The Cabinet of Earths. By Anne Nesbet. Harper. $16.99.
Clarity. By Kim Harrington. Point/Scholastic. $8.99.
Perception: A “Clarity” Novel. By Kim Harrington. Point/Scholastic. $16.99.
Debut novelists must, of course, start somewhere. And where they often choose to start in books for young readers is with the basics of a particular genre, upon which they then ring changes to a greater or lesser degree. In Anne Nesbet’s case, The Cabinet of Earths – intended for ages 10 and up – contains some very formulaic elements, but is presented in such a way that it could almost have been written for adults. There is a mixture of fantasy and science here, and a mixture of the commonplace (young American heroine who is unsure of herself) and the exotic (Paris, which is well used as a setting, although the detailed descriptions will be of more interest to adults than young readers – one reason Nesbet seems a bit unsure of her audience). There is a family curse here, along with some genuine moral issues: the cabinet of the title stores certain people’s mortality, making them immortal, but this option is available only to the wealthy and at the expense of other people’s well-being – again, a rather adult theme. The uncertainty of audience would not matter much with a well-paced story featuring a dynamic protagonist, but The Cabinet of Earths moves slowly for about three-quarters of its length, very gradually building up a backstory through bit-by-bit revelations; and Maya, the central character, mostly just drifts from scene to scene, worrying about her ill mother, baking cookies, going to dances, taking French lessons, making only one single friend in her new school (Valko, son of a Bulgarian diplomat), and finding various odd things as she explores with her little brother, James. Slow plot emergence and very slow emergence of Maya’s self-awareness make the book read more like a setup for future adventures than a self-contained novel. Characters other than Maya and Valko are little developed: James and Maya’s father have little personality, and Maya’s mother’s illness is not much of a motivating factor for anything that happens. Also, although the idea of mixing science and magic is intriguing, not much is done with it. The final portion of the book, though, shows where Nesbet can go if she wants to: it has plenty of action and much more intensity than the slow-building earlier part. But the intended audience of young readers may never get to the excitement, because the buildup requires considerable patience – and interest in some subjects that preteens and young teenagers may not care much about. In seeking to go beyond the formulaic, Nesbet has reached out somewhat creakily. But a sequel is certainly possible, and if it builds effectively on all the foundations laid in the early part of The Cabinet of Earths, the followup could be quite a good one.
Clarity, the first novel by Kim Harrington, plants itself firmly in a different genre: supernatural fiction. And it aims for somewhat older readers, ages 14 and up. Published last year and now available in paperback – just as its sequel, Perception, appears in hardcover – Clarity introduces a sort of paranormal teen detective, Clarity (Clare) Fern. Unlike The Cabinet of Earths, Harrington’s book is easy to read and fast-paced throughout, and its romantic and school-related concerns target teen readers well. It lacks any real depth or originality, but that may not be an issue for high-school readers looking for something light and enjoyable. In the first book, we meet 16-year-old Clarity and her paranormal-ability-endowed family: her mother is a telepath and her brother is a medium, while Clarity herself is a psychic. They are collectively considered freakish by others in Eastport, the tourist town where they live. But when a teenage visitor is killed in a motel room, and Clarity’s brother becomes a suspect in the girl’s death, Clarity works with the mayor and a skeptical detective to solve the crime. It helps the plot, if not the investigation, that the detective has a hot son, Gabriel, with whom Clarity gets to work – helping her take her mind off her ex, Jason, who wants her back. The fact that Gabriel hates psychics is no surprise in the context of this sort of genre book. And the mystery element of the novel is straightforward – yes, it has twists and turns, but none of them is especially outlandish. The best thing about the book is Clarity’s voice: she narrates with down-to-earth humor and some sarcasm, and completely without the flightiness of some other paranormal characters. Her voice is the biggest plus in Perception as well. Some of the questions left at the end of Clarity are answered in the sequel, but Harrington’s main interest seems to be in turning this series into a long-running one. In Perception, Clarity remains torn between Gabriel and Justin, is deep in the middle of another mystery, and is unable to hang back from her psychic gift (in which she has visions activated by the objects she touches). The plot in Perception revolves around the disappearance of one of Clarity’s classmates and the messages and gifts that Clarity herself mysteriously starts to receive – maybe from Gabriel, maybe from Justin, maybe from someone else. Clarity is the usual self-reliant but somewhat insecure post-feminist so common in today’s books for teens: “Just minutes ago, I’d been thinking I didn’t want to go alone. But Justin pulling the whole helpless little girl needs a big strong man act made me want to turn him down on principle.” And she gets into situations that date back to the days of Nancy Drew, even though in the first book she actually comments on not having “time to snoop around Nancy Drew style.” For example: “I strained to turn my head and face my attacker. My struggling only made him laugh. My arms were pinned, but my feet were free and I calculated, aimed, and brought my heel down hard on his foot.” There are some chills at the book’s climax, but nothing that will really surprise readers – and for that very reason, Harrington should be able to continue bringing Clarity back to face other dangers. The outcome may be obvious early on, but the series’ combination of attractive narration and easy, fast-paced reading should be enough to keep it going.