September 17, 2015


Guardians of Tarnec, Book II: Silver Eve. By Sandra Waugh. Random House. $17.99.

Bridget Wilder: Spy-in-Training. By Jonathan Bernstein. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     There are always secrets. Deep, dark ones. And tragedies, real or incipient. And always, always, a central character who does not know his or her depths, his or her destiny, his or her importance. The handling of these elements differs from adventure series to adventure series, but in sequences of novels for preteens and teenagers, the only question is how the elements will be used – not whether they will be there. They always are. And they are most certainly present in Guardians of Tarnec, whose first book, Lark Rising, was also Sandra Waugh’s first novel. That book had all the expected elements: a 16-year-old protagonist who turned out to be more than she ever thought she was, specifically the Guardian of Life – one of four Guardians whose powers must be brought into play in order to recover four crucial protective amulets that collectively keep the world in balance. The other three Guardians of Tarnec, it turned out, were those of Death, Dark and Light; hence the tetralogy progresses to Silver Eve, in which 17-year-old healer Evie Carew discovers she is Guardian of Death. Like Lark in the first book, Evie must balance her importance to the world with her own personal issues: her beloved has died, killed by the evil Troths, and Evie wants only to lose herself forever in a convenient marshland; but a suitably knowledgeable old seer tells her she is destined for greater things. Evie’s curiosity keeps her going, and so, after a time, does her attraction to one of the Riders of Tarnec, the handsome Laurent. The adventure is told throughout in a kind of take-it-seriously heroic style, not only in terms of events but also in the dialogue, which is straight out of what the target audience of young readers may imagine that people in imaginary lands may have sounded like in the imaginary past or an imaginary alternative world: “Be on your guard, my lady.” “Do you not understand my wretched duty, Rider? No harm. ’Twas born into me; I cannot reject it!” “If a Guardian is lost, there will be another to wake.” “The day is wasting.” “’Twas only a catch of stares, only the briefest of moments.” And so forth. This faux exotica carries the tale along to the usual sort of parlous statement: “Pages that are not yet set, not yet lived, could be burned or ripped out. And then the person whose fate they hold would die.” There are the usual twists and turns, the usual discovery of “what a terrible mistake I’d made. About everything.” And then, after a suitable climax and appropriate level of understanding at last, this part of this particular quest is accomplished and the scene is set for the next book in the series.

     Bridget Wilder: Spy-in-Training is much lighter stuff and, besides, is the first book of a series, so it has specific things it must do to get matters up and running (lots of running: it is a spy novel, after all). This means meeting the eponymous protagonist, who of course is a nobody whom no one acknowledges, even on her birthday, and therefore is obviously going to turn out, soon enough, to be someone very important. Aimed at ages 8-12 – unlike Guardians of Tarnec, which is for ages 12 and up, thus accounting for its more-serious mien – Bridget Wilder: Spy-in-Training repeatedly stirs in some humor with its adventure. This is a common recipe for sequences of this sort, and Jonathan Bernstein, here offering his first novel for this age group, clearly understands how to go about it. The whole “birthday” thing is a key: Bridget’s birthday brings her a bag containing dorky glasses, gross lip gloss and a broken phone – which, soon enough, rings, inviting her to become nothing less than a CIA agent. But not just any agent: she is going to work for Section 23, a department so secret that even the CIA itself is unaware of it. Hmm. Maybe Section 23 isn’t exactly what Bridget is told it is – but that is getting ahead of things (although only a little). Now, what is missing here is some sort of family connection – books like this always have one – so it turns out that Bridget’s biological father, whom she has (conveniently for the plot) never met and never seen a picture of, is the reason for her mysterious and unexpected invitation to the spy world. He is a top Section 23 agent, and he is going to get his daughter into the family business; so says Bridget’s newfound CIA contact. OK, this all strains the bounds of credulity even more than books of this sort usually do, but the point here is adventure and amusement, not believability. So, soon enough, there is this super-secret character called Spool managing Bridget’s early training, and saying things like this when Bridget says she wants to speak with her biological father: “He’s deep under cover. The balance of global power depends on him right now.” As for Bridget herself, she is trying to negotiate the usual middle-school hurdles while taking in all the spy-related issues, and isn’t doing a very good job of it. “It turns out that I am not old news,” she says after deciding that some of her escapades will have passed through everyone’s mind and out the other side quickly; and, soon thereafter, “It turns out that I am not too tough” – that is, not too tough to let the backbiting and backstabbing of her fellow students get to her. But which fellow students really are students, and for that matter, which teachers really are teachers, and, for the matter of that matter, which spies really are spies and which are evil manipulators eager to start wars because they are good for business? So many questions, so few answers – although the answers do start coming quickly as the book goes on and a talking Smart Car ferries Bridget around while making snarky comments to her. Improbabilities pile on improbabilities in a not-fully-mixed mixture of fun and fright, as Bridget and friends (which ones really are friends?) get captured and released, used and misused. Bridget is really two characters, and Bernstein never quite brings them together: the passages in which she is a trying-to-cope middle-schooler read quite differently from those in which she is a super-successful budding spy with powers of which even she is unaware until she has to call on them. The point of Bridget Wilder: Spy-in-Training is that Bridget goes from being “Invisible,” the title of the first chapter, to being “Visible,” the title of the last one, and at the same time cements her family relationships (including the one with her biological father) and her place in school (including ever-changing friendships and groupthink).  Bernstein packs a little too much into this first series book, and the balance of serious-vs.-amusing is sometimes off: for example, a climactic scene in which a car is cut in half, with both halves continuing down the road, is supposed to be dramatic but ends up on the funny side of things. But the book certainly works as a scene-setter, or rather scene-setter-up, for a planned ongoing sequence about Bridget; and while it is hard to imagine the next book being much, um, wilder than this one, the preview pages about dastardly cheerleaders and an adorable kitten at least promise that Book 2 will follow in the footsteps of Book 1.

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