April 23, 2015
(+++) FANTASIES OF VARYING COMPLEXITY
The Whisperer. By Fiona McIntosh. Knopf. $16.99.
Genuine Sweet. By Faith Harkey. Clarion. $16.99.
Celestial Battle, Book Two: Demon Child. By Kylie Chan. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
Fantasy novels for preteens and young teenagers frequently take a straightforward coming-of-age path, but not always. Some of them weave elaborate, multi-string plot strands into webs designed to catch young readers’ imagination and keep those readers involved through sheer complexity. The Whisperer, published in Australia in 2009 but only now appearing in a U.S. edition, is decidedly on the side of complexity – but at its heart, it is a kind of the-prince-and-the-pauper story about connected boys who learn only as the story progresses just who they are and just what they mean to each other (and to those around them). One of the boys, Griff, joined the circus with his two brothers when all were quite young; this is a good place for him to do dull manual work, keeping as much to himself as possible, because Griff hears other people’s thoughts and finds it unbearable to be around too many people. An oddity of the plot, though, is that Griff hears thoughts only when they are important to the people thinking them – and that strains credulity even for a fantasy, because how, exactly, does Griff’s telepathic ability know this? In any case, the second boy – the “prince” one – is Lute, who is indeed crown prince of the kingdom of Destronia. Griff and Lute know nothing about each other, but each is in danger – Griff from Master Tyren, who runs the circus and wants to use Griff’s telepathy to make more money, and Lute from his usurping uncle, Janko. Obviously these two boys are going to meet, and they do indeed work their way toward each other after Griff starts hearing Lute’s thoughts, not knowing where they come from but telling himself that they emanate from a “whisperer.” Fiona McIntosh, who has written dozens of adult novels, carefully backs out overly adult themes from The Whisperer, turning it into a quest adventure whose eventual outcome is never really in doubt but whose twists and turns should keep young readers interested. The most involving of those involve subsidiary characters. One is Tess, with whom Griff runs away from the circus – she brings magical creatures with her. Another is a bandit dwarf named Bitter Olof who, in an intriguing twist, used to be tall and strong but had to give up his height to a witch in return for his life. A third is Olof’s former lover, Calico Grace, who had to surrender her beauty for the same reason and now commands a pirate ship – a magical one, no less. Olof and Grace intersect the story of Leto’s escape and are strongly connected to Leto through the person of his friend and bodyguard, Pilo – yet another plot complication. Eventually Griff and Leto find out just why and how they are connected, and that particular plot development is anything but surprising. In fact, few individual elements of The Whisperer are surprises (although the witch taking Olof’s height and Grace’s beauty is a neat concept); but there are so many things going on in the book that readers will be swept along from event to event, peril to peril, enjoying the ups and downs as they try to figure out just what is going to happen before the inevitable (and rather too pat) happy ending.
The magic is specific rather than pervasive in Genuine Sweet, a book whose title is the name of its narrator. She and the other females in her family are “wish fetchers,” living in the small town of Sass, Georgia, which is “full of folks who had family shines. Everyone knew Mina Cunningham was a pain lifter and the Fullers could soothe bad dreams. But granting wishes? That was hanging the basket mighty high.” Yes, that is what wish fetchers can do – but not for themselves, although sometimes “we can nudge the Lord just a little,” as Genuine’s beloved grandmother explains. Genuine – who is 12 and whose middle name, by the way, is Beauty – lives with her perpetually drunk father and her grandmother (Gram), her ma having passed on. Faith Harkey’s book constantly mixes the mundane with the mystical: Genuine and her grandmother bake wish biscuits from a “bag of miracle flour” that is always “just as full as it had been when I first brought it home,” but although the concept of biscuit-making is down-to-earth and homey, it is juxtaposed with New Age-y sounding narration: “The stars were singing. …There came a time that it felt right to raise my cup and whistle down some magic from the stars. It was then that I realized: the light was the song, which was the light. It was more than that, too, but what more, I couldn’t fathom. It was a mystery far bigger than me.” And, when the requests to Genuine from the impoverished townspeople seem too much of a burden for a young girl to bear: “I caught my mirror image in the window and pondered what it might be like to live there, on the distant side of things. Folks couldn’t demand doodly from me; I’d be nothing but a reflection, far away, where things were watery and quiet.” Genuine is clearly wise beyond her years, and more poetic in her thoughts, too. Actually, Harkey is not always sure just how mature to make her – which leads to a passage like this: “This is Travis Tromp! I reminded myself. He could be angry and pushy and – I’ll say it – a little chauvinistic, with all that ‘baby’ stuff. He was as goofy as a snaggletoothed pup, too.” The book proceeds on a standard story arc, with Genuine learning more about herself and her past, then facing a tragic (and unsurprising) loss, then erupting in anger at the unfairness of life, then losing her ability to fetch wishes, but then figuring out how to do something – well, perhaps not better, but equally satisfying, in a different way. This is a pleasant story rather than a profound one, a tale built around magic but told in a rather matter-of-fact manner, as if magic itself is mundane. Being a fantasy, it is scarcely genuine, but it does manage to be sweet.
Complex fantasies are, most assuredly, not only for young readers. In fact, adult-focused fantasies are even more complicated – and a great deal longer – than ones intended for preteens and teenagers. Kylie Chan’s Celestial Battle is typical of the genre. Demon Child is the second book, after Dark Serpent started the trilogy. As is common in adult fantasies, there are paired lovers whose fate is central to much greater matters, such as, in this case, eventual control of Earth and Heaven alike (an absurd premise that seems less so simply because of the frequency with which it is used in adult fantasies). Here the lovers’ names are Emma Donohoe and John Chen, but their names matter little, since they are filling typecast roles and are themselves simply types. Demon Child is so overloaded with mixed metaphors and mixed time periods that it tends to career off the tracks again and again. At one point there is an unintentionally funny scene in which the Dark Lord (“that’s really what he’s called?” asks one character) is in the infirmary during a meeting in which one character keeps switching his age (from 12 to 30) and appearance, and soon there is a comment, “Send the message through the network. Confirm by text when you’re sure that the Masters, Ma, Er Lang and the Winds are informed.” Then there are passages like this: “They took down the Dragon, but obviously they don’t have another cage because he came back almost immediately. They don’t have any of the Winds or the Generals, but there isn’t much left of the army and many of our senior officers are prisoners. The Jade Emperor ordered us to evacuate when Father went down and the cockroach attacked the barricades, so the last of us made it out.” Understand: all this makes sense in Chan’s fantasy world, but there is so much of it, so constantly tossed about and so frequently tumbling over itself with incoherence, that Celestial Battle is a series only for those who want to immerse themselves really, really deeply into an utterly absurd alternative universe filled with demons, opposing armies of Sidhe (pronounced “shee”) and Shen, and many portentous capitalized words: “She was Raised. …Is the Turtle still in the Grotto? …I have the Serpent with me. I’ll be at the Gates of Heaven in about ten minutes. I need a ride from there to the Mountain, as fast as possible.” Certainly Demon Child is the wrong place to start reading as lengthy and overwrought a fantasy as Celestial Battle. Readers who are truly enamored of this sort of magical-romantic-martial-arts story need to start with the first book and work their way onward to this one, and thence to the forthcoming finale.