October 09, 2008


Bringing the Boy Home. By N.A. Nelson. HarperCollins. $15.99.

Troll Blood. By Katherine Langrish. Eos. $16.99.

The Secret Circle: The Initiation and The Captive Part I. By L.J. Smith. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Vamps. By Nancy A. Collins. HarperTeen. $8.99.

     These books take young readers to worlds far different from their own – but in varying ways. Bringing the Boy Home has the strongest sense of the real but exotic about it. First-time novelist N.A. Nelson, who has personally explored the Amazon, sets this book for ages 8-12 there, focusing it on two boys of the Takunami tribe who are on the verge of manhood but are coming to it from very different directions. Both boys must go on vision quests to mark their 13th birthdays and the end of their childhoods. For Luka, this seems a straightforward, if hardly easy, thing to do, since his mother has been overseeing his training for years (the family’s future success depends on how well Luka handles himself). For Tirio, though, even the notion of a Takunami vision quest seems strange, since the boy, who has a disabled foot, was cast out of the tribe when he was very young – and has been adopted by an American woman and living a life very different from that of the tribes of the Amazon. Still, as Tirio nears the age of 13, he starts hearing voices and having visions that tell him he must return to his original homeland. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that Luka and Tirio share a destiny and that each needs the other in order to come through the sixth-sense test, the soche seche tente. But it is the revelations that come after the test that truly bring the boys into manhood, for “Takunami males are born three times: once out of their mahas’ bodies into the world, once out of their boyhood bodies into manhood, and once out of their physical bodies into the spirit world.” Nelson’s interconnection of the last of these, the spirit world, with the world of the Takunami tribe, provides much of the outrĂ© feeling of the book, a fantasy that takes place in a real-world setting.

     The world of Troll Blood is pure fantasy from the start, and even before the start: this novel follows Troll Fell and Troll Mill and concludes Katherine Langrish’s trilogy for ages 10 and up. Yet there are tribal touches here, too: the book mixes elements of Native American tales with Viking myths. Langrish pulls in the various legends throughout the narrative, for instance during Peer and Hilde’s crossing to North America, which they know as Vinland: “The draug: the fearsome sea spirit that roamed the seas in half a boat, with a crew of drowned corpses. He’d caught a glimpse of it one wild, stormy morning last summer – a tattered sail and a dark hull, manned by stiff silhouettes. He looked nervously out across the heaving water, beginning to understand why sailors didn’t like talking about such things.” Life gets more complicated after landfall, as Gunnar One-Hand establishes a settlement and Peer settles in with a Native American tribe nearby that bears the Vikings a mortal grudge. Breaking the cycle of revenge proves no easier in Vinland than anywhere else, but Peer eventually finds a way, bringing the book and the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion.

     Trolls are not actual characters in Troll Blood, appearing only in legends, but supernatural characters are the lifeblood (so to speak) of many novels for teenagers – the witches in The Secret Circle and the vampires in Vamps, for example. Neither book aspires to be more than genre literature, but both provide the sorts of interpersonal rivalries and frights that many teens enjoy. The Secret Circle is the first of two books about Cassie Blake, unwilling transplant from California to the New England town of New Salem; the second book will be subtitled The Captive Part II and The Power. Oddities of titling notwithstanding, the book follows established norms for the genre, as Cassie tries to handle everyday woes (misery because of the climate, worry about her mother and sick grandmother) as well as extraordinary ones (the school-ruling girls are more than mean – they are real witches, and Cassie is initiated into their coven for potentially deadly reasons). The most interesting aspect of The Secret Circle is the way L.J. Smith, author of The Vampire Diaries, interweaves “ordinary” concerns with spooky ones: Cassie comes to see that her mother and grandmother are somehow involved with the coven; and when she falls for a boy named Adam, who gives her a chalcedony rose as a good-luck charm that readers will immediately know is more than that, it turns out that he too is deeply involved in supernatural matters…and may be Cassie’s soulmate…but is in love with someone else as well as with Cassie…and everything just gets so complicated. But there’s nothing truly unexpected here.

     Nor is there in Vamps, which Nancy A. Collins sets at an elite school for upper-crust vampires called Bathory Academy – after the infamous noblewoman who killed young servant girls and bathed in their blood to try to keep herself youthful. The primary rivalry here is between Lilith Todd, who rules the school, and Cally Monture, who is newly enrolled and proving to be more of a rival than Lilith would have thought possible. One of the neatest elements in Vamps is the notion that there are vampire hunters constantly on the prowl – called Van Helsings, after Dracula’s nemesis in Bram Stoker’s novel. Another interesting part of the book is the classroom instruction – for example, in “scrivening,” which means properly writing important documents by hand, in languages unknown to humans, so as to “protect ourselves from those who would eradicate us from the face of the earth” (this, even though the vampires do use computers and have their own software letting them communicate over the Internet). It is the little touches rather than the ordinary-for-the-genre plot that are of most interest in Vamps, which is the first book of a series that is likely to be bloody good fun even if not blood-chilling.

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