September 11, 2008


Darkside, Book 2: Lifeblood. By Tom Becker. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go. By Dale E. Basye. Random House. $16.99.

     The second book in Tom Becker’s Darkside saga, about an alternative London existing side-by-side with the standard “Lightside” city but visible only to those with evil in their veins, continues and expands on the promise of the first in what is emerging as one of the best recent adventure series for preteens and young teenagers. Darkside is a sort of Mr. Hyde London, part of and yet not part of the “Dr. Jekyll” London in which everyday humans live. In Lifeblood, though, there is more interaction between the two sides than in the first book, for the young hero, Jonathan Starling, is not the only one who finds his way between these…call them aspects of the city. Jonathan remains on a quest to find out what happened to his mother 12 years ago; he is now firmly allied with private detective Elias Carnegie, whose ability to change into a wolf terrifies even the majority of Darkside’s inhabitants; and he is retracing the steps of a particularly ghastly murder case that his mother may have been investigating when she disappeared. The case involves a member of the Rippers – descended from none other than Jack the Ripper, ruler of Darkside – and in Lifeblood, the question of who is and is not a Ripper, and how the members of this family handle each other, becomes crucial to Jonathan’s own family questions and his continuing search. Jonathan’s father lives in Lightside, and Jonathan does spend time with him, but it is clear that his growing bond with Carnegie is also of a father-son nature: “They had spent almost all of the last two months together. Jonathan had nearly been killed several times (more than once at Carnegie’s own hands), but every day he had woken up and felt alive, felt the blood pumping through his veins in anticipation of what was to follow. Not only had the wereman saved his life, he had helped create an entirely new and vibrant existence for him.” The increasingly tangled family relationships are at the heart of Lifeblood, but there is a great deal more here – from the investigative to the grisly – that will keep young readers waiting for the next surprising development. There are many of them in this book, and more will surely follow as the series continues.

     Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go, the first novel by Dale E. Basye, aspires to some of the same darkness (and dark humor) as the Darkside series, but lacks the punch and consistency of Becker’s books. Still, it gets a solid (+++) rating for its genuinely weird setting: a place where dead kids go to be sorted out until it is determined where they will spend eternity. Hovering on the edge of amusement and misery, Heck features some of the same silliness and bad puns found in Bruce Hale’s Chet Gecko books, but Basye is clearly trying for something broader, weirder and ultimately more meaningful. The names he uses make the parallels and differences clear: the head of Heck, a sort of evil reform-boarding school with demon attendants who prod kids with “pitchsporks,” is designated the Principal and named Bea “Elsa” Bubb, and she is equipped with a three-headed Cerberus who is small, annoying and capable of shapeshifting (but nowhere near as terrifying as the Cerberus that guards Hell – a region referred to in Heck as “h-e-double-hockey-sticks”). The central characters here are named Fauster (not exactly Faust, but close enough), and the timid 11-year-old who does not really belong in Heck is named Milton – and befriends another boy named Virgil. Milton’s sister, a 13-year-old goth girl and petty thief named Marlo, is the reason he ends up in Heck after the two die in a marshmallow-bear explosion – one of many touches in which the silly and the weird come together to odd effect. Heck itself is arranged in nine circles, just as Hell is in Dante’s Inferno, but each of these circles is child-oriented. This entire first book is set in Limbo, where newly arrived kids undergo a series of humiliations as they wait to find out which circle they will be assigned to. Readers know early on that some game bigger than that of Heck is afoot, since Milton does not really belong there and sees and hears things on his journey to Heck that he should neither see nor hear. By the end of the book, Milton himself has an idea that something big is going on and that he is very much involved. But before that, he and Virgil and Marlo have to endure bullying (male and female varieties), a number of physical discomforts (being dead and in Heck has a strong physicality to it), classroom instruction from the likes of Blackbeard (as a sort of gym teacher) and Richard Nixon (who teaches ethics), and a spy in the form of Cerberus disguised as Milton’s pet ferret, Lucky (who has somehow made the transition to Heck while hiding in Milton’s backpack). None of this makes an iota of sense, but that does not matter in the chapters that seem like a decidedly dark romp: the lighter parts of the book, including illustrations of various demons and imps by Bob Dob, work well. It is only when Basye seems to be trying to hint at something serious that Heck bogs down. For example, it makes grotesque sense to have Lizzy Borden teach cooking – she is especially adept at chopping. But the use of Nixon, a clear political statement, does not have the same level of incongruous humor for the nine-to-12 age group at which Heck is aimed. As the series continues, perhaps Basye will be more precisely on target.

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