January 28, 2016
(++++) WITH HUMOR OR WITHOUT?
The Woodcutter Sisters, Book III: Dearest. By Alethea Kontis. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $8.99.
Seeker, Book II: Traveler. By Arwen Elys Dayton. Delacorte Press. $18.99.
If there is one thing that tends to distinguish adventure fantasy for preteens and young teens from the same genre for older teens, it is the use of humor. The thinking seems to be that the more humor a series possesses, the younger the readers to whom it will appeal. Certainly humor can minimize the intensity of adventure, but it can also provide some leavening within a generally dark tale – even The Lord of the Rings, which has inspired such a huge percentage of more-recent adventure fantasy, has its moments of levity (not many, but some). The pluses and minuses of humor-infused adventures are clear in Dearest, which is intended for younger teenagers, and Traveler, which is aimed at older ones. Dearest is the third book in Alethea Kontis’ very clever multi-book mashup of fairy tales, which tells or will tell the stories of the seven Woodcutter sisters – one named after each day of the week. The series opened with Enchanted and continued with Hero, and now moves on to the story of Friday Woodcutter, apprentice seamstress and all-around sweetheart. Indeed, Friday is so good that readers of the first two books may expect her to come across as something of a prig. But Kontis is, in the main, too clever to let that happen. She avoids the too-nice trap largely through marvelous turns of phrase (“this girl shone in the gloom of adversity so brightly that she cast rainbows”) and through, yes, humor. For instance, Friday turns out to be a bit boy-crazy (which, however, does not stop her from instantly recognizing her true love when she sees him and experiences one of those fairy-tale love-at-first-sight moments). Yes, she is innocent, rather endearingly so, and wonderful with the children who seem drawn to her like iron filings to a magnet. Kontis goes beyond the Grimm fairy tales that she usually interweaves in these books when it comes to some of those children: Friday takes care of three orphans named Wendy, Michael and John, and calls them her, um, darlings. Get it? The Darlings? Peter Pan? This is a good example both of humor and of a certain subtlety: it is possible to read all the books in this series without knowing the underlying fairy tales, but it adds a great deal of enjoyment if you do know them. The primary tale here is the Grimms’ The Six Swans, and Friday’s true love is one of those, so the breaking of the swan spell is a central part of the book. But some of the novel’s byways are fun, too: the brothers are really funny in their interactions with each other (that humorous penchant of Kontis coming to the fore yet again), and one of them is in love not with a human but with a swan, whose name happens to be Odette, as in Princess Odette of Swan Lake. Again, knowing the references is generally unnecessary but certainly gives Dearest more scope and depth. But in truth, at some points it is almost necessary to know the stories on which Kontis draws, for instance when Tristan, Friday’s true love, gets transformationally stuck between swan and man: that is a crucial event in the Grimms’ story, but here it just sort of happens without explanation. Of course, a great deal “just happens” in all fairy tales, but there are usually explanations within the context of the stories: “because of the prophecy,” “because of the evil spell,” that sort of thing. There is none of that here. Kontis does not shrink from the darker sides of the old fairy tales: for instance, there is a death in Dearest that, while admittedly very convenient for the plot, is troubling and comes across as rather arbitrary (as do many Grimm deaths). But what Kontis does consistently and well is to keep enough humor in the Woodcutter novels to prevent the darkness of the foundational tales – which were very dark indeed – from swamping the enjoyable aspects of the narratives and making them depressing.
The second book in Arwen Elys Dayton’s very interesting Seeker series, Traveler, is almost humorless and steeped in darkness, as befits a typical novel aimed at ages 14 and up. But like its predecessor, Traveler is better than most books of its genre. Dayton humanizes her characters effectively and tells the story well from multiple points of view – albeit in language that does not vary much from character to character. Primary protagonist Quin Kincaid has learned that her role as a Seeker is not to protect people through intense training and the use of a special weapon called an “athame” (three syllables: ATH-uh-may). That was the Seeker way, but now Seekers are assassins, killing for money. Why? That is an important element explored in Traveler, as Quin and Shinobu use Catherine’s journal as a guide to, or toward, the truth about their world. Catherine’s storyline is crucial in this second book, providing background information that helps make both Traveler and its predecessor much clearer. It is worth remembering that Dayton’s world has at its core a set of three laws whose resemblance to Isaac Asimov’s justly famed Three Laws of Robotics is likely deliberate: “First law: a Seeker is forbidden to take another family’s athame. Second law: a Seeker is forbidden to kill another Seeker save in self-defense. Third law: a Seeker is forbidden to harm humankind.” