May 29, 2014
(+++) TWISTS AND TURNS
Seven Wonders No. 3: The Tomb of Shadows. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $17.99.
Seven Wonders Journals: The Select; The Orphan. By Peter Lerangis. Harper. $2.99.
Blind Spot. By Laura Ellen. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Mystery and suspense are the foundations of the Seven Wonders series and the standalone novel Blind Spot. But the formulas of these books for preteens and teenagers are handled in very different ways. Seven Wonders follows much of the approach that Peter Lerangis participated in during his contributions to the various series of The 39 Clues: cardboard characters, overdone and absurd plots with a veneer of history and geography providing a factual or semi-factual grounding, self-reliant young people who must make their own way in the world for their own sake and for that of the world at large, shadowy adversaries, possible betrayals, and so forth. Although the Seven Wonders novels are intended to be read in order, anyone who picks up the third book, The Tomb of Shadows, without knowing the earlier ones, gets a super-quick one-paragraph summary of everything that has already happened, right at the start, after one character comments that the protagonists have been through worse than what they currently face. “Worse? Maybe she meant being whisked away from our homes to an island in the middle of nowhere. Or learning we’d inherited a gene that would give us superpowers but kill us by age fourteen. Or being told that the only way to save our lives would be to find seven magic Atlantean orbs hidden in the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – six of which don’t exist anymore. Or battling an ancient griffin, or being betrayed by our friend Marco, or watching a parallel world be destroyed.” And there you have the plot summary to date, packed with equal parts of adventure and absurdity. The third ancient wonder that protagonists Jack, Aly and Cass must visit is the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus, where they must continue searching for those ancient magical orbs, called Loculi, while still trying to figure out why the fourth of their group, Marco, has joined the bad guys, the Massa. Jack, the narrator, in this book ends up encountering everyone from his parents to the occasional zombie, and of course Marco reenters and the mystery of what is happening with him deepens – and the climax involves both ancient magic and a New York City subway train. Yes, all of this is exceedingly silly, but the speed of the narration and the repeated cliffhangers will please existing fans of this series, including ones crossing over from The 39 Clues.
Those who really cannot get enough of Seven Wonders will also enjoy a thin paperback containing two novellas related to but separate from the main story arc. Not exactly spinoffs, these are intended by Lerangis as sidelights on events in the main narrative. The Select is about Burt Wenders, the first youth known to have carried the deadly-superpowers gene called G7W: Burt goes to the mysterious island that will eventually house the Karai Institute, which readers will recognize from the main sequence, and tries to rescue his father while also searching for a cure for his own illness – unsuccessfully, as readers will know from the main books. The Select is in fact presented as Burt’s journal, while The Orphan is presented as the first-person narrative of Daria, “translated from Ancient Aramaic.” Again, this is a story of abandonment – Daria is left among the ancient Babylonians – and of attempted rescue (of Daria’s best friend) and attempted escape. It is also a story about the power of song – Daria is an excellent singer – and in passing is about the evils of tyranny; and so on. The point of Seven Wonders Journals is simply to allow fans of the primary books to get a sense that those books’ stories have resonance beyond the books themselves, and that young people of the same age as the main books’ protagonists (Burt is 13, Daria 12) have been involved in elements of Seven Wonders for thousands of years.
A grittier and more up-to-date mystery, Blind Spot is intended for somewhat older readers, ones willing to accept more-overt references to violence and some to sexuality (which is quite absent in Seven Wonders). Laura Ellen’s book draws loosely on some of her own experiences with an eye condition called macular degeneration – primarily a disease of the elderly, but in some cases one that afflicts younger people. It is a condition that blocks central vision, requiring people with it to turn their heads to see things in front of them peripherally, or otherwise to accommodate a seriously compromised visual field. The idea of making this disease a central one in a story replete with high-school shenanigans, cliques and a possible murder is intriguing, but unfortunately Blind Spot is so inconsistent that it gets only a (++) rating. Ellen cannot decide whether to make macular degeneration the central element of the plot or not – she has to have her protagonist, 16-year-old Roswell (Roz) Hart, also lose her memory of a crucial night that ended with the death of a fellow student. Roz herself never emerges believably: she is unutterably stupid about almost everything, not intellectually but in terms of consistently making every possible wrong choice about every single thing she does – a 100%-wrong record that goes beyond straining credibility and breaks it. The other characters are not much better. Roz’s crush, Jonathan, is obviously a not-to-be-trusted bad-boy unfaithful-but-much-admired-athlete type; every single person in the book knows this except for Roz. Equally cardboard is the always-good, intelligent-and-rather-nerdy Greg, with whom Roz will obviously end up at the end but whom she mistreats with such consistent nastiness that it is hard to figure out why he would bother with her. And speaking of nastiness, one major character here is a sadistic liar of a teacher named Mr. Dellian, who violates all sorts of school rules as well as societal ethics and morals, mistreating Roz dramatically, but gets away with all of it – eventually actually obtaining a restraining order against Roz, immediately after which he agrees to give her crucial information and apparently has a personality transplant that renders him helpful and cooperative. Every character here is like this: thoroughly one-dimensional and able to switch to another form of one-dimensionality whenever the plot requires it. Roz’s dad is somewhere chasing rumors of flying saucers (hence his daughter’s name, Roswell), while her mom hooks up with a succession of men and turns both argumentative and shrewish whenever she and Roz are within talking distance of each other. And a key character, Detective King of the local police, not only flips randomly between disbelief and belief where Roz’s activities are concerned, but also helps arrange an entrapment that is illegal and would in the real world result in, at the very least, a severe reprimand by her superiors. Oh – one reason Detective King originally does not trust Roz is that Roz does not look her in the eye when they speak, which Roz cannot do, because of her macular degeneration; remember that? But Roz never mentions her condition to anyone except under duress, even when failing to do so might land her in prison (and indeed, at one point, actually does get her placed in juvenile detention). Blind Spot is so narratively incoherent that it fails to generate any sort of sympathy for any of its characters, even the maybe-murder-victim. Instead of an intriguing look at a teen with a serious eye problem, caught in a web of circumstances not of her own making, the book turns the eye disease into a throwaway brought randomly into the story rather than a matter central to it – and pretty much marginalizes all the rest of the plots strands as well.