October 24, 2013
(+++) BEGINNINGS, ENDS AND MIDDLES
We Are What We Pretend to Be: The First and Last Works. By Kurt Vonnegut. Da Capo. $12.99.
Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code—The Graphic Novel. Adapted by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin. Art by Giovanni Rigano. Color by Paolo Lamanna. Disney/Hyperion. $19.99.
The Heir Chronicles IV: The Enchanter Heir. By Cinda Williams Chima. Hyperion. $18.99.
The late movie critic Judith Crist made an interesting distinction between “masterpiece” and “masterwork.” The former, she believed, was just what most people think it is: something superlative in its field. But the latter, she thought, was not a synonym for “masterpiece” but the description of a work by a master that was scarcely of masterpiece quality. This is what comes to mind when reading We Are What We Pretend to Be, which contains the novella Basic Training, written by Kurt Vonnegut two years before Player Piano was published, and the piece-of-a-novel If God Were Alive Today, which scarcely stands on its own and even in its existing form could use some polishing. Neither of these works is polished, the early one because it is a rather cloying piece of juvenilia and the late one because Vonnegut did not live to do much with it. Certainly Vonnegut’s legions of fans will welcome the chance to read his earliest, previously unpublished work, and the one he was working on when he died in 2007 at the age of 84. And certainly both of these works have some attractions. Basic Training is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story whose pacing and characterization are far more interesting than its decidedly mundane plot. If God Were Alive Today features some trademark Vonnegut acerbity in its budding portrait of a comedian who, like Vonnegut himself, looks primarily to seriousness and tragedy for sources of humor; and this snippet of what would have been a novel includes some very pointed dialogue sections written as if for the stage (where one can imagine they might have eventually ended up). Nevertheless, We Are What We Pretend to Be, whose title is taken from one of Vonnegut’s more-famous assertions, is thin gruel even for Vonnegut fans, offering sidelights on his brilliance rather than anything that speaks firmly to it. A masterwork, then, but surely no masterpiece.
Whether Eoin Colfer’s eight-book Artemis Fowl series is a “master” anything is a matter of opinion – although the novels are certainly written well and distinctively, and with plenty of flair designed to appeal primarily to a young-adult audience. The way the series eventually turns back on itself, the end becoming the beginning, is scarcely original but is well handled; and the characters of Artemis and some of his compatriots and enemies have more depth than in most SF/fantasy sequences, with Artemis himself changing personality and motivation as the series progresses (although, it must be said, not always completely convincingly). The series is being turned bit by bit into graphic novels, of which the first appeared in 2007 and the second in 2009. Now the third, Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code, is available, and although it is a worthy successor to the two previous adaptations, it is somewhat too talky and text-heavy to be a fully effective graphic-novel presentation. The events of the third novel – and therefore of the adaptation by Colfer and Andrew Donkin – revolve around the theft of the “C Cube” by Artemis’ enemy, Jon Spiro, and its eventual recovery. But the essentially simple plot is not the main point of the book. This is the novel in which Artemis’ bodyguard, Butler, is shot in the chest and almost dies, forcing Artemis to confront his criminal ways and his attitudes toward others with a new level of introspection. Holly Short eventually heals Butler, but he becomes substantially older in the process. And at the book’s end, both Butler and Artemis are mind-wiped by the Lower Elements Police – only to regain their memories in the next book. Being a middle-of-a-series book, The Eternity Code is not a good place for someone unfamiliar with the Artemis Fowl stories to enter into Colfer’s world; and this is as true for the graphic novel as for the original book. Those who already know Artemis, though, will enjoy the way he and the other characters – including Butler, Holly and Spiro – are portrayed by Giovanni Rigano, whose action scenes are effective even though he uses a very ordinary square-and-rectangular-panel design that makes this graphic novel seem more like an old-fashioned comic book. Paolo Lamanna’s colors are attractive but not always logical, as scenes change hue for no apparent reason and in ways that sometimes compromise their clarity. And while the considerable amount of dialogue is true to the original book and certainly in keeping with Colfer’s storytelling, it is just too much for a graphic novel, especially one printed in a rather small size (6¼ inches wide by 9¼ inches tall). One example among many: Spiro and two henchmen appear in a small panel (one-eighth of a page) along with four dialogue balloons – the result being so overcrowded that the characters are almost blocked by their dialogue. This is a perfectly fine adaptation but not a particularly distinguished one, and not a graphic novel that takes full advantage of the visual impact of which this medium is capable.
On the other hand, at least it is clear where The Eternity Code fits within the Artemis Fowl sequence. The Enchanter Heir occupies a much stranger position within the Heir Chronicles: it is the fourth book of a trilogy. The Warrior Heir (2006), The Wizard Heir (2007) and The Dragon Heir (2008) collectively made up an effective three-book group, with different central characters in each novel but enough commonalty of setting and approach to tie the trilogy together. Cinda Williams Chima created a world of colors for her books – not literally in the manner of graphic novels, but in ways that permeated the plots of the three works. Gold and silver for wizards, purple for enchanters, green for sorcerers, blue for warriors, red for soothsayers – the colors were practically characters of their own in the Heir Chronicles, and Chima’s use of them rendered what was essentially just another sword-and-sorcery epic more interesting than it would otherwise have been. It was so interesting, in fact, that Chima could not quite let go of it – or her fans could not, which amounts to the same thing. So she agreed to extend the sequence by two more books, The Enchanter Heir and a fifth book that may be called The Sorcerer Heir (although this is not a firm title). The Enchanter Heir is emphatically not a good series entry point, any more than The Eternity Code is in the Artemis Fowl sequence. A very great deal has occurred before The Enchanter Heir begins, and while Chima provides a brief Prologue, it by no means serves as an adequate introduction to her world. Nor could it, really: the Heir Chronicles are packed with characters and events, and the only way to keep up with everything is to read the series from the start (because even though the books have different central characters, the same characters appear again and again and are referred to even when they are not present). The protagonists of The Enchanter Heir are Jonah Kinlock, a 17-year-old assassin and survivor of the Thorn Hill Massacre, and Emma Claire Greenwood, who bursts into Jonah’s life after finding a note of warning in her dying grandfather’s hand. The two initially connect, rather amusingly, over a guitar that Emma has built – she is trained in music, not magic – and after some awkwardness in which both talk about music as being like sex, and a dramatic fight in which Emma ends up tied on the basement floor, it becomes clear to readers (if it has not already) that Jonah and Emma are destined, one way or another, for each other. Their encounter in the middle of the book sets the stage for the happenings in the second half, by the end of which the two protagonists know a great deal more about each other and are not on the best of terms, to put it mildly. And there Chima stops the book, rather too abruptly, making it clear that the next book will again have to use Jonah and Emma as protagonists – or at least very important characters. Heir Chronicles fans will relish this return to Chima’s world and the fast, sure pace of her writing, although the book’s rather contrived ending will frustrate those who would prefer a more definitive conclusion. Presumably that is what Chima will provide in the sequence’s fifth book – unless, of course, she decides that what was once a trilogy and is now a tetralogy deserves to grow even beyond its still-unwritten fifth entry.