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
November 2007

The Silenced by James DeVita
Eos (Harper Collins), Copyright © 2007
495 pages, $17.99 Hardcover
Age Group: 10 up
(out of five) -- I loved it!

At last! An apocalyptic young adult novel. I believe I have mentioned in previous columns that this sub-genre of science fiction is one of my favorites, the other being post-apocalyptic science fiction. So, I will admit from the beginning that my review may contain bias.

The Silenced is based upon the true story of Sophie Scholl and her brothers and friends. During World War II they distributed thousands of leaflets beginning in Munich, Germany. Sophie and her friends called their group the White Rose. The Nazis executed all of them in 1943. For more information see the author's note and bibliography at the end of the book.

Our Sophie is Marena. Marena attends an YTF (youth training facility) where she and her friends, Dex and Eric, are policed and indoctrinated by the state. The same is true of her home and her family. There are video cameras and listening devices everywhere.

The name of the regime Marena lives under is Zero Tolerance (ZT). One must conform to the ZT's image of a model citizen. Simply stated the ZT government tolerates no differences. Everyone must be the same: Think the same, look the same and act the same. The ZT party wants to use a cookie cutter and turn everyone into cardboard stand-ups. Rewards for compliance are minimal compared to punishment for noncompliance, which is severe. For example, you may earn points at school that would allow your parents to come to your swim meet. With enough rebellion you might be disappeared and go to a facility to have parts of your brain removed so you would never have another coherent thought ever.

For example, no display of affection is tolerated. Marena and her friends cannot even hold hands or hug in public. That does not stop Marena and her boyfriend, Dex, from allowing their hands to brush in passing or other infinitesimal touches. On the other hand, it appears that people have enough to eat and adequate housing. But then everyone must put up the Stof guards who randomly inspect your home for anything illegal (which could almost be anything). An inspection means having all your household goods thrown out of your house until there is noting left in the house to inspect.

Nevertheless, Marena and Dex have "The Place." A secret hideout where they can be affectionate and more importantly, discuss the control of the regime. The place is the basement of a collapsed apartment building in the apartment complex where they live. In this hiding place they store everything they have been able to scrounge from that building and the other empty buildings. Paint and useless old tires are just two of the things they collect. There are three rooms in The Place. So Dex and Marena each have their own "room" and share the larger room. Marena's room is where she stores her paper and writing instruments. It is very difficult to obtain paper so it must be scrounged. The Place will become the center of the White Rose and planning of treason.

Marena collects paper from any source she can find. Grocery bags, cardboard boxes, scrap of papers sailing in the wind and paper from school. And pencil stubs. Marena is obsessed with writing down everything she can remember about her dead mother. The more she remembers the more she blames her father for her mother's death. Later reading and writing are outlawed by the ZT and what paper there was in school disappears. But Marena has her paper storage and is able to continue writing down the memories of her mother and her mother's death.

Marena's mother was disappeared when Marena was just a little girl. She was radically against the ZT regime and voiced her opinion through the written word. Marena's mom was censored unsuccessfully and had to be dealt with - which means she was taken away and killed. She remembers her father testifying against her mother. What could be wrong with him, she wonders. Is he a coward or didn't he love her mother? Marena's anger slowly builds into a firebomb, which sooner or later is going to blow.

Some of the ideology from the book: individualism leads to a weak hearted nation. So does self-expression. But let us not forget that the loss of rights is a noble sacrifice. The more we are the same, the stronger the nation. There is safety in sameness. No violence, no fear, no insecurity and no hate. Also no love, no peace of mind, no emotional expression whatsoever. These people have nothing. They are what they can remember of the time before the Millennium War and during the war. All they have is memories and already Marena's little brother Daniel, who is ten years old, is starting to act like members of the youth league he belongs to. He tells Marena that he's sorry that her brain got damaged during the war and she can't remember things the real way they happened.

The philosophy that scared me the most was the role of fear in children's education. Fear ground itself into the children's hearts when they were all required to take off their hats so that they could have their heads shaved. Marena was terrified and I remember Miss Elaine tells her that she was more than hair. That there was safety and equality in looking the same as everyone else. Marena was free from concern of the latest trends in apparel. There would be no difference between rich and poor, have's and the have not's, etc. In a world where everyone conforms, no one deforms. All the fun is gone and all the boredom is growing. If it wasn't Marena who rebelled it would have been someone else.

I enjoyed this book very much and could hardly put it down. I read most of the second half in one night. There is good story telling wrapped around the things I talk about above. Marena is a truly memorable character. I shall not forget her sacrifices for many years to come. Through Marena I am made aware of Sophie and her sacrifices. And that's what this book is about, people sacrificing themselves for freedom.

Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause
Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, Copyright © 1997
264 pages, $8.99 Paperback
Age Group: 15 and up
(out of five) -- I really liked it!

The complex plot line of this novel is a page-turner. I must admit that I've always been intrigued by werewolves. And this book shows them in a new light. Rather than us living in fear of them, they live in fear of humans for we will kill them if we find them. This community of werewolves tries to live synonymously with the human world. When one member of their family goes rogue, they are usually forced to move to a more isolated part of the country. Although the idea of being able to be two creatures who can switch from one form to the other is interesting and appealing to some, I don't envy their need to hide and keep their movements secret.

