Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Dr. Dan's Elixir
Potent Magic for Young Minds
    by Dan Shade
June 2008

Runemarks by Joanne Harris
Knopf, Copyright © 2008
526 Pages, $18.99 Hardcover
Age Group: 12 up
(Out of five, I hated it!)

Fourteen-year-old Maddy is born into a world that has abandoned it's trust of magic and where it is against the law to practice magic. So says the church, although many practice in secret. Not a nice place to anyone in my mind, but Maddy is born with a Runemark in her hand. If you're familiar with the Lord of the Rings then you know what runes are. In Maddy's world Runemarks are essential to the use of magic. A spell is cast by a written Runemark or by use of the hand signal for the Rune. A sort of sign language, if you will.

Maddy's misfortune is that she is born with a Runemark in her hand. It marks her as a potential witch and subjects her to scorn and near banishment. Most children born with a Runemark are either sent away or killed. Maddy's mother hides her daughter's Runemark with smudges of dirt from the bottom of cooking pans. This works for a while, but eventually Maddy is found out and held in deep suspicion. She survives by never practicing magic in public, but only when she knows she is in the isolated wilderness. But Maddy has a gift. Her grasp of magic is astounding and her potential abounding.

For this reason Maddy is sought out by one of the old gods and trained. He comes in the guise of a beggar called one-eye but he regularly comes through the village to speak and teach with Maddy. She is also part of a prophecy that says one will be born to the earth more powerful than any before and instrumental in saving the world.

It's hard not to like a book so superbly written. Lots of similes, metaphors, allegories, alliteration and tons of onomatopoeia and all the other good things that make the reading of the book a pleasure of its own. This book is a work of art and a great example of the craft of writing especially description. However, the story is weak and I forced myself to the end. I am unsatisfied now that the book is finished and only remember random scenes, as there was no logical flow to the story.

I found myself wondering early on why I was enjoying the book and not following the story so well. It occurred to me about a third of the way through that there wasn't a character that I had grown to love and be concerned about. This should have been the protagonist, Maddy, but I liked her least of all the characters. The only thing I found interesting about Maddy was that she had a Runemark in the palm of her hand. It was there from birth and marked her as someone to be watched. At first I thought this would really make life hard for her but it had little effect on her well being. It did come in handy the more she was required to use magic and turned out to be a powerful rune.

I also had trouble accepting the council of the gods who had been asleep for 500 years. They too easily reminded me of the Greek/Roman/Viking gods with Odin being the leader and a son called Thor, the god of thunder. Also, the gods in this story seemed weirdly helpless. They could not agree with one another for one thing and that made them impotent when it came to strategy.

Strategy to boot, I couldn't even figure out what the plot was. Although Maddy is marginally central to the story, she does not figure large enough is the story's plot. It seems to revolve around her without affecting her much. She does a few heroic acts but none that really impact the story. Loki, the jester, is more of a central character than Maddy. Once a traitor to the gods, he has now repented of his ways. Loki's acts cause much of the action in the story. In short, he risks his life to bring about the end of chaos and re-establish order. Maddy helps by saving his life.

The complexity of the back-story is hard to grasp. There are nine worlds, each with its own special characteristics, circling a huge tree like the rings around Saturn. The worlds progress downward from a medieval world, to Hel, dream and then chaos. The worlds are too numerous to mention them all. There is a map of the nine worlds in the front of the book and even though I referred to it often in my reading, it continued to make little sense to me. Especially travel from one world to another.

I cannot recommend this book for teens or adults. Furthermore, making headway in this book was extremely hard. I constantly felt like I was forcing my way toward the conclusion with the last twenty pages being the hardest to traverse. I say pass this one by and devote your time to a more rewarding experience.

The Dead & the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Harcourt, Copyright © 2008
321 Pages, $17.00 Hardcover
Age Group: 15 up (High School)
(Out of five, I didn't like it!)

Susan Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It is one of the best books I've read. Its review can be found in my 2006 reviews. I loved that book and greatly looked forward to reading Susan Pfeffer's The Dead and the Gone, a parallel novel.

The Dead and the Gone takes place during the same circumstances. Whereas Life as We Knew It took place in a rural community, this novel's setting is New York City. The Morales family is already down two members when the moon is struck by the meteor that knocks it out of its natural orbit into one closer to earth. Papi has gone to Puerto Rico for the funeral of his mother and Mami has gone to work at the hospital. This leaves seventeen-year-old Alex at home with his two younger sisters Julie (13) and Briana (10 or 11).

The moon's resulting pull on gravity results in tidal waves and volcanoes to name a few of the resultant disasters. The ash from the worldwide volcano eruptions fills the atmosphere and brings weather similar to a nuclear winter. Temperatures around the world drop and there is freezing temperatures and snow in New York's August.

Not only must Alex, Julie and Briana suffer from the above, they must find food and there is never enough. Food can be procured in a number of ways starting with what you have to some very unpleasant methods. For a while the Morales children get lunch, but eventually the schools close and they must find other means of obtaining food that are not so pleasant.

Throughout the book Alex struggles with his responsibility for Julie and Briana. Both girls are capable of taking care of themselves; but in a world gone wild where millions of people have died, no one is safe. In one scene when Alex is bartering for food with items he has scavenged, he receives an offer for Julie. It's a great offer too. Lots of food. This only makes Alex aware of the true threat that exists for his two sisters and he swears to take care and protect them.

Speaking of threats, one of the biggest that would present itself in a food shortage crisis is gang control of food. New York already has well-established gangs and why Ms. Pfeffer chose to ignore them is beyond me. Surely the effect of the new moon's pull on earth could not have wiped out all of the gangs in New York. There is also the potential for new gangs to arise as the difficulty in finding enough food rises. After all, if you control the food you control everything else. Surely the bullies and rough guys from town would find ample reason to gang up. Just having to fight established gangs would be motivation enough. So, things are a little too rosy in New York during August.

One unusual thing to find in a science fiction book was a subplot regarding the support churches give to their members. Alex and his sisters all attend church schools. They are a very religious family and never miss Mass on Sunday. For most of the book, Alex and his sisters get a lunch provided by the church schools. From visiting and counseling with one's priest down to relying on your rosary beads for comfort, the church is present in this story and extremely helpful to the Morales family. At one point Briana is sent to a convent to farm and be schooled by the nuns. This is a great load off Alex's shoulders, but the nuclear-like winter that sets in during August sends Briana home when the crops fail at the convent. Numerous times Alex goes to his priest seeking advice. It was refreshing to read a novel that showed how powerful a church can be to its members. Such assistance as the church provided during this crisis plays an important role in their ability to survive.

All in all, this novel offers little more to the reader than Life As We Knew It. Even though Alex and his sisters are near death there is a feeling already established in the book that they will get through it all. Perhaps the real problem with this novel is that it is too much like Life As We Knew It. The New York City setting was not utilized to it's full potential. From what I hear, living in New York can be dangerous enough without the effects of the moon's position in the heavens.

I can't recommend this novel for good science fiction reading. Rather, I recommend reading Life As We Knew It by Susan Pfeffer. Young adults with an interest in science fiction with a religious theme should read A Case of Conscience by James Blish, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham or Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein.

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