May 05, 2011


Max Cassidy: Escape from Shadow Island. By Paul Adam. Walden Pond Press. $5.99.

The Vampire Diaries: The Return, Volume 2—Shadow Souls. By L.J. Smith. HarperTeen. $9.99.

The Vampire Diaries: The Return, Volume 3—Midnight. By L.J. Smith. HarperTeen. $17.99.

     Although the essence of adventure is unpredictability, the essence of adventure novels is frequently a predictable pattern, even though the specifics vary and the authors provide plenty of twists and turns along the way. Preteens and teenagers will not be especially surprised at the characterizations (which are thin) or the ultimate outcomes of these books, but fans of thrillers will enjoy the ride even if the works ultimately end up at unsurprising destinations. Paul Adam makes sure to pull readers into the story of his improbable Max Cassidy protagonist from the very beginning with a stage show at which Max, a sort of 14-year-old Houdini, shows his ability to escape from handcuffs, chains and just about anything. Indeed, Max is the world’s greatest escape artist since the death of his father, who taught him the tricks of the trade. Max’s dad was supposedly killed two years before the book starts, allegedly by Max’s mom, who is now in jail. So we have, from the beginning, a shattered and troubled family, a highly talented teenage central character, and, soon enough, a mystery – in the form of a man who meets Max backstage after a performance and says that Max’s dad is actually alive. Never mind the improbabilities here – the man’s “proof” is a piece of paper with eight digits on it – and just go along with the thrill ride as Max journeys to a nation called Santo Domingo and discovers the Isla de Sombra: Shadow Island. “It’s privately owned. By a rich businessman, I think, or maybe a multinational corporation,” Max is told. “It used to be a pirate stronghold back in the sixteenth century; then it was a Spanish fort and, for a time, an English one. More recently, it was used as a prison, I believe.” Pirates! Fort! Prison! What better place for Max to break into – and out of? And there’s the plot, as the young escape artist has to figure out how to get to the island, evade the inevitable nefarious evildoers, discover the truth about his family, and eventually get away. The bad guys are caricatures – after Max is (inevitably) captured and (inevitably) makes an initial, failed escape attempt, they leave him handcuffed in a jail cell and, when he asks to have the cuffs removed, tell him, “You big trouble. Handcuffs stay on.” Max (inevitably) gets help from a grizzled older man with horrible memories of Shadow Island – who assists Max after he sees “the steely determination in his eyes.” The ultimate bad guy is “like an octopus. His tentacles are everywhere. If you cross him, he will throttle you.” This is all very much like bargain-basement James Bond material (that is, bargain-basement Ian Fleming at a time when most people know Bond only through the increasingly grotesque movies based very loosely on Fleming’s novels). But the point here is scarcely style – the idea is to provide vicarious thrills and a positive ending that nevertheless sets readers up for a planned sequel.

     The world of The Vampire Diaries is filled with supernatural thrills rather than Bondian ones, but it too takes its characters along predictable paths. There are several series called or based on The Vampire Diaries: the original one, The Secret Circle, and The Return. The last of these began with Nightfall, with Shadow Souls published a year ago and now available in paperback – and the conclusion of the trilogy, Midnight, just out. The series contains all the elements of a made-for-TV movie (or, more accurately, series, which in fact appears on The CW): a love triangle, demons, simple good-vs.-evil battles, and all sorts of manufactured excitement. Shadow Souls has 18-year-old Elena Gilbert braving the perils of the Dark Dimension to try to rescue her vampire boyfriend, Stefan Salvatore – with the help of Stefan’s older brother, Damon, the most ambiguous good-or-evil figure here. A basic element of The Vampire Diaries is the relative ease with which characters pass from being human to vampire and back again: Elena has done this, and vampire Damon becomes human when Stefan is freed. The added aura of implausibility of these circumstances matters very little to L.J. Smith’s narrative, which is primarily concerned with getting the protagonists in and out of various dangers and love triangles while reminding readers that there is some sort of curse, in the form of demons, afflicting Elena’s hometown of Fell’s Church (no relation, presumably, to Falls Church, a pleasant small city in Virginia). So the “Dear Diary” entries (a rather silly plot device that nevertheless knits this whole concept together) percolate through the story of Damon’s eventual rescue and then progress into Midnight, in which Celestial representatives have some interesting dealings with the devious Damon, as when a Guardian tells him (with thinly veiled sarcasm): “Our job is really only to try to keep the peace here – and you can see how well we succeed. It’s a matter of too few of us; we’re insanely understaffed.” Throw in some wolf transformations, Master Keys stolen from the Celestial Court, orders stemming from a source of supreme evil, a thriving slave trade, and a number of comments along these lines: “Her mood and the dynamics of the situation had just been turned upside down.” Stir briskly, and you have an attractive potboiler of a novel (and a trilogy) that never pretends to be more than it is – which, in this case, is a strength of the writing. The overriding message here, to the extent that there is one, is, “No one is alone. Not really. No one is ever alone.” And death is not permanent, and dimensions are many, and conclusions are ultimately inconclusive – for the adventuring is sure to continue, one way or another.

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