April 07, 2011

(+++) SUPERNATURAL WONDERS

The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group. By Catherine Jinks. Harcourt. $16.99.

Father of Lies. By Ann Turner. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Body Finder 2: Desires of the Dead. By Kimberly Derting. Harper. $16.99.

Evernight, Book Four: Afterlife. By Claudia Gray. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Angelfire. By Courtney Allison Moulton. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.

A Touch Mortal. By Leah Clifford. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     There are so many supernatural creatures out there in teen-oriented novels that it is a wonder to find any ordinary humans teens at all peopling these books. Oh, yes, there are some standard teen types here and there, but they are mostly foils for the protagonists – or prey. Sometimes both. The real focus in all these works is the supernaturally blessed (or cursed) central characters, such as Toby (that is, Tobias Richard Vandevelde) in The Abused Werewolf Rescue Group. Catherine Jinks, whose The Reformed Vampire Support Group took an unusually interesting approach to vampirism by having the vampires be weak and rather mousy until one of their own was staked, here rings some similar changes on werewolf legends by turning the shapeshifters into rather sickly insomniacs. It turns out that being a werewolf runs in families – but being a vampire doesn’t. Oh yes, there are vampires here, too, and while some of the complications that occur as Toby and various other characters run and drive around the Australian Outback are intense and scary, others are (intentionally or perhaps not) hilarious. Such as this dialogue: “‘That guy’s a doctor, Mum! And I’ve got a sore foot!’ ‘Yeah, but he’s a vampire, too, isn’t he?’ Sergio objected. ‘Can a vampire be a doctor? Or is he just a doctor for vampires?’” Toby goes through a lot without ever (until late in the book) quite believing any of it: “I almost expected to look up and spot a camera crew, because nothing seemed real. Werewolves? Vampires? Dead people? Get outta here.” There is eventually an intersection between the vampire group and the werewolves who are the focus here, although Toby explains, “To be honest, we haven’t had much to do with the vampires since then, even though they’ve been a big help. It’s partly because they’re only awake at night and partly because they’re kind of annoying.” So after kidnappings, gunplay, violent fights, car chases and crashes, and all sorts of confrontations, Jinks retains some humor in this book, even to explaining that “when you mix a werewolf with a vampire, you get a zombie,” which seems far-fetched even for this genre. But accepting what is far-fetched is exactly what readers of these books are supposed to do.

     Take the story of Lidda, for example – she being the 14-year-old protagonist of Father of Lies, a book set in 17th-century Salem and focused on the witch trials there. In Ann Turner’s retelling, Lidda (an invented character) becomes a key figure in those trials, because she hears a voice in her head commenting on the events. For instance, when the Reverend Parris (who was real) tells the congregation that “the Devil and his minions surround this village, yes, surround it, circling like wolves ready to bite and harry and destroy,” Lucian, the name the voice in Lidda’s head gives himself, comments that the preacher’s call for “righteousness” means “doing things his way, girl – never kicking up your heels under the apple trees or singing wild songs. Wearing your stays and always obeying your elders.” But it is precisely because Lidda does not accept this definition of righteousness, because she does not do all the prescribed things, that Lucian says he has come to be her “friend.” That is, if he is truly a friend and not the Devil himself. “She was just a fourteen-year-old girl in the village of Salem, without power, except the power to tell truth from lies,” Lidda realizes as the witch hunt progresses. “And that made her more alone than ever.” Indeed, Lidda’s attempt to do something about the “witch-fever, vengeance, and cruelty” leads to an accusation against the girl herself, and the departure of Lucian, and eventually Lidda’s own departure from the town – a hopeful note in a story that, historically, had very little brightness about it. Indeed, Father of Lies draws on historical sources and actually uses some transcripts dating to the time of the Salem witch trials in a few chapters – a factual story decked out in fictional guise and with a supernatural element more in keeping with 21st-century thinking than with that of the 17th century.

     The Body Finder is up-to-date, too. Kimberly Derting’s first book about Violet introduced her as a girl with the ability to sense echoes from the murdered and match those remnants to killers. The second book in the series, Desires of the Dead, finds Violet trying hard to conceal her ability even as she discovers the body of a young boy and the FBI gets involved in the search for the boy’s murderer. This book also traces the changes in the relationship between Violet and her boyfriend, Jay, who is actually spending less time with her now that they are officially a couple rather than moving toward couplehood as they did in the first book. A reason for their partial estrangement is that Jay has made a new friend, Mike, and is with him frequently – leading, quite naturally for the curious Violet, to an exploration by the girl of Mike’s history…leading in turn, because of the sort of book this is, to the discovery of a dark secret in Mike’s family’s past. And so the entanglements become ever more…well…entangled. “She was damaged, sure,” Violet thinks to and about herself at one point, “but she was stronger than that. She wasn’t broken. She would survive this. She had to.” And of course she does – turning 17 in the midst of all the events, and having “the worst birthday of her life” because of a rift with Jay. The story here follows much the same arc as in the earlier book, with uncertainty and blind alleys and an eventual discovery by Violet of what is going on – at the cost of considerable danger to herself. And there are hints here about new aspects of Violet’s power, or at least ones not yet fully explored: “She was beginning to wonder if she’d ever fully understand her strange ability.” But understood or not, Violet’s ability leads to a frightening confrontation that weaves together Mike’s family’s tragedy with several puzzling events that have directly affected Violet’s own life. Further Body Finder stories are sure to follow.

