November 10, 2005

(++++) FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT

Young Warriors: Stories of Strength. Edited by Tamora Pierce and Josepha Sherman. Random House. $17.95.

The Five Ancestors, Book II: Monkey. By Jeff Stone. Random House.  $15.95.

     The meaning of war – the reasons for it – what makes a true warrior – what is worth fighting for: these are the themes, all with significant contemporary real-world resonance, explored through fantasy in these two books.  Young Warriors examines them at length through 15 short stories about heroes (and, often, heroines) of all sorts: powerful, seemingly weak, self-aware, largely unknowing, na├»ve, worldly.  This first anthology ever from Tamora Pierce – co- edited by Josepha Sherman, an experienced editor – is by turns moody, amusing, surrealistic, thoughtful and strange.  Most of the youths on whom the stories focus are about 14 or 15 years old.  All are tested – some more in physical ways, some more in emotional or mental ones – and while all emerge victorious, they do not always gain the victory they expected or sought.  Thus, in Bruce Holland Rogers’ “The Gift of Rain Mountain,” the wonders of peace turn out to have a dark side; in Laura Anne Gilman’s “Serpent’s Rock,” the worlds of darkness and light come into conflict in aboriginal Australia; in Janis Ian’s “Eli and the Dybbuk,” the young hero – a Jewish boy in Czarist Russian – wins only what he could have had without a battle, but learns to appreciate it in a way he never did before the fight; in “The Magestone,” boy meets mermaid and mermaid meets boy, and both gain and lose something in a wry conclusion.  Some tales fit into authors’ existing fantasy worlds, and there are flashes of humor to lighten the seriousness of the subject: Mike Resnick’s “The Boy Who Cried ‘Dragon!’” is a delightfully offbeat take – or rather a double-take – on the old story of the boy who cried wolf.  This is a collection both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

     Jeff Stone’s Monkey continues the saga of five young monks seeking their ancestors and destinies – which are much the same thing – in the China of 350 years ago.  The first book of The Five Ancestors, Tiger, told the story – recapped here – of the destruction of Cangzhen Temple and killing of all its warrior monks.  Five youthful monks, who are not fully trained, are the sole survivors: Fu, She, Hok, Long and Malao.  It is Malao’s older brother, Ying, who led the destruction of the temple, and this gives Monkey an extra level of resonance – for this book is Malao’s story.  Malao is only 11 when the temple is destroyed and its Grandmaster, before dying, tells the young monks to “uncover the past, for it is your future.”  The timid Malao steadily gains courage throughout the book, helped by a white macaque that leads an unusually militant group of monkeys.  The theme of searching for one’s roots has special resonance for the author, who was adopted and spent 15 years searching for his birth mother – whom he finally found (he later found his birth father as well).  Perhaps the personal connection is responsible for the intensity of this book and its predecessor.  Certainly Stone’s own knowledge of martial arts, which he practices daily, lends credibility to the fighting scenes and the notion that each young monk has been trained in a style associated with a specific animal.  Fast-paced and well-plotted, Monkey is satisfying both in itself and as the second part of the five-part puzzle that Stone is assembling piece by piece.

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