July 08, 2010


Darkest Powers, Book Three: The Reckoning. By Kelley Armstrong. Harper. $17.99.

Evernight, Book Three: Hourglass. By Claudia Gray. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Wicked Lovely, Book Four: Radiant Shadows. By Melissa Marr. Harper. $16.99.

Spells. By Aprilynne Pike. HarperTeen. $16.99.

     There are books that promise a great deal and may or may not deliver it. There are others whose promises are far more modest and that deliver just what their readers expect – certainly not great literature, maybe not even something highly memorable, but a good way to pass the time during a period of relaxation, such as high-school summer vacation. These “beach reads” tend to be involving enough to engross the mind for a day or two, but not so deeply unsettling or exciting that a reader would hesitate to break off reading if she (the books tend to target females) had something else to do for a while. Nowadays the beach-read formula often includes supernatural elements, which have long been popular not only in less-than-profound literature but also in some deep works: many would include Tolkien in the “deep” category, and surely everyone would include Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

     There is no Tempest in any of these books, but there is plenty that is tempestuous. Each novel is part of a series, but given the fairly formulaic level of all the plots (good vs. evil, difficult choices to be made, betrayals, help from unexpected sources, a frisson of fear every now and then, some dabbling in emotional and sexual relationships), a reader who picks up any of these books without knowing the earlier ones will be able to understand and enjoy the story – and can always return to the earlier novels if the current one seems interesting enough to provoke the question of what happened before.

     The key in all these books is to accept the characters as they are and for what they are, no matter how unbelievable they and their circumstances may be. You do not have to know what a demi-demon is to enjoy The Reckoning, for example – just accept that it is and is germane to the plot, and you will be fine. In fact, just accept 15-year-old Chloe Sanders and her friends Simon, Derek and Tori for what they are, and Kelley Armstrong’s book will flow smoothly to its inevitable concluding confrontation between the teens and the head of the evil corporation that has turned them into things that were never meant to be. Chloe sees dead people and desperately wants not to, but of course this gift – or this genetic manipulation – is the key to the entire trilogy of which The Reckoning is the conclusion. The typically villainous Edison Group has been conducting experiments called Genesis (and Icarus and Phoenix) in genetic engineering, and the work has been successful on one level (Chloe is in fact a necromancer; hence her abilities to see and interact with the dead) but has gone quite inevitably wrong in others. The Reckoning features Chloe abandoning her hope to be “normal” once and for all – adjusting to her “new normal” life, you could say – and follows through on her attraction to Derek, a distinctly antisocial werewolf created by the same evildoers (or overreachers, which here amounts to the same thing). “The power will grow until it consumes you and leaves a monster in your place,” one character warns Chloe, but of course the whole point of this book – and this trilogy – is that there can be, must be, another way.

     Same thing with Hourglass, the third and not final book in the Evernight series. Claudia Gray’s novel is a fairly straightforward (by today’s standards) vampire love story, the vampire in this case being the protagonist, Bianca, and her love interest being Lucas, a boy trained to kill vampires. This sets up inevitable conflicts, to put it mildly. There are all sorts of supernatural cross-currents here, mostly involving the Evernight vampires and their Evernight Academy, and the Black Cross vampire hunters. It is with Black Cross that Bianca and Lucas hide – with Bianca concealing what she is, of course – until Black Cross captures one of Bianca’s vampire friends and precipitates an inevitable confrontation and escape. The friend, Balthazar, has a few too many things in common with Bianca to make Lucas comfortable: “‘Lucas, you know I love you. Only you. But you know that I drank his blood, too, and I think that’s freaking you out. Please understand, that was totally different.’ ‘Totally more intense, you mean.’ I shook my head. ‘Different. That’s all. Trust me, there is nothing – nothing – in the world that makes me crazier than being close to you.’” But how close? This book’s climax involves something terrible, or maybe wonderful, happening to Lucas – certainly life-changing (so to speak) and possibly making an even closer relationship possible between him and Bianca. Stay tuned for the next book.

     Readers who find vampires a bit passé may prefer faerie tales. Not fairy tales, which are nowadays believed (quite wrongly) to be kid stuff, but faerie tales, using the older spelling of the identical word in an attempt to show that these are somehow more serious stories, or at least ones for older readers. Both Radiant Shadows (the fourth and penultimate novel in the Wicked Lovely series) and Spells (the sequel to Wings) use the “ae” spelling and deal with the balancing act of half-human, half-faerie protagonists. Although the plots are different in many particulars, and Melissa Marr and Aprilynne Pike have somewhat different styles as well (differing, for example, in whether the singular noun is spelled “faery” or “faerie”), the basics of both books are the same: acceptance of who you really are, learning to face the consequences of that acceptance, and coming to grips not only with grand questions involving humanity and the faerie realm but also with personal ones about relationships. Thus, in Radiant Shadows, the half-faery is Ani, and she becomes increasingly involved with Devlin, who was created as an assassin and is the brother of the High Queen of Faerie and the queen’s warlike twin. Devlin wants to protect Ani, but Ani is determined to take care of herself, thank you, and the two of them work on (and work out) their relationship against the backdrop of a growing threat to the entire faerie realm. In Spells, it is Laurel who must accept her faerie identity and return to Avalon when summoned there. And it is Laurel who refuses fully to renounce her human connections, especially the one with her boyfriend, David – although, within the faerie world, she is sorely tempted by the very interesting but somehow elusive Tamani (“How did every conversation with Tamani turn into a crash course in faerie culture?”). Meanwhile, there are trolls on the loose, whose danger tends to be described in distinctly un-faerie-ish and not always grammatically correct language: “Listen…we can’t just hang around here talking. We don’t have any idea how far their reinforcements might be.” In fact, a lot of the dialogue does not quite match the intended otherworldliness of the setting: “I mean, we all speak English, but human-only lingo really is like another language sometimes.” But of course that is the point of a faerie or other supernatural world when seen through the lens of books such as Spells or Radiant Shadows: it has to be familiar in as many ways as possible, but just exotic enough to pull readers away from the beach for a time. Not too long, mind you – just for a while. After all, what is summer vacation itself but an escape from the droning requirements of everyday life – not for too long, but just for a while?

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