April 21, 2011


Emma Andrews Series No. 2: Immortal with a Kiss. By Jacqueline Lepore. Morrow. $13.99.

Emily the Strange No. 3: Dark Times. By Rob Reger and Jessica Gruner. Illustrated by Rob Reger. Harper. $16.99.

The Thirteenth Princess. By Diane Zahler. Harper. $6.99.

A True Princess. By Diane Zahler. Harper. $15.99.

     There is something soothing about returning to familiar literary territory, even if the territory itself is dark or unsettling. This is one reason people continue to read fairy tales, even the scariest of them: familiarity helps a great deal in balancing any fright. And so authors offer fans the same settings, book after book, providing a frame of the understood and accepted within which all-new adventures can occur. Some authors, in fact, offer doubly familiar settings. Readers who enjoyed Jacqueline Lepore’s first Emma Andrews adventure, Descent into Dust, will find the same dark, brooding, more-or-less Victorian world in the second, Immortal with a Kiss. But this setting is itself simply a re-emergence and to some extent a reinterpretation of the world of actual 19th-century Gothic novels – complete with moors, secrets, coincidences, nobility and ignobility of heritage and behavior, and brooding characters of all sorts. What distinguishes these well-written novels from the many other vampire stories out there are several things. For one, they are well written – stylish, even – despite occasional trips into cliché and awkwardness. For another, Lepore has done enough research on her chosen time period to weave real-life figures such as John Polidori and Bram Stoker into her narrative seamlessly and intelligently. And most important of all, Lepore has conjured up Emma Andrews, a believable and genuinely interesting protagonist – and surrounded her with characters who, although more types than fully individualized creations, are never less than interesting: the powerful priest fallen from faith, the homosexual dandy whose mannerisms conceal a good heart and good motives, and the brooding Brontë-style love interest. The specifics of Lepore’s narrative sometimes lean too heavily on the 19th century: Emma experiences and gives in to genuine passion in Immortal with a Kiss, but has immediate and ongoing regrets; and when she leaves behind some just-discovered letters until a more propitious time, every reader will know she will never see them again (and she doesn’t). Still, this story of frightening vampiric attacks (one involving rats is truly scary), of schoolgirls whose natural sexuality is exploited by forces of evil, of the dark and barely glimpsed machinations of a master vampire and the only slightly more visible workings of others of the undead, is a worthy successor to the first Emma Andrews novel and is sure to make Lepore’s fans eager to return yet again to this frightening but familiar world.

     The third Emily the Strange novel, Dark Times, not only revisits the mental and emotional world of the 13-year-old title character (as previously seen in The Lost Days and Stranger and Stranger) but also gives Emily herself a chance to revisit the past to try to unravel a longstanding family mystery. Emily is not the only strange thing about this series, which is told in semi-graphic-novel form – with lots of different type styles, numerous illustrations, “a super strong, well-calibrated golem,” a tailless cat and a catless tail, and the TOM (Time Out Machine) that Emily uses to visit (or revisit) the past. In Dark Times, Emily is partly home-school by her mother, Patti (a first-order ditz), and partly by Great-Aunt Millie, who is long dead and whose discussion of family history gets Emily interested in Great-Aunt Lily, who is also long dead but the circumstances of whose passing are mysterious, which is why Emily has to use the TOM to find out what really happened and how the events of the past relate to Attikol, her present-day nemesis. If all this sounds confusing, that is because it is, and Rob Reger and Jessica Gruner make sure it stays that way throughout – while also ensuring that Emily’s unique narrative voice remains intact as she tells the story (and provides the illustrations, lists, point counts, “notes to self” and other ancillary elements of the tale). For a while, Emily gets stuck in the past in this book: “I am stranded in a time 100 years before the lightbulb. 150 years before the skateboard. 200 years before the Chia Pet. Am feeling insanely claustrophobic and FREAKED OUT!!!!! Must calm down. Must THINK. Must…AaaaaIIIIEeeeE! Am not calm AT ALL!!!!!” Stranded in the 1790s, Emily worries about all the changes her presence in the past is causing: “Right now I’m starting to feel like every move I make, every hair that falls from my head, every molecule of air that’s altered because I breathed it in is creating new worlds of infinite divergent contingencies, and I will be bouncing from one to another for all eternity, never finding the one I know.” The juxtaposition of single-syllable, incoherent panic with complex thinking is typical of Emily and a big part of her charm. So are such illustrations as “Death of Lily – a Venn Diagram” and two pages purporting to show Emily and Lily in the 1970s after they get away from the 1790s. This is all very complicated, very twisted, very funny and very enjoyable for Emily’s fans – although, to state the obvious, the whole series, like its protagonist, is very much an acquired taste.

     The world of Diane Zahler’s “Princess” books will be quite a familiar one to all readers, for it is the world of old fairy tales. The Thirteenth Princess is an expansion and retelling of the Grimm story, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and A True Princess contains elements of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” plus some taken from Goethe’s Der Erlkönig. Both books feature 12-year-old girls, raised as servants, who turn out really to be princesses and who – after they discover their true identities – become the rescuers of others. The books’ patterns are very similar, but just as fairy tales may have nearly identical plots but still be fascinating to read, so these two novels are quite interesting even though the journey of their protagonists is much the same. Zahler expands the Grimm tale in The Thirteenth Princess by giving all 12 of the Grimm princesses names beginning with the letter A – and having the 13th named Zita. The story becomes one of the frustration of a king whose wife bore only girls, not the son he always wanted, and who then died at Zita’s birth, causing the king to resent the girl and treat her as a servant. There is also witchcraft here – witchcraft within witchcraft, as it turns out – and the mystery of the dancing princesses, which is the core of the Grimm story, becomes merely the event around which bigger mysteries are wrapped. In A True Princess, the orphan and servant girl Lilia (who is really a princess) gets on the wrong side of the Elf King when fleeing through his domain with her friends, Kai (a name from Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”) and Karina. After Kai falls under a spell cast by the Elf King’s daughter, Lilia determines to rescue him – which she can only do by tracking down a particular jewel that is connected to Odin, chief of the Norse gods (whose eventual appearance in the story is a bit of a deus ex machina event but does tie things up rather neatly). Zahler’s books are intended for ages 8-12 and will be most appealing to preteen girls, who will enjoy the “princess” fantasies within the recognizable world of fairy tales – even if they have not read the specific stories on which Zahler bases the novels. Some settings are so culturally familiar that even if a reader has not been to them before, he or she feels they are well-known and comfortable places to visit, if only in fiction.

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