March 12, 2015
(+++) VISITS TO FANTASY LANDS
Mars Evacuees. By Sophia McDougall. Harper. $16.99.
The Last Dragon Charmer, Book 1: Villain Keeper. By Laurie McKay. Harper. $16.99.
Whether told with humor or the utmost seriousness, novels for readers ages 8-12 are frequently set in locations deliberately designed to be as unlike everyday life as possible – except that the protagonists are designed to be just like the readers, talking like them and interacting with others as they do. The improbable mixtures are a fact of fictional life in books whose underlying theme is that preteens, in whatever world they may find themselves, can out-think, outsmart and outwit adults at every turn. The particular world in Mars Evacuees is, as the title indicates, Mars, and if this is not exactly the Mars known as Barsoom in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tales, it is not precisely the one known to 21st-century scientists either. True, there are some scientific discussions here, designed to create an aura of plausibility: “Noctis Labyrinthus. It’s a system of canyons by the equator at the west end of Valles Marineris – Mariner Valleys. It was formed by extensional tectonics in the Noachian period and erosion by rivers and collapse of grabens in the late Hesperian and Amazonian periods.” This material is, however, rather spectacularly boring, as this sample indicates, and it is not at all the point of Sophia McDougall’s book, the first of a two-book series. Of far greater interest are the brave spacefighters of Earth; Alice, the 12-year-old narrator of the book (whose mother is one of the boldest and best-known warriors); and the alien Morrors – with whom humans have been at war for 15 years. As Alice puts it, “Obviously I was scared of the Morrors, because you can’t see them and they can kill you and obviously I really wished they would go away.” Understandable, but then there wouldn’t be much of a book here. It seems that the Morrors have been re-jiggering Earth’s climate to be more to their liking, just as Earth has been re-jiggering the climate of Mars so humans can “sort of breathe the air and sort of not get sunburned to death.” The ironic parallel is not noticed or significant here, though. What matters is that as Earth continues to suffer through the lengthy war, some preteens are evacuated to Mars, where their schooling is handled by robots that (as is often the case in science fantasy) have more personality than most of the humans. However, “there’s only a few hundred people on the whole planet, and most of them are us,” one student points out, so of course it falls to the young people to make an uneasy sort of peace with the Morrors and eventually get the two races to cooperate “when the solar system’s infested with planet-eating bugs,” the sort of menace that makes former enemies into allies and opens the door to this book’s planned sequel. McDougall has a light touch that shows she is well aware of the absurdity of what she is writing, and the eruptions of humor (much of it appropriately juvenile) make Mars Evacuees more enjoyable than many other fantasy adventure books for preteens. It is impossible to take the book seriously, of course, but McDougall provides plenty of nudges and hints that indicate she knows that – and even the characters sometimes seem on the verge of figuring it out as well.
Villain Keeper, on the other hand, is very serious indeed. However, it too follows a familiar pattern for fantasy adventures, being set in a world that is obviously make-believe and one that is, or seems to be, the everyday world of the readers. Specifically, the story here is of Prince Caden of the Great Winterlands of Razzon, who is expected to become a dragon slayer, just like his seven older brothers. That sounds like a traditional fairy-tale setup, and it is. But there is a wrinkle – not in time but in geography. The prince suddenly and mysteriously finds himself in the “real” world of Asheville, North Carolina, a city decidedly lacking in magic and dragons. What is going on? Well, of course it will turn out that Asheville is not so mundane as it seems to be; in fact, as one villain from Caden’s own land explains to Caden, “The locals call Asheville the Land of the Sky. …But I and the other teachers, we call it the Land of Shadow, the land of the banished. …I’ll admit…it’s nicer than advertised. One of the better prisons I’ve known. You worry about me, but there are twenty-four others banished here just like me.” Yes, 24 villains from Caden’s realm in North Carolina, all of them teachers – there’s a preteen fantasy for you – and making statements that are “like the web of a Korvan spiderbird, sticky and full of bloodsucking traps.” And then there is the small matter of dragon slaying: somewhere along the line, Caden starts to suspect that maybe that is not what he is supposed or destined, to do. There is also the small matter of Tito, the “real-world” boy and another 12-year-old, with whom Caden is staying in a foster home. There is considerable opportunity for amusement in Caden’s attempts to adjust to the “real” world and figure it out, but Laurie McKay is not much interested in humor: she wants adventure, and she serves it up through a series of mysteries – not only how and why Caden is in North Carolina, and how and why the villains of his land are there as well, but also whether there really are dragons about and, by the way, who the mysterious “she” is that all the banished evildoers (those that are now teachers) seem to fear. To be sure, there are glints of amusement in Villain Keeper from time to time: “Caden’s pocket, the one containing his phone, began to shake. Truly, he preferred the loud music to the buzzing. Any person who’d ever felt the debilitating sting of a Razzon crater wasp would feel the same.” But by and large, McKay stays on the straight-and-narrow road of fantasy adventure in this first book of a planned series, setting out various scenarios and introducing various characters that she will surely explore at greater length in the future. There is nothing especially innovative or unusual in this start of The Last Dragon Charmer sequence, but as easy-to-read escapism for all the would-be Cadens out there, it is just fine.