October 16, 2014
(+++) SCARY STUFF FOR SEVERAL AGE GROUPS
The Bodies We Wear. By Jeyn Roberts. Knopf. $17.99.
The Lynburn Legacy, Book 3: Unmade. By Sarah Rees Brennan. Random House. $17.99.
Guardians of Tarnec, Book I: Lark Rising. By Sandra Waugh. Random House. $17.99.
Nightmares! By Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller. Illustrated by Karl Kwasny. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Frightening fantasy adventures are constructed differently for young readers of different ages: the formulas are often the same, or at least overlap, but the way they are treated is tied directly to the age group at which a sequence or standalone novel is directed. Jeyn Roberts’ The Bodies We Wear is for ages 14 and up, which means it falls into the “gritty” category, in which serious societal issues are blown up into fantasy proportions and used as plot drivers in ways that are intended to seem “adult.” The serious issue here is drugs, specifically a drug called Heam, which is supposed to kill users momentarily and, in so doing, grant them a vision of Heaven. Of course, it doesn’t really work that way: when Faye and her best friend, Christian, are forced to take Heam – Faye is only 11 years old at the time – she gets a horrific vision rather than a beatific one, and Christian dies. Faye is 17 now and for six years has been determined to revenge herself on the pushers and killers who ruined her life and killed her best friend. She is helped, to an extent, by her guardian, Gazer, but he frustrates her by telling her again and again that she is “not ready” despite her growing skills at violence. Complicating her determination is the mysterious appearance of a young man named Chael, who seems to know too much about her for his knowledge to be mere coincidence. “I’m afraid you’re going to wander too far and I won’t be able to pull you back,” Gazer tells Faye, but Faye’s concern is that she is not going far enough, fast enough, to get the revenge that she is determined to have. Then she does start taking revenge, and it does not go as she wants it to, partly because of Chael and partly because, of course, of Faye herself – she is not sure who she is, not really, and not sure of what she wants. Furthermore, Chael’s behavior becomes increasingly intrusive and irritating to Faye: “You are not all mysterious and powerful. You’re just an idiot.” Well, no – readers will realize long before Faye does that Chael is supernatural and is there to protect Faye from the world, from her hunger for revenge, from herself. They will realize who he is, too, before Faye does (she is rather slow on the uptake). Of course Faye finds out that revenge is far from sweet, and when she manages to have it, or some of it, “Most of all I cry for me.” And she eventually grows, develops, learns about herself and about the meaning of life and death, and so on – typical elements of stories like this, told for this age group with deliberate and carefully structured intensity.
The intensity is turned down a notch in Unmade and Lark Rising, series entries intended for ages 12 and up. These are fantasies of created worlds, not urban fantasies set in cities resembling real-world ones. As such, they are filled with secrets and predictions, prophecies and magic, and of course difficult choices that, yes, result in the protagonists learning about themselves and growing by the time the stories end. Vengeance is key to Sarah Rees Brennan’s trilogy, but it is distanced vengeance rather than something up close, personal and ugly. It is protagonist Kami Glass who must work through an ancient legacy of blood and power to overcome Rob Lynburn, master of Sorry-in-the-Vale (a typical name for a typical place in tales like this one). At the book’s start, Kami has lost Jared, who is presumed dead, and must use her magical link with Jared’s half-brother, Ash, to try to face down the spreading evil detailed in the two prior books. However, Jared reappears rather early in Unmade, but then Ash gets in the way of what is about to be a joyful physical reunion, and matters quickly return to the issue of Rob. Brennan tries to make the evil mastermind less typical by drawing attention to how typical he is, as when one character comments about one of Rob’s utterances, “Doesn’t it sound like a fairly standard evil overlord speech? ‘Mwhahaha! You have no idea what you’re dealing with, Mr. Bond! You have gravely underestimated me. You have no idea of the depth of my iniquity.’” Leaving aside the peculiarity of the James Bond reference in this fantasy world, which goes with other things that don’t quite fit (such as one character reading the book Melmoth the Wanderer), the whole approach breaks down when Rob does in fact speak and behave like an utterly typical master villain in a magic-laced fantasy. Nor is he the only character type here: pretty much everyone is one-dimensional. And pretty much all the key events are, too: “We have to dig [the grave] up. …I think whatever this key opens will be” in it. Still, Brennan tries through dialogue to keep the proceedings unusual and even, from time to time, on the light side: “I always wanted to be able to solve all your problems and keep you safe forever. I couldn’t do it.” “I think it’s awesome she’s become a blond bombshell research ninja.” The oddity of the mixture here does not stop Brennan from dipping into traditional-for-fantasy language at key times: “I went with Rob so that I could learn his plans and spare all your lives. …But I had to come back. I feared you would not hear the communication I sent you, and think I had turned to his side.” The eventual foregone conclusion is firmly in the magical realm, and will satisfy genre fans who have stayed with this trilogy since it began with Unspoken and continued with Untold.