     The Evernight saga reaches its fourth installment with Afterlife, and here too the story arc is familiar even though the specific events are, of course, different from those in the earlier series entries. The series title refers to the vampires’ Evernight Academy, former home to Bianca, who is now a wraith rather than a vampire – which means Evernight is at war with her and all her kind. But Bianca goes there because of Lucas, who is a vampire – unwillingly – and who can obviously no longer hunt vampires, as he was trained to do before becoming vampiric. Evernight is yet another twist on the age-old Romeo and Juliet story (which really is old: even Shakespeare picked it up from earlier writers). It just happens to be a twist in which the lovers are dead…or undead. Claudia Gray (pseudonym of Amy Vincent) includes pretty much all the heartthrob elements as well as the excitement and suspense that are de rigueur in this genre, plus some occasionally amusing lines: “I would’ve done a fist pump of victory if I’d been solid.” The amusement helps counter the clich├ęd, such as this dialogue: “‘Even if you pull it off, even if you give yourself a heartbeat, you’ll still be dead inside.’” The eventual solution here – or resolution, anyway – leads to one of those bittersweet endings so typical of this genre, although not before one character delivers one of the book’s funniest lines: “‘You’re the most amazing supernatural creature in the world, and I’m just some guy who’s going to get old eventually.’”

     Supernatural tales for teens remain so popular that they keep attracting new authors, such as debut novelists Courtney Allison Moulton and Leah Clifford. Moulton’s Angelfire and Clifford’s A Touch Mortal are superficially different, but the underlying similarities of their approach are quite clear. Moulton’s book is the start of a trilogy about Ellie, a 17-year-old who turns out to have lived many lives and to be a force of angelic good in the never-ending battle against the evil “reapers.” Ellie is awakened to her powers, and to the start of an understanding of her many past lives, by her intense, immediate connection with Will, whom she first meets (right at midnight) on her birthday – but instantly feels she has known for centuries. As, of course, she has. How does all this happen? Simple, really: “‘When you die, you are reincarnated,’” Will explains. “‘Your body and soul are reborn over and over in the same human form. I find you again, usually when you’re just a small child, and guard you as you grow up. When you’re seventeen and ready to face your true identity, I wake you.’” And there you have it. And there follows an adventure novel that is also a coming-of-age story and a love story, including evil creatures such as the vir, ursid, lupine and nictarid (forms of the reapers) – all arrayed against the Preliator (that would be Ellie, who gets such lines as, “It was good to know that when swords failed, simple girl tactics always worked – even on monsters”). The mystery here – not an unexpected one – is why it took so long for Ellie to be reincarnated this time, and what that means for the ongoing war between the angels and the Fallen. More to come – two books more.

     Clifford’s book also involves humans and angels, but the world of A Touch Mortal is certainly different from that of Angelfire. Clifford’s protagonist, Eden, falls in love with a fallen angel who, like Ellie’s Guardian, hesitates at first to kiss her, although for different reasons. The primary scenario here involves Siders, lost souls that do not enter either Heaven or Hell after death. As it turns out (and why it turns out that way is an important plot point), Eden becomes one of them – but not just any one. She has some sort of power in the tips of her fingers – a power that not only acts on humans but also may affect other Siders. And she may be the key to this book’s light-against-darkness struggle, just as Ellie is the key to the same struggle in Angelfire. Both books play to teens’ simultaneous needs to belong and to be one of a kind, and both include soul searching (well, both involve souls, after all), romance, self-discovery and a host of other elements that form the foundation of innumerable supernatural-genre books targeting teenage readers. Dialogue that seems to be unintentionally funny is in A Touch Mortal, too: “‘You’re dead,’” says one character. “‘Live with it.’” Another example: “‘This isn’t the afterlife, sweet pea. It’s the Bronx.’” There are alliances and misalliances here (and if that seems a lot like, say, high school, just consider the audience for this genre); and there are questions of loyalty and power and how to make a life (or afterlife) for oneself – all typical subject matter for such books as A Touch Mortal, and all satisfactorily worked into a frothy concoction with plenty of room for sequels and without the slightest shred of believability. But belief, except in something (or some set of things) beyond death, is not required for enjoyment of any of these books. A willingness to read and reread the same themes, in somewhat different settings, is all that is really needed.

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