May 25, 2006


The Land of Elyon, Book 3: The Tenth City. By Patrick Carman. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $11.99.

The Valley of the Wolves. By Laura Gallego García. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Modern fantasy novels almost all trace, ultimately, to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  But some writers have gone out of their way to remedy one perceived flaw in Tolkien’s work: the almost complete absence of women.  Tolkien (like his predecessors, such as Lord Dunsany) saw heroic fantasy as essentially a man’s world, driven by statesmanship and warfare – traditional male preserves.  Recent rethinking of male-female roles has led to a recasting of heroic fantasy as well, especially for young readers: both these novels are intended for ages 9-12.

     Unfortunately, except for their female protagonists, most modern fantasists have not found a way to stray far from their Tolkienian roots.  The result is fast-paced work filled with self-discovery (especially important for this age group) and with plenty of battles, both with external foes and with one’s own impulses and uncertainties.  Even at its best, this is formulaic stuff.  Thus, in The Tenth City, the conclusion of the trilogy of The Land of Elyon – a conclusion that, as is often the case nowadays, leaves open the possibility of further books to come – the standard good-vs.-evil focus comes to a head, as Alexa, the heroine, fights for self-knowledge even as she battles the evil Victor Grindall, himself a minion of the imprisoned Abaddon.  There are mysteries aplenty here, and there is friendship, and there are rescues and heroism and all the usual components of fantasy.  “It’s a very good thing we’re such a timid people in times like these,” says one character, adding, “There is a healthy fear of all things outside our kingdom, and a deep longing for the past when my father was still here.”  This is pretty much standard dialogue.  There are outright clichés here, too – ones that it is always odd to encounter in fantasies supposedly set in other worlds and other times: “We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it,” for example.  Still, Patrick Carman knows how to plot and pace a book of this sort, and Alexa is certainly worth rooting for.  Most of the supporting cast is even more one-dimensional than Alexa herself, but it is always satisfying when goodness and virtue triumph and a young person learns about herself in the process – which means that The Tenth City is a satisfying read.

     So is The Valley of the Wolves, which relies more heavily on mystery and characterization, and less heavily on battles, than does The Tenth City – and is for that reason a more interesting book.  Laura Gallego García gives us an appealing heroine in Dana, a young girl of curiosity and depth whose only friend, Kai, is believed by Dana’s family to be a figment of her imagination.  That sets up an interesting plot: readers know Kai is real, although we do not know his nature – hence the book’s first mystery.  The fact that Dana sees and interacts with Kai means her own nature is somewhat mysterious, and sure enough, she is invited to study sorcery at the Tower in the Valley of the Wolves.  There are plenty of other mysterious characters in this book: the stern Maestro who invites Dana to the Tower; the woman in a golden tunic who offers Dana the difficult-to-fathom advice, “Look for the unicorn”; the elf, Fenris, who is studying with Dana and who seems both sympathetic and off-putting; and the wolves that constantly circle the base of the Tower.  The dialogue is nothing special: at one point, Kai asks, “What are you going to do?” and Dana responds, “I don’t know. …I want to know more.”  But the unusual characters and strong plotting carry The Valley of the Wolves forward effectively; and if the revelations at the end are not wholly unexpected, they are handled with skill and are given more emotional weight than modern fantasies usually provide.

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