May 24, 2012
(++++) THE QUAINT AND THE QUIRKY
Companions of the Night. By Vivian Vande Velde. Magic Carpet/Harcourt. $6.99.
Flora series #3: Flora’s Fury—How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confound Their Friends, Astound Their Enemies, and Learn the Importance of Packing Light. By Ysabeau S. Wilce. Harcourt. $17.99.
Elements of Vivian Vande Velde’s teen-vampire adventure, Companions of the Night, seem so charmingly old-fashioned that it is hard to realize that the book is not all that old: it was originally published in 1995. Yet here are unwieldy video cameras requiring a search for batteries; easily accessible pay phones, not only in a 24-hour laundry but also near the “beverage-container return center” in a supermarket, with calls to Information being free and connecting to a human operator; tapes and records as well as CDs for music, and not an MP3 player in sight, much less an iPod; archaic-if-not-quite obsolete comments such as, “her voice was trembling as though she were talking through the spinning blades of an electric fan”; and computing from a time when there were online bulletin boards and a computer “made the distinctive high-pitched squeals that indicated it was attached to a modem.” It is amazing to realize how many little details of everyday life, intended to set a scene of ordinariness against which the supernatural adventures of 16-year-old Kerry Nowicki can be played out, now seem exotic, or at least like revenants from a time long gone. Not that long in chronological terms, true, but ages and ages ago experientially. Readers ages 12 and up, for whom this book is intended, will likely be the ones most taken aback by passing references to elements of life with which they are, at most, barely acquainted. Other parts of the book, though, will be easier for 21st-century teens to understand, since they continue to be elements of books written today: the irritating little brother who has a key role to play in the plot (and in this case actually is responsible for it), the single-parent family (here, Kerry and her brother, Ian, who is a barely believable 12 years younger, live with their father, their mother having deserted them), and so on. In any case, readers will find it easy to bypass anything unfamiliar, focus on anything easy to understand, and stay with the twisty and well-paced plot, because the writing is simple and easy to follow and the events pile upon each other with satisfying speed and sufficient complexity to keep things very interesting indeed. At the center of them, and increasingly at the center of Kerry’s world, is Ethan Bryne, a very attractive boy who is apparently a college student but just may be a vampire. At least that is what the vampire hunters who capture him think when they bring him, rather improbably, to a 24-hour coin laundry (why not to someplace more private?) to await the dawn. Kerry is in the laundry, searching for her little brother’s lost stuffed koala, when the hunters and Ethan show up, and she is soon responsible for helping Ethan escape – setting in motion everything from danger to her father and brother to a slow-but-steady set of revelations about vampires being real and Ethan perhaps being one of them after all. A romance between Kerry and Ethan is inevitable, and in fact she is attracted to him from the first – even though he is tied up, beaten and bloody when they meet. But Kerry soon finds out that she cannot trust Ethan, who eventually admits that killing is pleasurable – and who might turn on her the minute he doesn't need her. Still, Kerry, like many teens from time immemorial, is attracted to Ethan’s bad-boy persona, which is laced with seductive elements that do not, however, lead to a straightforward happy ending. Instead, the novel finishes with a cliffhanger of sorts, or at least with a chance for readers to make their own decisions about what might happen next. The conclusion seems to imply a sequel, but there hasn’t been one yet, so Companions of the Night turns out to be a more ambiguous vampire story than many of those written in the years since it first appeared.
Another 16-year-old protagonist, Flora Fyrdraaca, faces supernatural hurdles of a different kind – in fact, of many different kinds. This is the third book about Flora, and it is emphatically not for anyone who is unfamiliar with the first two: Flora Segunda and Flora’s Dare. In fact, some readers who are familiar with the first books may nevertheless be thrown a bit by this one, because there is so much going on. Flora lives in a world with equal parts of militarism and “magick,” and with distinct parallels to our own; for example, her adoptive mother is military leader of Califa (as in California), and Flora is being hunted by assassins dispatched by the Huitzils (who sound, and are, vaguely Aztec). Flora is supposed to escort the Infanta home from Huitzil territory, but would rather search for her maybe-dead-but-maybe-still-alive birth mother, known as Tiny Doom. And Flora is surrounded by all sorts of peculiar characters, as the book’s lengthy subtitle helps to make clear. Among them are two boys whom she cannot decide whether to date or fight: her BFF Udo and a delivery-boy shapeshifter. There are also a small octopus containing the ghost of Flora’s grandfather, a stuffed pink pig and the Dainty Pirates. And others. As for Flora herself, she is determined to learn how to use her magick, which requires her to find out, first of all, how not to blow herself up. Flora’s father and adoptive mother love, worry about and want to protect her, but Flora (for reasons never quite made clear) resents their concern and attention. As she tries to make it (whatever “it” may be) on her own, Flora falls into an unending series of adventures in which anyone – ghost, politician, innkeeper – can turn out to be friend or enemy, without the reader getting a great deal of help in figuring out who is who and which is which. There is also a common plot device that Ysabeau S. Wilce badly overuses here: people keeping important secrets from each other for no real reason except to further the story. Flora’s Fury is over-plotted, over-cute, over-quirky and over-determined to be inventive and madcap. Even existing fans of the series may find themselves wanting it simply to be over. But it isn’t – the series isn’t, that is – because it is clear from the end of this novel that there are more to come. There is enough fun in Flora’s Fury to earn the book a (+++) rating for readers who enjoyed the two earlier ones and don’t mind trying to knit together an awful lot of plot threads with only minimal authorial assistance. But potential readers who have not yet encountered Flora should definitely stay away until they have read the earlier stories of her derring-do.