Geek Fantasy Novel. By E. Archer. Scholastic. $17.99.
Books of Beginning, Book One: The Emerald Atlas. By John Stephens. Knopf. $17.99.
Amos Daragon #1: The Mask Wearer. By Bryan Perro. Translated by Y. Maudet. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The fact that preteen fantasy-adventure novels tend to come in threes, if not more, has not stopped E. Archer from doing something almost unheard of in the field: writing a single novel that is complete in itself and does not have to lead to a sequel (although, if it sells well, he could surely be prevailed upon to write one). Geek Fantasy Novel is delightful precisely because it absorbs the conventions of two fields – fantasy and geekdom – and simply refuses to take them seriously. It is, in fact, a multilayered book, but along the lines of a video game rather than those of, say, Shakespeare. The narrator keeps getting in the way of the story, often hilariously, as in narrating a confrontation between Ralph, the American hero of the book (which, however, takes place in England and other fairylands), and his relative, Duchess Chessie of Cheshire, sometime TV pitchwoman and sometime fairy godmother and rather too good at playing the role of villainess into which she casts herself: “I’d hoped not to have her perform any more magic in front of Ralph. Foreigners always tend to get unnerved when confronted by a good old Buckingham spell. But I figured that Ralph had already been subjected to unicorns and fairies, so what would some real wizardry matter? She raised her fingertips – she could have shot her arms to the sky, but one needn’t be tawdry – and magically ripped away Ralph’s shirt.” There is even a battle of sorts here between two “narrative voices,” the one presenting this book and the one that presented Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, which is the basis, more or less, or one portion of Geek Fantasy Novel. Archer’s book turns on the issue of wishes – why not to make them and what happens when you do so anyway – and on old magic vs. the new ways, and the ways in which magic and science are, umm, interrelated. Such as: “It may be difficult to imagine how one climbs a gas ladder. But one must remember that a gas is just a solid whose atoms are spaced farther apart. Even as your narrator, I can’t speak with total surety, but my theory is this: If you try really hard, you can be sure your atoms are in the right position to rest on the gas’s atoms, and you can climb a gas ladder as you would a ladder of the more conventional variety. You just have to concentrate.” When the narrator is not injecting himself into the book, he tells a breezy story of how Ralph’s life gets intermingled with those of his three cousins, Cecil, Daphne, and Beatrice, each of whom gets a wish (granted by Chessie) that does not quite go the way he or she hopes or expects – nor quite the way Chessie herself anticipates. Geek Fantasy Novel is a romp, to be sure, but it is an unusually entertaining one, because it steadfastly refuses to bow down to the conventions it is bending – and yet it does adhere to them in significant ways. The result is that readers are never quite sure what is going to happen next. Exploding bunnies, anyone? How about exploding bunnies that only blow up when they feel like it, not when hurled like hand grenades? The book’s finale, which takes it into something like metaphysics (or meta-silliness), is called “The Private Lives of Narrators” and is a delight in itself. A sequel may not be a necessity, but it’s a fair bet.
