May 03, 2012
(++++) WORLDS WITH MAGIC
Above. By Leah Bobet. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $17.99.
Oracles of Delphi Keep #3: Quest for the Secret Keeper. By Victoria Laurie. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Notebook Trilogy No. 3: The Jade Notebook. By Laura Resau. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Magical realism, urban fantasy – the names for books that are designed to mix elements of reality with elements of unreality vary, but the intention is the same: to create recognizable characters with just enough strangeness in themselves and/or the world around them to make settings and relationships intriguingly offbeat. So much for good intentions; the reality, though, is often that these books rely too heavily on elements of peculiarity and not enough on character or plot development, with the result that they feel contrived and are ultimately unsatisfying despite the magic-laden surprises they throw at the reader. This makes Leah Bobet’s debut novel, Above, very special indeed, because Bobet manages to conjure a world in which characterization is extremely important and magic is ever-present but in some ways is a side issue in a plot that is part scary adventure and part offbeat love story. The plot is not entirely original, by any means, but it uses source material wisely. Taking a point from Lois Lowry’s The Giver, for example, Bobet makes her narrator and central character a storyteller and preserver of his society’s memories. His name is Matthew, but he is called Teller by almost everyone, almost all the time. And because he is an expert at learning other people’s stories and memorizing them (and also carving them in wood – a nice touch), he lends believability to tales that would otherwise be hard to accept. Teller’s world is one in which medicine has gone wrong, along with genetics. Some people live Above in sunlight and cities, but others are very peculiarly deformed or deranged, and they must seek Sanctuary in an underground place called Safe – which, however, turns out to be very unsafe indeed when odd and monstrous Shadows invade, their incorporeal beings at odds with their ability to wreak havoc on flesh-and-blood-and-chitin people. Yes, chitin: some of those in Safe have extremely odd malformations: Teller himself can Pass when he goes Above, but he has beast feet and scales on his back (legacies from his parents). Others in Safe are even stranger, such as the leader, Atticus, with his crab arms, and lamplighter Jack, who contains lightning. Perhaps most unusual of all is Ariel, who sprouts wings and turns into a bee when angry, frightened or threatened – and although her transformation is less believable than the malformations of the other characters, Bobet makes her so sympathetic a character that her features as Sick or Beast almost become secondary. Teller’s narration, which includes the importance of knowing the distinction between Doctors and Whitecoats, is not always reliable: there is much he does not know or understand, and there are Tales he cannot tell or chooses to withhold. This makes the book all the more interesting – and all the more harrowing. Above has some plot holes and some narrative awkwardness that is attributable to Bobet rather than Teller, but as a whole, it is a remarkably successful blend of the realistic with the wholly impossible: moving, exciting and often absolutely fascinating in its evocation of a strange, dark, frightening world that seems almost real.
The Oracles of Delphi Keep series is more-straightforward fantasy, and although Victoria Laurie writes with a sureness that Bobet lacks, Quest for the Secret Keeper is a bit too formulaic – it gets a (+++) rating. Set in 1940, the book features the takeover of Delphi Keep by the Royal Navy for wartime communications purposes. This means Ian, Theo and Carl face evacuation to a supposedly safe place where they know they will actually be less protected from the magical forces arrayed against them. The three also need to decipher the third prophecy, which includes the lines, “Steadfast though your hearts may be/ Here you risk what’s kept you free/ Quest for Keeper must begin/ Though the odds at hand are slim.” This is pretty standard stuff – the prophecy that is almost but not quite intelligible but that clearly refers to the protagonists – and some of the writing in the prophecy borders on the silly (“all is part of evil plan”). Still, this is the basis of the plot: the friends must identify the Secret Keeper and “save the keeper from the wind.” That wind could certainly refer to the evil Atroposa, whom we see at one point with “the rags that made up her clothing blowing in her own wind.” Or it could refer generally to the “winds of war,” or some other sort of wind – what really matters here is the standard good-vs.-evil plot, with some time travel and appearances by mythological figures thrown in. One chapter is called “A Perilous Mission,” but the title really applies to the whole book (and its predecessors, come to think of it). The interweaving of historical events with mythic and magical ones is among the most interesting elements of the novel. As one character explains, “‘Demogorgon has been waiting and watching while we humans have spread our seed and now blanket the earth. He has known that eventually, there would be so many people than an evil, power-hungry ruler like this German Führer would start a global war. …If enough misery and death is created, then the god down below may indeed break free from the underworld, and…there is nothing any of us can do to stop it. Well, except for you and the others, of course.’” Yes, of course. So there are battles, betrayals, a death and all the other appurtenances of tales of this sort, and eventually Ian learns something important and is “astonished…that he’d taken so long to arrive at something so obvious” – something that readers will likely have guessed earlier. Quest for the Secret Keeper effectively continues this ongoing series, although it does not add a great deal to it; readers who already enjoy Oracles of Delphi Keep will not be disappointed in this entry.
The Jade Notebook is a series conclusion, not a continuation, and its magic is more of the “magic of the heart” than the sort involving wands or time travel. Indeed, the travel here is geographical and in our own world, landing Zeeta and her peripatetic mother in Mexico (where Laura Resau herself lived and taught for two years). Zeeta’s mom, Layla, is the flighty, hippie-ish one here, while Zeeta herself longs for roots and a permanent relationship with her soul mate, Wendell – plus a connection of some sort with her long-lost father. Zeeta and Wendell work together to learn about Zeeta’s dad’s past, and what they find out is distressing rather than reassuring; and when Zeeta finally does meet her father, as it has been clear from the start of this series that she would, he turns out to have had some contact with her before (as she has previously guessed) but to be hesitant about dealing with her: “He sits there watching me, awkwardly. Why isn’t he talking, hugging me, comforting me? Something. Anything. Anything remotely fatherly.” Zeeta also has to deal with a scholarship offer that Wendell has received and that she fears will sunder them – she tells him she has been “‘scared you’d go off and start a whole new life, one without me.’ I pause to swallow my tears.” There are plenty of tears to go around in this (+++) finale, including some that relate to almost-magical happenings involving the woman Meche and her jaguar companion, Gatito, and a concluding vision that Wendell tells Zeeta he had “‘while I was stranded in the ocean. When I thought I was about to die.’” This final vision gives Zeeta the closure she has longed for throughout the trilogy, leaving her contemplating “things of infinite beauty, pathless mystery,” secure at last in herself, her family and her future – wholly unrealistically, perhaps, but that is what magic, of any sort, is all about.