime target. His name is Bertram and he is, for all intents and purposes, the typical bully. Large for his age, not too bright upstairs and mean to everything alive.

The book begins with Kevin's class having a weekend campout. Although the book never says so, the class seems to be some kind of earth science course. Hence the campout to the mountains. Around the campfire the first night, Mr. Kirkpatrick spins a long yarn about Native American traditions about the mountains behind them. Throwing in a little data from two astronomers, Mr. Kirpatrick does a good job of making the mountains mysterious as well as challenging.

The next morning finds Kevin and Josh scrambling up to the top of the mountain. As they get higher they discover that Bertram and his posse, Hal, are also on their way up to the top. Bertram yells out an empty threat when he discovers Kevin and Josh ahead of him for soon they all begin to "pull" together this one time. Nevertheless, Kevin is the first to see the flat space at the top of the mountain. To his surprise, and the reader's, he spies a sharp pair of glasses. To draw an analogy to glasses, as we know them, they would be prescription sunglasses. The colors in the glass are ever changing and when Kevin puts them, on he finds that his vision has been corrected and he can see all the way down the mountain to the campsite. Why Kevin's parents have never had his myopia corrected is never explained.

It doesn't take Kevin long to realize that the glasses do more than just correct his vision. Anything he wishes for and speaks out loud comes true. It is only a matter of hours before Kevin is commanding the elements themselves. He causes a very severe storm with thundering rain and lightening. The storm drives the campers home early. It is also here that Kevin discovers that he cannot undo something he has done with the power of the glasses.

Kevin's use of the power of the glasses increases faster than a speeding bullet. From simple tricks at school to impress friends and make friends to mind altering trials to random appearances of items or events from thought only. However, Kevin hasn't learned to watch what he says when he's angry. He is flirting with Nicole, the girl of his dreams, and when she calls him a shrimpnoid he yells back and we have a six-inch-tall Nicole. Also in class he sends Bertram to hell, literally.

You would think that all of this would draw some attention to Kevin, but think again. The power of the glasses is so great that every time it's used, the universe changes a little. No one remembers there ever was a Bertram and no one is surprised when they see the six-inch Nicole. Hmmm.

Things quickly get out of hand. Kevin progresses from a simple wish maker to having to control every thought. If he thinks it, it happens no matter how bizarre. He alters the universe in so many ways, or creates new ones, that the one he lives in no longer seems real. Furthermore, Kevin has developed a deep addiction to the glasses. Without them on, he starts freezing and gets a splitting headache. As time goes on, these symptoms get worse. Josh has long been having second thoughts about the glasses and tries to get them away from Kevin. But that hope is soon squelched when the glasses become fused to Kevin's face.

Shusterman has given us a great, fast read. I read it so fast because I simply could not put in down. In the tradition of his Downsiders, Shusterman has given us another universe to visit. The thing I like most about Shusterman (and William Sleator) is that the science is so tight. Sure, they leave a lot unsaid about alternate universes but the simple idea that they could exist is presented in such a way that it is nearly impossible to reject the theory as Shusterman and Sleator hypothesize. Both are talented at making up a little science to fill in the big blanks created by what they don't tell us. You might call these "bridges" between strands of theory.

As I indicated above, I really liked this novel. It is the kind of book one buys extra copies of to loan to friends. Books like this have proven to be great introductions to science fiction for people who have avoided this genre. It's a good book to leave in your doctor and dentist's office for other to find. If you are interested and leaving books for people to find go to www.bookcrossing.com. I did.


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