As one fantasy series for ages 12 and up ends, another inevitably begins, and Sandra Waugh, presenting her first novel, gets the basics of the genre for this age group right. Her protagonist is 16-year-old Lark Carew, an apparently simple country girl who tends her garden and picks medicinal herbs, but who also has Sight – which tells her that monstrous Troths will soon attack her village. Lark is then summoned to seek assistance from the Riders of Tarnec, one of whom she has seen in her dreams. Lark, it turns out, is more than she appears to be (no surprise there): she is the first of four Guardians whose powers must be brought into play in order to recover four crucial protective amulets. Lark is Guardian of Life, and she must bring the world back into balance by fulfilling her destiny and doing what must be done, along with the Guardians of Death, Dark and Light, who are sure to appear in future books. Amid all the world-spanning issues, Lark has a personal one, as is wholly typical for books like this: one thing her Sight has shown her is that she will become romantically involved with a young man who will kill her. So Lark appears to be on a quest in which she herself is doomed, although she may be able to save the world. Waugh’s dialogue, unlike Brennan’s, makes no attempt to be anything but in the genre of typical heroic fantasy: “Choosing is the horses’ right and their instinct, and so the camaraderie is pure. Riders protect the hills from poachers who would breed horses for sale, for such would distort the natural bond.” Never mind that nobody real ever talks this way – in books like this, everybody does. “He wants to make right his error.” “There are other things more deadly to hold our concern.” “It is ignorant to assume that because you do not know me, then I should not know you.” “Do not always use your eyes to determine the value of something.” The dialogue progresses apace, and anon Lark and the Riders accomplish what is meant to be accomplished, and Lark is elevated to the position to which she is meant to be elevated, and the way is prepared for the next book in a thoroughly predictable, if well-crafted, series.
Move down the target age range a bit, to books for readers ages 8-12, and plots are no less predictable, but they are handled with less loftiness, more humor, and often with illustrations that help enliven the books and move the stories along. Nightmares! is the first book of a series, as is Lark Rising, but the novel by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller is quite different from Waugh’s. For one thing, Nightmares! has pleasant, well-conceived and often amusing illustrations by Karl Kwasny that help break up the narrative while giving readers views of the characters and their actions. For another, the book has multiple protagonists rather than one – novels for this age group are often about friendship and the importance of sticking together to do what is right and push back against what is wrong. What is wrong here is that kids' nightmares are starting to slip across from dreamland to the real world, and this is emphatically not a good thing. Charlie Laird and his friends need to do something about this, but what? Charlie is stuck living in a purple mansion with his dad and stepmom, who he is sure is a witch. And soon he is on a quest with his friend Alfie, guided through the Netherworld by dark-glasses-wearing Meduso, who of course is the son of Medusa, who “had the face and torso of a beautiful older woman, the body of a giant serpent, and a hundred snakes growing out of her head.” Oh, and she calls Meduso Basil. There is a portal, you see, and Charlie and Alfie need Meduso’s help to return back through it to the Waking World, and Meduso needs his mumsie to help out. Then there are adventures that involve not only Alfie but also Paige, such as the one in which Charlie and both friends reach a nightmare forest where Charlie “could feel the thing in the forest – the one that had been stalking him ever since his bad dreams began. It was closer than ever.” Of course it is! This, after all, is the start of a multi-book series, and needs to establish the characters and the general plot line, such as: “Charlie had seen his friends’ nightmares, but it was strange to have them visit his. He felt uncomfortable and exposed – like he’d been caught dancing in his underwear.” The three friends end up sharing their fears – Alfie, for example, is the intelligent sidekick common to stories like this, and he has nightmares involving sports, at which he is no good, but “the truth is, I don’t really mind being a terrible athlete. I have a big brain to make up for it. I think what really bothers me is when people laugh at me. It makes me wonder if being smart really matters.” Eventually Charlie figures out what really scares him, and what the thing in the forest is, and what the head of the Netherworld (President Fear) is really trying to do to and with the kids of Cypress Creek. The eventual outcome, which is quite in line with what books for this age group try to communicate, is, “You’ve faced your fears. …But you also did something far more important. You stuck together.” The conclusion is so, well, conclusive, that the book could work as a standalone – atypically for a series opener, it does not have a cliffhanger ending. But there is a promise at the end that the second book, to be called The Sleepwalker Tonic, will be forthcoming, so obviously Charlie, family and friends have more nightmarish and age-appropriate adventures still to come.