December 06, 2012
(+++) FUN ON THE DARK SIDE
Joshua Dread. By Lee Bacon. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Fang Girl. By Helen Keeble. HarperTeen. $9.99.
Don’t Turn Around. By Michelle Gagnon. Harper. $17.99.
Something Strange and Deadly. By Susan Dennard. HarperTeen. $17.99.
You can take supernatural evil and its perpetrators at face value – or not. Lee Bacon and Helen Keeble vote “not.” Bacon’s Joshua Dread and Keeble’s Fang Girl, both of them the first books of series, insist on mixing the deadly with the silly. The title character in Joshua Dread is the son of two supervillains, Dr. Dread and The Botanist, whose evil plots are regularly foiled by an appropriate hero named Captain Justice, who is extremely vain and given to telling the people he rescues to “eat Frosted Fuel Flakes every morning for breakfast. Eight essential vitamins and all the nutrients you need to get your day started right!” As for Joshua, although he does save his parents when necessary and also prevent them from destroying Captain Justice – he’s a good kid, you see – the idea is that somehow no one knows who his parents really are, not even his best friend, Milton, and Joshua’s life consists of keeping secrets and staying as far out of sight as possible. Well, that doesn’t work very well, especially not when a new girl named Sophie shows up and turns out to have her own powers. Oh, and Joshua is super-powered, too. And that leads Milton to say such things as, “This is awesome! …I mean, not the part about your parents disappearing or your dad trying to kill us.” To be sure readers remember that everything here is funny, Bacon gives the chapters titles such as this one: “Hover vehicles are subject to intense government regulation. They also get horrible gas mileage. You should use them only when it’s absolutely necessary.” It seems that Joshua is Gyfted, a word that is actually an acronym for “Genetic Youth Fluctuation, Triggering Extraordinary Development.” And everything is bound up in some way with Phineas Vex, founder of VexaCorp Industries, which makes supervillain products. And there are zombies around, too. And Joshua realizes that he has to decide whether to be a hero, villain, “or something in between,” which is actually kind of a neat idea – and which sets the stage for whatever will come next.
There’s some scene-setting and stage setting for Xanthe Jane Greene, too, as she changes from vampire fangirl to actual Fang Girl at the start of Keeble’s book. Yes, Xanthe has been “turned,” and without asking for it, although it doesn’t bother her a whole lot until she starts dealing with family issues, the obligatory attractive vampire hunter, and a political situation in which Elders are taking sides and at least one of them may be looking to take Xanthe apart. Why? That is part of the mystery here, although it is not really much of a mystery – more an excuse to display with increasing clarity just how special Xanthe is and why the various undead factions are all out to entice her. Or eliminate her. The variation on vampire lore here is the notion that “when you kill a vampire, its descendants die too,” which is a particularly absurd twist but which opens the way to an important part of the eventual plot resolution. That resolution also involves not one but two dangerous political alliances; and there are the near-obligatory inclusions of characters named Stoker and Helsing in the book (must have a Dracula reference, after all); and there is also an evil undead goldfish, which is a nice touch. This is a book with a basic adventure plot, but everything unfolds entertainingly enough to keep Fang Girl interesting. It’s hard not to enjoy this sort of dialogue: “I’m going to rip your heart out, and then I’m going to eat it raw in a bun with ketchup!” And: “Not only do you try to kill me, you have to go and get me grounded for the rest of my existence.”
Those who prefer to take their forays into the dark side more seriously will prefer Michelle Gagnon’s Don’t Turn Around and Susan Dennard’s Something Strange and Deadly. Gagnon’s book is about off-the-grid orphan Noa, an expert computer hacker who uses her skills to stay alone, anonymous and safe. But then she wakes up in an empty warehouse, on an operating table, with an IV in her arm and no idea of where she is or how she got there. Being alone doesn’t seem so attractive anymore, and luckily for Noa, there is help available in the person of Peter Gregory, leader of a hacker group that just so happens to need Noa’s skills to get at the secrets of a corrupt and evil corporation that would put VexaCorp Industries to shame. This company, AMRF, is genuinely murderous, and Noa is in the firm’s sights because she is, to the surprise of no one who has read this sort of adventure story before, special, gifted and the key to a secret that AMRF is determined not to allow anyone to discover. The whole plot revolves around a disease called PEMA that “had come out of nowhere a few years ago,” that “mainly afflicted teenagers,” that has no known cause, and that “was always fatal, and there was no cure” (well, not if it was always fatal, but logic is not a strong suit here). The problem for Noa is that “exposing AMRF to the world would basically expose her to the world, too, and she’d expended a lot of time and energy digging a hole deep enough to hide in.” Eventually Noa does the right thing, and even proclaims herself to the world with a new online pseudonym – setting up the definite possibility of a sequel, although in truth the book’s ending is satisfactory as it is.
Dennard’s book could also go either way, or almost so: stand complete in itself or lead to a followup. In this case, though, it is the start of a trilogy, which will not surprise anyone who reads the conclusion or simply anticipates it (which is not hard to do). This is an alternative-history book with zombies. In it, Eleanor Fitt sets out to rescue her brother from the clutches of an evil necromancer. And yes, that sounds silly, but Dennard refuses to allow any levity into the plot or the story. There are Spirit-Hunters whose job is “to deal with such horrors” as an animated corpse that, far from being a traditional shambling zombie, “had unbridled energy and moved with the speed of the living – perhaps faster, even.” Eleanor rides in hackney cabs, gathers her long skirts, carries a parasol – all the appurtenances of 19th-century life in Philadelphia, or alt-Philadelphia. She learns about grimoires and black magic, and also about politicians, who seem not all that different from real-world ones: “Too much focus on the Dead or decapitations might bring attention to some of their shadier dealings” – a line presented entirely earnestly despite its obvious potential for black humor. And there are the expected romantic stirrings, of course: “Blazes, he was cocky. And entirely too dashing for his own good – or for my own good, rather.” There are some minimal attempts to pull in bits of science along with the supernatural: “Quartz is piezoelectric. Mechanical stress creates an electric current.” But the book as a whole is a kind of supernatural detective romance novel, with bits and pieces of all the genres but without falling entirely into any one of them. Throughout her adventure, Eleanor, who is 16 and comes from a formerly wealthy family (“your father’s business collapsed, Eleanor, and with it went his sanity and his family’s fortune”), is being pressured by her mother to marry an appropriate person: “Your only hope lies in a husband. Only he can love and provide for you. Only a marriage and children of your own will ever offer you a chance at happiness.” Eleanor has other things on her mind, though: “Once again the strange game of intrigue – but what was it?” Eleanor gets her answer when she does eventually, and quite unexpectedly, encounter her brother, whose doings will likely not surprise many readers. Nor will they be as surprised as Eleanor is about her name, Miss Fitt, which she does not realize has significance until the book is almost over. Eleanor eventually discovers her own inner strength and, as usual in such stories, overcomes evil – but only by paying a price. Several prices, actually, but none of them will come as much of a shock. Nor will the book’s climax, although Dennard does tie the various elements together neatly enough – and darkly enough.