October 18, 2007


The Land of Elyon: Into the Mist. By Patrick Carman. Scholastic. $11.99.

Annals of the Western Shore III: Powers. By Ursula K. Le Guin. Harcourt. $17.

      It can be hard for an author to let go of an extended story, so readers cannot always be sure when a multi-book series is finished. The Land of Elyon was a trilogy that started exceptionally well but went downhill – and now has a fourth book in the form of a prequel. In the trilogy itself, the first book, The Dark Hills Divide, is a fascinating story of a 12-year-old girl named Alexa Daley, who finds a way to get through the wall that surrounds the town of Bridewell – and who then encounters talking animals, a two-foot-high man and other fascinating creatures, with whom she becomes friendly and goes on adventures. This was Patrick Carman’s debut novel, and it was especially noteworthy for its strength of characterization – a feature that largely fell by the wayside in the second book, Beyond the Valley of Thorns (a quest to free a land from ogres and their evil leader), and the third, The Tenth City (a nonstop action book in which most of the problems are resolved rather too easily). Now comes Into the Mist, a prequel to the trilogy, with different central characters: brothers Thomas and Roland Warvold. Readers of the first three books will immediately recognize the boys’ last name: Alexa was walking with a man named Warvold, builder of the wall around Bridewell, when the man suddenly died and Alexa’s adventures began. The boys are less interesting than Alexa and not as well individualized – their different names and the differing tattoos on their knees are the main things setting them apart. Raised in a horrible orphanage, their past a mystery, the boys find danger everywhere as they make their way through the land. It turns out that Roland is destined for adventure at sea and Thomas for adventure on land – and their knees help them survive, as when they find themselves at scary Wakefield House and realize that, if they put their knees (and, figuratively, their heads) together, they can figure out what to do. Carman’s Land of Elyon books originated as bedtime stories for his children, and all of them, including this fourth one, are adventuresome and unchallenging enough to fill that role for other kids as well. Into the Mist is not particularly inventive, but it has enough adventure to charm many children and will be an easy read for most middle-schoolers.

      Ursula K. Le Guin has a unique and finely honed style that she has polished in more than 40 books, and she always searches for grand themes that reach beyond the basics of her plots. Annals of the Western Shore is not among her most inventive series, but it does have a number of interesting elements, and its apparent conclusion in Powers will allow Le Guin to revisit this world in the future if she chooses to do so. In the first Annals book, Gifts, feuding families have strange powers that they use to fight each other, such as the ability to strike someone blind or set a fire by pointing to a spot. This is a fascinating premise that turns into a mild Romeo-and-Juliet story as a boy, Orrec, and a girl, Gry, flee their homes in the Uplands together rather than use their powers for harmful purposes. In the second book, Voices, the focus shifts to a 17-year-old girl named Memer, who lives in a home where books are hidden from the city’s occupiers, who hate reading and have banned it; the book ends with the city returned to its rightful rulers and Memer looking ahead to a better – and different – life. The books’ connection is the presence in Voices of Orrec and Gry, who come to the city from the Uplands and bring the people poems and stories. The third book, Powers, features a young boy named Gav, who has a photographic memory for book pages and can also “remember” things that have not yet happened. As in the previous books, tragedy forces Gav into the wider world, and he goes on a journey of self-discovery to find out where he truly belongs. The main theme here, as in many other Le Guin works, is where the individual fits in society – and, in the case of Powers, there is a specific focus on slavery and freedom (and what those too-easily-bandied-about words really mean). Powers is a well-constructed book that will appeal to many middle-schoolers and at least some high-schoolers as well. But its slavery-and-freedom theme is rather hackneyed (despite all Le Guin’s attempts to make it less so), and the characters do not have the emotional depth of others Le Guin has created. Still, the pacing is good, and the unusual powers of Gav, like those of others in this series, help keep the events interesting.

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