April 10, 2014
(+++) EXPANSIVE FANTASIES
The Mark of the Dragonfly. By Jaleigh Johnson. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The 39 Clues: Unstoppable—Book Three: Countdown. By Natalie Standiford. Scholastic. $12.99.
Engagingly unwieldy, The Mark of the Dragonfly, the first novel for middle-grade readers by Jaleigh Johnson and the start of a series, somewhat uneasily combines elements of steampunk with more-traditional fairy tales. Conceived as a grand adventure for preteens, with friendship and camaraderie at its core, the book is set in a sort-of dystopia that is also a variation on the faux medieval model of kingdoms and fiefdoms populated by high-living royalty and by commoners who are left to scavenge for their livelihood. The title refers to a tattoo indicating that those who have it are under the protection of King Aron, a ruler of singularly mechanical-minded interests whose kingdom borders a warlike region called Merrow. “There hadn’t yet been open conflict, but relations between the two places had been strained to near breaking point ever since the king [Aron] stopped trading them iron.” As the book’s primary protagonist, Piper, explains, “‘All Merrow wants is weapons, and the Dragonfly’s too busy with his factories. Do you know he wants to have a fleet of steamships ready to set sail for the uncharted lands by next summer?’” Actually, Aron wants more than that – for one thing, he wants the book’s other protagonist, Anna, who has turned up in the downtrodden Meteor Fields where Piper lives, sporting a dragonfly tattoo and compromised memory. The protective instincts and self-interest that lead Piper to take Anna under her wing and attempt to get her back where she belongs are entirely typical in quest tales, and the journey via an unusual method – in this case, a fascinatingly described train called the 401 – is typical as well. So are the encounters with unusual people, or in this case shapeshifters – one of the fairy-tale elements of the story. The idea that the protagonist will assemble an unlikely crew of helpers on what is physically a geographical journey and metaphorically a voyage of self-discovery lies at the heart of genre books like this one, and Johnson has clearly studied the field and absorbed its lessons as well here as in her books for older readers. The dialogue shows this clearly, as when one character (a “chamelin,” who can change his shape) comments on how different Piper and Anna are and Piper replies, “‘That’s the truth—a scrapper from the north and one of Dragonfly’s own from the south. We couldn’t be any more apart in the world.’ Her expression turned serious. ‘I think she’s been through some terrible things. Maybe it’s a blessing that she doesn’t remember most of it. I want her to be safe, to find a home.’” Piper needs a home, too, having decided never to return to her miserable existence in Scrap Town Sixteen. She knows she is “the scrapper who didn’t belong,” and one thing driving the story is having Piper find out where she does belong and who exactly she is – as well as who Anna is. The Mark of the Dragonfly mixes all these entirely expected elements quite well: Johnson has a real knack for creating exciting adventure scenes. The fact that so much of the story is so much like other stories may actually be to its benefit, since the novel will appeal to a ready-made escapist-oriented readership as well as to fans of the steampunk genre. More-experienced readers may sigh in exasperation at plot points such as Anna’s inevitable decision to seek out the apparent “bad guy” who has been pursuing her and Piper, complete with the wholly unoriginal left-behind note in which Anna tells Piper, “I don’t have that many memories, but the ones I have of you are the most important.” But for every reader who sighs and rolls his or her eyes at the predictability of portions of the plot and dialogue, there will be another who is swept away with wonder into Johnson’s created world and who will be eager for the book’s inevitable sequel.
And then there are sequels upon sequels upon sequels – the stuff of which The 39 Clues is made. Fans are now well into the third multi-book, multi-media series of the adventures of Dan and Amy Cahill, their friends and their nefarious enemies, as yet another author, Natalie Standiford, provides formulaic plot advances and edge-of-the-cliff frights, revelations and surprises. Countdown reads like all the other books in the sequences – it is amazing how well the authors subsume any personal style they may have into series requirements. This entry packs just as much excitement as its predecessors and, presumably, successors, and it is packaged with the usual six game cards. Being a middle-of-the-series book (the Unstoppable sequence will have six in all), Countdown needs to advance the plot so far and no farther, which is exactly what it does as Dan and Amy continue their desperate quest for the ingredients that will let them make an antidote to the super-powerful serum that has made the Cahills the most hyper-powerful family in history. The counter-serum is needed so Dan and Amy can stop would-be U.S. president and world ruler J. Rutherford Pierce (no relation to actual presidents Rutherford B. Hayes or Franklin Pierce, except in the name department) – Pierce has stolen the serum and has nefarious plans for it. In Countdown, the major plot point involves another reason for the increasingly desperate quest for the antidote – one directly tied to a fateful decision made by Amy, who has to make that decision to save Dan’s life. Despite these books’ frequent references to real historical figures and events, and despite plots that take the characters to a variety of far-flung real-world sites, it is impossible to see The 39 Clues as anything more than imaginary-world entertainment, a sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark for preteens. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that: escapism, even escapism according to a tried-and-true formula, is fine for young readers as well as adults, and Countdown continues to deliver what the eager fans of this series look for in every printed entry, on every included game card, and at every associated Web site.