Dr. Dan's Elixir
|Potent Magic for Young Minds|
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
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
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
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
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.