Danger Zone 2: Ice Claw. By David Gilman. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Black Radishes. By Susan Lynn Meyer. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The thrilling and utterly absurd Danger Zone ecological adventure series moves from heat to cold in David Gilman’s second entry, Ice Claw. Gilman, a screenwriter, approaches novels as if they are screenplays, with huge action scenes, minimal characterization, heart-tugging elements allowed to go on just long enough to bridge gaps in the narrative, and everywhere action, mystery and intrigue. His Jason-Bourne-like protagonist in these novels is 15-year-old Max Gordon, who rescued his father amid the heat of Namibia in the first book, The Devil’s Breath, and starts Ice Claw in mountains as cold as the desert was hot. Max has some sort of supernatural abilities in addition to the intrepid nature that is absolutely required of action heroes, but he cannot call on his magic at will – it has to find him, rather than the other way around. So when, within the first 40 pages of this 400-plus-page novel, Max engages in an extreme sports competition, survives an avalanche, prevents a murder by an assassin dressed in black, watches a man fall to his death, and overhears a mysterious warning in a language he does not understand, it only makes sense that he will awaken with severe hypothermia in a hospital where his brain shows unusual activity – and where he comes out of unconsciousness saying words in Basque, a language he does not speak. And the words, as interpreted by the nurses who are caring for him and who conveniently do speak the language, are a warning to trust no one, because “they” (whoever “they” are) will kill him. This setup is every bit as thrilling as it sounds, and every bit as silly. In action movies, skilled directors can arrange the cutting and pacing so that audiences have no time to catch their breath and pick apart gaping plot holes. Gilman seems to think the same thing works in print, or at least writes as if that is what he believes. It is nonsense, of course, and so is most of Ice Claw, but this is intended as a thrill-a-minute read for ages 11 and up, and it is successful on that basis. Max remembers bits of the last words of the now-dead man, who was a monk (thus bringing in the pseudo-religious element of The Da Vinci Code and similar thrillers), and those words portentously refer to a crocodile, a serpent and (who else?) Lucifer. Soon, Max finds himself accused of causing the monk’s death. The book’s clipped style fits right into hard-boiled mode, or what modern authors unfamiliar with Dashiell Hammett believe to be hard-boiled: “Max had a rendezvous with a dead man.” “Max fingered the pendant. It yielded no clue, but its secret had caused murder.” “Fedir wore his disfigurement like a badge of honor. If anyone averted their [sic] eyes in repulsion, they learned the harsh reality of his cold, unyielding will.” “Angelo Farentino had once known courage. He had worn it as lightly as one of his expensive suits.” “The wonderful thing about being corrupt is that it takes away any sense of guilt. You are wicked and you know it.” It turns out, in a bow to modern concerns, that the monk’s warning is of ecological rather than strictly religious catastrophe ahead, so Max’s mission turns out to involve saving the world from eco-disaster – aided by two other teens, who are quite capable of fending off hordes of well-trained adult killers. The style sometimes becomes genuinely laughable: “Welcome to the land of cuckoo clocks, chocolate and violent death.” But the action never flags – it barely pauses – and certainly Ice Claw, which must have been written from the start with an eye toward becoming a screenplay, will not disappoint readers who like near-nonstop adventure unencumbered by characterization, tight plotting or a great deal of sense.
Black Radishes lacks the visceral appeal and over-the-top excitement of Ice Claw, and it is fact-based – although the events happened so long ago, from the point of view of readers in the target age range of 8-12, that Black Radishes might as well be set in a fictional land. It would be increasingly difficult to understand the preoccupation of publishers with World War II were it not for the fact that the war has continued resonance for many adult publishers themselves, and for their families. Whether it still has significance for young readers – for whom it must seem as distant in time as the Middle Ages – is another matter. Certainly Susan Lynn Meyer, in her debut novel, writes with sensitivity about a time and situation that are clearly very meaningful to her: the story is based on her father’s own experiences as a Jewish boy living in Nazi-occupied France. But giving those experiences relevance for today’s young readers will be difficult. Those who do know about the war will be aware that in 1940, when the novel takes place, the Nazis were triumphant everywhere, not only taking over the French government but also successfully invading multiple countries besides France. Yet in the book, Gustave’s parents, fearing for their safety in Paris, simply move to a small village called Saint-Georges. It is only after Paris is occupied (June 1940) that anyone starts to think about escaping France altogether; and by then, doing so is extremely risky. There are actually good historical reasons for this, and Meyer explains some of them in her author’s note after the story. Meyer also explains that the book “is not my father’s story,” although elements of his life “are woven into the novel.” Ultimately, of course, the book must stand or fall on its own as a story, not a memoir or a factual historical analysis. Whether it does so may well depend on who in the target range is reading it. The novel is, at bottom, a survival tale, a type already likely to be familiar to many readers in this age group – but in the context of fiction or even fairy tales. What is supposed to give Black Radishes additional resonance is its foundation in a family’s true experiences, but for those young readers for whom the experiences are hopelessly remote, the resonance will be absent. For example, the importance of the Swiss papers held by the father in the book is clear to those who understand how identity papers were managed in 1940, and Meyer makes an attempt to explain the situation within the book without bogging down the narrative too much; but will this make Black Radishes especially attractive to non-Jewish young readers unfamiliar with the time it describes? On balance, the most effective moments of the book are those connected primarily with small matters of family solidarity rather than grand social and political events – as, for example, the observation that the book’s Papa would sometimes have such a good day at the store, despite the Nazi occupation, that he would play with Gustave after dinner, once even climbing a ladder in the garage to admire a fort that Gustave had built. These are the details that will stay with readers, even though they are clearly not the elements that are intended to make Black Radishes meaningful to a generation far removed from the time in which it takes place.