September 19, 2013
(+++) PRETEEN APPEAL
Joshua Dread 2: The Nameless Hero. By Lee Bacon. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The Five Ancestors: Out of the Ashes, Book 2—Lion. By Jeff Stone. Random House. $16.99.
Dragon Keepers #6: The Dragon at the North Pole. By Kate Klimo. Illustrated by John Shroades. Random House. $15.99.
Reliable characterizations, familiar settings and uncomplicated plots – or plots complicated in ways that preteen readers will expect them to be complicated – are among the attractions of these series continuations. Lee Bacon’s Joshua Dread sequence starts with an offbeat idea: a young superhero whose parents are supervillains. Bacon doesn’t do a great deal beyond the obvious with the premise, but the premise itself is unusual enough to have made the first book something more than run-of-the-mill, and it sustains the second, The Nameless Hero, as well. This is one of those books in which readers will know something is special and even magical because of the way it is spelled: Joshua is invited to the “Gyfted & Talented” program for kids with superpowers. So are his best friends, Sophie and Milton – who, it turns out, are hand-picked to join Joshua and form the greatest superhero team of all time, ever. This would be wholly conventional if all they had to do was watch out for a major-league supervillain – which they do, since Phineas Vex is still alive and determined to destroy Joshua. But what makes The Nameless Hero intriguing is that Joshua just can’t let his supervillain parents know that the new superhero (who becomes a celebrity) is their son. How would they ever deal with the humiliation? Well, this isn’t that much of a plot twist, but it is enough of one to keep the book interesting. There aren’t many kid-superhero books with a narrative like this: “I drew in a nervous breath. I guess it was just an instinct that came with having supervillains in the family. Anytime something went horribly wrong in the world, the first thing I wondered was where my mom and dad were when it happened.” Actually, there is some hero-to-villain mobility here, just to keep readers involved, as when Joshua learns about “the X-Treme Team,” one of whose members, Multiplier, has become a villain after initially being a hero. There seems to be some fluidity in the whole superpower game, although it is never taken terribly seriously – or, for that matter, terribly humorously, although there is some humor here, as when Joshua comments of Multiplier, “suddenly he was back with a new look and a new career path.” The dialogue in this novel is often not as good as the narrative: “It is too easy.” “Lookie what we have here.” “It’s me you want. Not him.” “Release your evil grip on those children, you fiend!” “Please – I don’t want to disintegrate!” (Actually, that last one is pretty good.) As a whole, The Nameless Hero is a fine series continuation that readers who liked Joshua’s first appearance will certainly enjoy.
The Five Ancestors is a longer-running series; two series, actually. There was a seven-book series set hundreds of years in the past, and now there is a contemporary series that moves some of the same themes – mainly the usual good vs. evil one – into the modern world. Lion, the second book in the modern series, continues the tale of Ryan Vanderhausen, mountain biker (in the first book) and road biker (in this one) and an all-around good guy being put upon by some all-around bad guys. Like the Joshua Dread books, Jeff Stone’s Out of the Ashes novels involve team efforts – typical for works aimed at preteens. Ryan has three friends here: Phoenix, Jake and Hú Dié – and all are heading to California for road-bike training with Ryan’s cousin, Peter. Unfortunately for the team, but fortunately for the story, Peter is kidnapped – right in the middle of Chinatown. And someone or something seems to be killing experienced cyclists, who are dropping dead at an alarming rate. And someone that the good guys would rather not ever see again finds them. And how are they going to handle everything – rescuing Peter and fending off evil – and still win the race? This plot summary makes the book seem sillier than it is, but in fact it is pretty silly, having none of the resonance of the original The Five Ancestors series and seeming rather warmed-over. The characters just aren’t particularly interesting or memorable, and the dangers they face (and overcome) do not have the frisson of magic and otherworldliness that the ones in the original series possessed. Indeed, the magical elements tend to sound rather silly in this context: “Dragons are complex creatures. They can mean many things.” The context itself is the problem: “He was wearing a tool belt with a huge buckle that read TEXAS ELECTRIC.” And this series is really for young readers who are highly interested in the intricacies of bike racing: “When you race BMX, your feet aren’t connected to the pedals, so you’re always hammering down with your legs, never pulling up.” For a certain niche of preteens, The Five Ancestors: Out of the Ashes, Book 2—Lion will be involving enough, but this middle book of the trilogy (no seven-book series this time) will be far from gripping for readers hoping for more of the fascinating elements from the original series.
Dragons may be complex creatures in the world of The Five Ancestors, but they are more straightforward – and lighthearted – in Kate Klimo’s Dragon Keepers sequence. The sixth of the books, The Dragon at the North Pole, is about nothing less (and not much more) than Santa Claus. Dragon keepers Jesse and Daisy awake one morning to find their dragon, Emmy, missing, with a note saying she has gone to help Santa. But Santa isn’t really real, is he? Well, anything is possible in a world in which the dragon-keeping cousins merely have to don magic snowshoes to follow Emmy to the North Pole. So they do, not forgetting to pack cocoa and thermal gel pads. And yes, they encounter “the Claus,” who says of Emmy, “I have need of her dragon magic,” and who has a not-so-good influence on both Emmy and Daisy, leading Joshua to be “worried sick. Both Emmy and Daisy were suddenly strangers to him.” Something unsavory is clearly going on, and Joshua soon learns, courtesy of the disappearance of his emerald’s natural green color, that he is “in the presence of treachery. Something was rotten at the North Pole!” The Dragon Keepers books are written at a somewhat easier-to-read level than the Joshua Dread and Five Ancestors novels. Klimo makes sure to give Daisy and Jesse what they need, when they need it, and then to explain why they need it. For example, Jesse discovers a stream of mead at one point, explaining to Daisy that he knows what it is because “one of my parents’ friends in Doctors Without Borders was Norwegian,” and then he finds a tinderbox, and explains to Daisy that he knows what it is because “this kid I used to play with in Tanzania, he taught me how to use his.” It soon turns out that Jesse and Daisy are on a rescue mission, first to rescue Emmy and then, it turns out, to rescue the entire planet – which they find out is in danger from a Vortex Interceptor. They learn this thanks to rhyming songs sung to them by the aurora borealis. Well, it all doesn’t make much sense, but then it doesn’t have to, since the plot here is as consistent as any in the Dragon Keepers series. Jesse gets to ride on a “light mare” and escape a wolf attack, and there are Thunder Eggs (dragon eggs, which “rain down from the heavens”) and a confrontation with Beowulf (yes, that Beowulf) and, eventually, a very merry Christmas for all. No, the book does not hang together very well, and yes, it strains credulity a little too much, but the Dragon Keepers series was never meant to be taken entirely seriously, and fans of the earlier volumes will find that this one follows quite neatly in their footsteps.