In the middle of this society of wolves comes Vivian. She struck me as more beautiful as a human than as a wolf. But I must say that my sense of wolf beauty is a bit rusty. She is around sixteen-years-old and has fallen in love for a meat-boy. Meat-boy is werewolf talk for a human. Aiden is a thoughtful and tender young human male. He is attracted to Vivian's extreme beauty and her lithe body at first but later he is caught in her mixed human/wolf personality. She is one secretive, sexy, sinuous female. He is putty in her hands.

Vivian would say that she is driven to seek a mate from among the humans because there is no one suitable in the community. There are five single werewolves, but even I can see Vivian's reasons for rejecting them. They are hot rod juveniles with only one thing on their mind. As a pre-adolescent Vivian used to run (run as in turn into a wolf and run through sparsely populated forest) with them at night. Since reaching puberty, their relationships have changed.

Although she knows better, Vivian falls for the human meat-boy. Aiden read a poem he wrote in their English course. The poem was about werewolves and Vivian thought he longed for that kind of magic. She allows herself to believe that he would appreciate her wolf side. That he would be enchanted by what she could become. In the long run the relation ends poorly to say the least. Aiden seems more interested in sex than learning about the woman he professes to love.

There's quite a bit of werewolf lore imparted in the volume. Some of the myths are true. Silver bullets really do kill werewolves. On the other hand, werewolves can control where and when they change from human to wolf. They are not subject to the pull of the moon as are the ocean tides.

Things get complex when Vivian is set up to take the fall for the death of two humans and at the same time protect Aiden from being the third. The killings drive the pack leader to find a place for them to move that is sparsely populated by humans. Vivian gets shot with a silver bullet and nearly dies. Then to top it off she gets stuck in the middle of a change. She becomes half human and half wolf. It turns out to be a state of mind and when she is helped to view circumstances differently, she becomes unstuck.

I almost loved this book but there's too much talk about sex for me to be completely comfortable with the story. Because of this, I recommend the book to young adults fifteen-years and up. However, the book is masterly crafted and I understand why it has become a classic since its publication in 1997. There are no losing ends or any rough writing. Everything is smooth and goes down

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of The Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott
Delacorte Press, Copyright © 2007
375 pages, $15.99 Hardcover
Age Group 12 up
(out of five) -- I didn't like it.

Fifteen-year-old twins, Sophie and Josh Newman, find themselves is a world of hurt when they befriend a seven hundred year old Alchemyst, Nicholas Flamel. While in his bookstore they are attacked by Golems, men created out of mud, that are controlled by the infamous Dr. John Dee.

Also central to the story and forever lost, it seems, is an ancient book called the Codex. It is a book of spells compiled by Abraham the Mage. The Codex contains many spells that require the book to be performed. One of them is the spell of immortality. This is how Nicholas has kept himself young and alive for over seven centuries. Dr. Dee steals the book. Yet Dee's work is foiled, for when he pulls the book from Josh's hand the last two pages remain with Josh. Thus we have the conflict of the book. Nicholas, Sophie and Josh on the run to keep the last pages out of Dr. Dee's hands.

The book climaxes with the attack of Dr. Dee's army on the dwelling of the member of the Elder Race whom Nicholas Flamel has called upon to help keep the twins safe. Nicholas and his friends are grossly out numbered. As long as Flamel has the last two pages of the Codex, Dee will pursue him.

My main concern with this novel is that it fails to live up to it's promised potential. The jacket cover not only reads better than the novel, it hints at parts of the story that never come to be. In all fairness this could be because this particular volume is the first in a forthcoming series that I predict won't stand on its own two feet. The writing is not as sterling as one would expect from ". . . one of Ireland's most successful writers. A master of fantasy, science fiction, horror and folklore (book jacket)." I found this to be a book that the 8 to 12 group could enjoy. Also appropriate for the lower end of the young adult spectrum. Hence, the proverbial don't judge a book by its cover is true once again.

Nowhere does Nicholas Flamel demonstrate his touted power as an alchemyst. Most of the time, it seemed to me, Nicholas is always on the run from more powerful forces. Also a student of magic, Flamel should have had more defenses than balls of green light that only slow down his pursuers. He is, on the other hand, very good at reading and understanding prophecy. He has kept the twins by his side and alive because it is prophesied that they will come in this day. One with the power to create and one with the power to destroy. We never find out which is the destroyer and which is not. Even though there is time enough to awaken the magic in Sophie there is no time for Josh. So we are unable to compare the two and determine who is the destroyer and what that even means.

Let's turn to the Elder Race for a moment. These are beings that were here before we humans. They were here long before that. They may have been responsible for the creation of our planet. The Elder Race is presented as all-knowing and all-powerful beings. Yet, nowhere are the elders represented in such a way. They are immature, back stabbing, petty and not so powerful as one would suspect. Since they can't agree on anything they are unable to present a united front. Another factor about the Elder Race is that they can't abide iron. Perhaps because it is a man-made thing or just because of its properties. Iron is to the Elders as Kryptonite is to Superman.

Events in the book seem to occur at random. As if one had a top hat with events jotted down on folded scraps of paper. When a new event is needed, one draws from the hat and the characters plod through. There is no plot line to the book that reaches its height at the battle against Nicholas and his friends; even some of the battle results seemed random.

The book has one redeeming value to me. The cost of using magic is explained on page 41. Using magic takes the same amount of calories as running a marathon. In this particular worldview it takes the magic from the power field of one's aura. So the cost of using magic is weakness of one's aura making the magic wielder more susceptible to danger.

Given all that I have said, I cannot recommend this book for reading. I was greatly disappointed in this story. I found it tiresome and many times didn't want to finish the work. There are so many places in the book where its potential for greatness is obvious that goes unfilled.


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