Sequels are already in the works for The Emerald Atlas, because John Stephens’ first novel is also the first book of a planned trilogy – focused, interestingly enough, on books. Stephens, a TV writer and producer, knows how to pace a story, and he has clearly read all the usual suspects that influence fantasy writers today, from Tolkien to C.S. Lewis and beyond. He knows how to create the right mixtures of protagonists (Kate, age 14; Michael, age 12; and Emma, age 11), put them in a suitably isolated setting (10 years in orphanages), and make them appropriately important (they are, of course, potential victims of a horrible evil of which they are unaware – but which, through the atlas of the title and the two books-about-books to follow, they will learn about and will be able to withstand). Yes, the echoes of Narnia and Middle-Earth and of many, many lesser, derivative heroic fantasies are constant here, but Stephens brings a fine sense of pacing and occasional glints of humor to what could easily have become just another formulaic preteen adventure story. Yes, he writes such wholly typical lines of the genre as, “The path was steep and slippery, never more than a couple of feet wide and usually much less. It zigzagged back and forth, and the children clung to each other as their shoes slid in the mud and gusts of wind tried to pull them into the void.” But he also creates a wry perspective through, for example, having the three protagonists encounter vicious creatures called Screechers and, of course, a warrior who knows how to fight them, who tells the children to “manage your fear.” Which leads to this: “Kate thought of telling the man that it was probably a lot easier to ‘manage your fear’ when you were a sword-wielding, wolf-killing giant, but Michael was already scribbling in his journal, murmuring, ‘Manage…fear,’ and she let it go.” And then there is the encounter with Dr. Pym, 15 years before the kids are going to meet him, which leads to the perfectly reasonable comment, “‘I see,’ Dr. Pym said. Then he shook his head. ‘Actually no, I don’t see at all.’” And what of the book of the title? It gets the kids into the past, but without it, they cannot return to the present, and it turns out to be in the Dead City, “the ancient dwarf capital” that “had been abandoned some five hundred years earlier after being devastated by an earthquake.” This leads to: “‘Bhuhoduuknoballdis?’ Michael asked (he had most of a banana pancake crammed into his mouth).” It is this constant balance between the humorous (if not actually silly) and the serious (the formulaic quest-to-find-one’s-true-role-in-fulfilling-a-prophecy) that keeps The Emerald Atlas moving along nicely and at a higher level of interest than the many, many other preteen fantasies out there. It remains to be seen whether Stephens can sustain this balancing act through two more books-about-books (one fictional book per child, and one part of The Books of Beginning focused primarily on each protagonist). Certainly readers of The Emerald Atlas will hope for more of the same.
A trilogy is not enough to contain the Amos Daragon story, a Canadian tale that runs to no fewer than 12 books and was written in French. Now the first of these short novels (under 200 pages, vs. the more typical more-than-400 of Stephens’ book) has been translated into English, and it makes a fine beginning for what is sure to emerge as a wide-ranging saga. Like heroic fantasy in general, the story of Amos involves journeys and quests, with the title The Mask Wearer being the key to what is going on. Very early in this first book, after Bryan Perro establishes Amos’ family’s poverty and the cruelty of the lord under whom they live, Amos encounters a dying mermaid princess, learns of the war between mermaids and merriens (“sea creatures who resemble mermaids but who are repulsively ugly and brutal”), and is appointed mask wearer – and given a white stone with which to go on his initial quest. Amos is soon shown to be quick-witted – he dupes the harsh Lord Edonf not once but twice – and is encouraged by his parents to head to the mysterious woods of Tarkasis, where the mermaid has told him he must take the white stone. In short order, Amos encounters a number of not-unexpected magical people and creatures, from an evil sorcerer seeking a skull pendant (which, of course, ends up in Amos’ hands) to a boy who can change into a bear to none other than Medusa – not exactly the gorgon from Greek mythology, but close enough, complete with snakes for hair: “They’re my only friends and my solace. I’ve known them since I was little, and each one has a name.” Amos is as full of foolhardy courage as any hero of an old-fashioned fairy tale, telling the “humanimal” Beorf at one point, before the two join forces, “If you’re going to kill me, get it over with. And since you know me so well, you must be aware that I am not from this realm and that I’m not a threat to you. …I advise you to eat me quickly.” Amos soon discovers that he is protected, at least after a fashion, by a goddess of sorts known as the Lady in White, who “sponsors each of the mask wearers.” And it is Amos’ ultimate quest – which will be worked out in the next 11 books – to find the three elemental masks he does not yet possess: earth, fire and water (the mermaid, interestingly, has given him the one for wind, not water). In truth, The Mask Wearer is a rather thin introduction to the series, laying out the basics in a fairly leisurely fashion for such a short novel; but it hits its stride with a battle late in the book that promises considerable excitement to come. And Y. Maudet’s translation is a stylish one that keeps the action moving and will have young readers eagerly awaiting the next installment in English of the Amos Daragon series.