March 14, 2013
(+++) REAL AND IMAGINED
Hide and Seek. By Kate Messner. Scholastic. $16.99.
Seven Wonders No. 1: The Colossus Rises. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $17.99.
Never Say Die. By Will Hobbs. Harper. $16.99.
Preteen adventure novels often start in the real world and twist things one way or another. Hide and Seek, the first book in a new series by Kate Messner, is set realistically in the rain forests of Costa Rica, where protagonists Anna, Henry and José encounter a number of real-world animals and see various sights that any visitor can see for himself or herself: narrow, swaying river bridges, gigantic trees in which howler monkeys and birds make a racket, snakes both harmless and deadly, and of course torrential rains. But the plot itself is beyond the ordinary. The three young adventurers are junior members of a group called the Silver Jaguar Society, whose mission is to protect the world’s important artifacts – such as the society’s own Jaguar Cup, which it turns out has been replaced by a forgery. This discovery is what sets Anna, Henry and José off to Costa Rica and to all the usual questions endemic to so many adventure novels. Who is really on their side? How do they find trusted allies in unfamiliar terrain? And is there a traitor in their group? Good guys and bad guys alike are something less than fully formed characters here – the exotic setting is more interesting than the people placed in it: José “spotted another lump of old fruit with a dead leaf resting on top and stretched out his foot to give that one a good boot, too. But before he kicked, the dead leaf took off with jerky, fluttering wings – blue wings.” That leads to this: “It was like the glass frog, camouflaged against its own eggs, the giant iguanas with skin like bark, draped invisibly over tree limbs. The owl in the moonlit forest. All hiding in plain sight.” And of course, that is a clue to the mystery – courtesy of the place where the search is taking place. Other clues come from a misidentified bird and a baby monkey. The bad guy here, Vincent Goosen (“this awful man – this thug”), does not get away with his nefarious scheme, but of course he does get away, so he can mastermind another plot in the next book, Manhunt.
The real-world element is even thinner in The Colossus Rises, first book of a seven-book sequence by Peter Lerangis, who is probably best known to preteen readers for the two books he wrote in The 39 Clues sequence and the one he wrote for The 39 Clues: Cahills vs. Vespers. Lerangis is actually a very prolific author, for adults as well as young readers, and he certainly knows how to pace a formulaic thriller, which is what The Colossus Rises is. There is a secret organization in this book, as in Messner’s, but here, at first, there is just one protagonist: Jack McKinley, who is 13 and has only six months to live – because of a genetic anomaly that is, however, capable of being handled if he goes on a suitable quest. This involves Jack joining three other young adventurers – Marco, Aly and Cass – in a search for seven magical objects that have been lost for thousands of years at the sites of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. These objects, called Loculi, need to be found and returned to...well...Atlantis (so much for the real world). And the search needs to be completed before the four friends’ abilities destroy them. Yes, abilities – not diseases. The rare genetic abnormality inherited from a long-dead prince (apparently after skipping a few hundred generations but losing none of its potency) actually gives those born with it superior abilities, but it provides them too quickly, and the young people’s bodies cannot handle the changes. This is the gimmick. Well, lots of gimmicks – the plot is nothing if not gimmicky. It is also written in what is clearly an adult’s version of how young teenagers talk and think: “‘Well, excuse me for living.’ …I felt like a total jerk. I hadn’t meant to sound so sarcastic. Things were too tense. I was letting my nerves get the better of me.” There are the usual mysterious clues to follow, the usual dangers to overcome, the usual relationship issues (mild ones), and the usual worries about the people supposedly helping the four protagonists: “We had to humor him like a kindergartner – while Cass was in the talons of a flesh-eating beast.” Speaking of humor, most of it, like that juxtaposition, is unintentional. The climactic eventual awakening of the Colossus will surprise no one familiar with teen-oriented adventure novels; nor will anyone be surprised that things do not quite work out for the central characters, who after all have six more books to get through.
Nick Thrasher is lucky to get through one book. He is the protagonist of Will Hobbs’ Never Say Die. Fifteen years old and already an accomplished hunter among his Inuit people, Nick loses the caribou he has brought down to a most unusual creature: a “grolar” bear, so called because it appears to be a cross between a grizzly and a polar bear. This is not, as it happens, an unrealistic part of the book, because grolar bears do exist, both in captivity and in the wild. A wild one was identified in 2006, and a second-generation one (product of a female grolar bear and male grizzly) was confirmed in 2010. What pushes Never Say Die beyond realism is a common trope of stories about large and dangerous animals (just think of Jaws): this grolar bear seems to be hunting Nick. What happens is that Nick gets a letter from a half-brother he has never met, a former river guide who is now a famous wildlife photographer. This half-brother, Ryan Powers, wants to get pictures of migrating caribou, and to do so intends to raft the Firth River, near Nick’s home. Ryan also wants to learn about climate change in the Arctic – this is a book with a significant ecological subtext. The quest in this book is interrupted soon after it begins, though, when Nick and Ryan are thrown into the frigid river beneath solid ice. The book quickly changes from one of exploration to one of survival: “By now I was coming out of the immediate shock, enough to get a grasp on the situation – complete disaster. …No more than two miles down the river, we’d lost everything. Everything!” Soon Nick and Ryan are in the midst of mosquitoes, wolves, grizzlies and a distinctly hostile natural environment. They make it through the worst of all that and resume their caribou hunt, but become increasingly worried about the grolar bear, “a creature of climate change,” in a scientist’s opinion, and a very dangerous animal, in the opinion of Nick and Ryan. The two also have time to discuss issues such as the possibility of offshore oil platforms in the far North, whose presence, Nick points out, “would bring jobs and better houses and things to buy, but it might hurt the fishing and the sealing and the whaling.” The grolar bear turns out to be a man-eater, but Hobbs finds a way to minimize that, having Ryan say that “the climate has become a beast, and we are poking it with sticks.” The inevitable final confrontation with the bear is certainly exciting, but Hobbs really wants the point of the book to be larger than that of a standard adventure tale, and that fact drags at the narrative throughout. The story raises some significant issues, but the real-world elements and the invented-adventure ones end up as an uneasy mixture, not an especially effective blend.