That’s Life, Samara Brooks. By Daniel Ehrenhaft. Delacorte Press. $15.99.
The Rain Wilds Chronicles, Volume One: Dragon Keeper. By Robin Hobb. Eos. $26.99.
The quest tale dates to time immemorial, or at the very least to the time of Gilgamesh, which was nearly 5,000 years ago. The question for modern writers is how to make this sort of long-form, even leisurely story attractive to readers at a time of instantaneous communication and super-fast travel. A notable answer in books for younger readers – such as That’s Life, Samara Brooks – is to make the quest highly personal, a journey to find out who you are as well as to get yourself (or someone else) from Point A to Point B. There is a dose of this approach in all quest stories, not excluding Gilgamesh itself. But making the personalization the main focus, rather than something of larger scope, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Quest tales also tend to take themselves very, very seriously – they are historically about grand things – but to make them more appealing today, especially for younger readers, a good dose of humor helps. Daniel Ehrenhaft mixes the ingredients in just about the right proportions in a story that starts when Samara Brooks sets up a casino in the school cafeteria and progresses through a search for aliens on Earth – such as, say, Samara herself. To say this is a highly unlikely series of events is understating the case, but Ehrenhaft’s book works (albeit not totally believably) by making Samara and her friends both likable and real. More than that: Ehrenhaft makes Samara intelligent, and her brains are a key component of the plot. When dealing blackjack, Samara casually notes that class president Lily Frederick, to whom she is giving the cards, “statistically…had a less-than-seventeen percent chance of winning.” Busted for gambling, Samara decides to prove scientifically that she is not a bad person, by showing how closely her DNA matches Lily’s. Yet Samara is not only smart but also a con artist: “A complex con had taken shape, and there was no slowing the momentum. It was a con that revolved around math and science” – and specifically around the school’s 30-year-old but still quite serviceable electron microscope. Well, things get rapidly odder in Samara’s quest to prove herself a good person, and along the way, Ehrenhaft brings in the Socratic method, the odd alien-related theories of Erich von Däniken, and lots of other material that does not usually appear in a middle-grade novel. Samara comes up with some decidedly odd findings, which lead her to track down former electron-microscope owner Dr. Archibald Chance, which brings up a discussion of a fundamentalist preacher who calls himself Dr. Willis, which turns into a talk about how “we examined a strand of my hair, to see what my DNA looks like, and there was this funny eye-shaped thingy in it.” And that gets into competing theories of intelligent design, alien life forms, the “universal mind,” and more. This is an unusually intellectual novel for its age group, and lest that seem a turnoff, it is also an unusually clever one, filled with twists and turns that readers will not see coming. And the book’s multiple perspectives – some chapters told by Samara, some by Lily, some by UFO-obsessed Nathan Brooks – also keep things interesting. So do such subheadings as “Wasted Truffles” and “A Hero, a Moron, or Both.” Eventually, Samara does find herself – and learn that she is not at all the person she has always thought herself to be. That’s Life, Samara Brooks is very much a quest for our time – and one that manages to be both thoughtful and entertaining.
Many adult readers, though, seem to prefer quests of a more old-fashioned type, at least in genre fantasy books such as Dragon Keeper. Robin Hobb’s book is well written, but makes no attempt whatsoever to break out of any Tolkienian conventions of the lengthy (474-page), sprawling quest story. In fact, Hobb does not even break out of her prior world here, returning to the basic setting of her Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies for a kind of postscript to the tale of the dragon Tintaglia, with whose help the Traders held off the invasion of the Chalcedeans. Tintaglia’s reward was a promise that the Traders would help Tintaglia try to restore her species through a migration up the Rain Wild River. But this attempt has misfired, with newly hatched dragons often dying or, at most, surviving in earthbound form – easy prey for humans who seek their flesh for its supposed healing powers. Hence the quest at the heart of Dragon Keeper: the dragons want to move farther up the river to their ancient, ill-remembered homeland of Kelsingra, so the Traders bring together the typical-in-fantasy motley group of young people to escort the dragons and ensure their safe arrival. The two women at the center of the story, each on a quest of her own, are 16-year-old forest girl Thymara and dragon expert Alise. It is their personalities, their knowledge of dragons and their sense of self that will be tested the most in this journey. Thymara is deformed and, by the usual standards of Traders, should not have been allowed to live, as her mother told her father at one point after a years-earlier encounter with a Trader: “He saw her claws, Jerup, black and curved like a toad’s. She is only eleven, and already she is scaled like a woman of thirty. He saw the webbing of her toes. He knew she had been marked from birth and it offended him that you had – kept her.” But of course, Thymara, when challenged on “the Rain Wild folly,” as one character calls it, turns out to be more than she appears to be. So does Alise, previously trapped in a loveless marriage but coming into her own after spending years studying dragons. Dragon Keeper is a solid (+++) book, nicely paced and filled with enough adventure and interpersonal drama to satisfy genre fans and make them look forward to the next novel in this series. As a quest, it is unexceptional; as a story, it neither breaks nor bends modern genre conventions. But for those very reasons, it will be attractive to adult fans of old-fashioned heroic/magical fantasy.