May 10, 2007


Enter Three Witches. By Caroline B. Cooney. Scholastic. $16.99.

Iris, Messenger. By Sarah Deming. Harcourt. $16.

      The great stories of Macbeth and the Greek myths form the basis for Enter Three Witches and Iris, Messenger, respectively. The authors of both books have rethought the old tales carefully and put together highly appealing novels for readers in the (roughly) 9-12 age bracket.

      Caroline B. Cooney scatters lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth throughout her book, using them as befits her plot rather than as Shakespeare intended them. That is, they are not presented in the order in which they appear in the play, and often refer to characters in the book who are not the ones to whom they apply in the play. It doesn’t really matter, since Cooney here reorients the focus of a story that Shakespeare wasn’t the first one to tell anyhow (his play is based on Holinshed’s history of England, and the accuracy of Holinshed regarding the rule of the historical Macbeth in the 11th century is uncertain). What Cooney does is take the center of attention away from Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and give it to Lady Mary, an invented character who is 14 years old and the ward of the Macbeths – because her father betrayed Macbeth and was hanged as a traitor. By inventing Lady Mary and creating a situation that forces her to work as a scullery maid – so she can hear all sorts of gossip while being ignored by the highborn residents of the castle – Cooney provides what feels like a behind-the-scenes view of the incidents of Shakespeare’s play. She creates several other characters to further the “inside look” approach; she also expands one of Shakespeare’s minor characters, Seyton, and identifies him as the third murderer of King Duncan (Shakespeare says there was a third but never says who it was). Cooney paces the book skillfully, and eventually takes it beyond the ending of the play to show Lady Mary restored to her rightful place and appropriately betrothed. This makes sense in Shakespearian terms, since the destruction of order in his Macbeth is indeed righted at the end. More importantly, it makes sense in Cooney’s own context, since she makes readers care a good deal more about Lady Mary and a few of the other invented characters than about anyone taken from Shakespeare or Holinshed. Enter Three Witches is fast-paced and often intense, its violence downplayed in comparison with Shakespeare’s but certainly present. It may inspire young readers to check out the play (which Cooney recommends that they read out loud); it’s certainly a rousing story in its own right.

      Iris, Messenger, the first novel by Sarah Deming, has a clever structure that includes lots of exciting retellings of Greek myths within its strangely effective framing tale. Iris Greenwold, whose highly incompatible parents are divorced, is a student at Erebus Middle School (whose name contains a hint of what’s going on, at least for readers who already known Greek mythology). Iris gets an unexpected delivery on her 12th birthday: a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology. Thanks to brief notes in the pages (directed at her, their source unknown), Iris comes to the realization that maybe the Greek gods did not die out when people stopped believing in them – maybe they’re still around, but inconspicuous. It’s a silly setup and not a particularly original one, but Deming handles the consequences very deftly, as Iris starts tracking down the old gods and hearing stories of the days in which they were still worshipped. The gods themselves tend to be pathetic or comical figures, but their tales are marvelous: the love of Halcyone and Ceyx, told by Poseidon; Apollo’s song of his lost son, Phaëthon; Dionysus’ story of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur; and many more. Woven within a modern story that includes an evil tofu empire (yes, really) and questions about Iris’ true identity, the mythic tales lend weight to what would otherwise have been a light and frothy story. Deming manages to juggle today’s world and the mythic one with a sure hand, and if the denizens of today (including Iris herself) have less character than the old, faded gods…well, maybe they’ve just had less time to develop strong personalities.

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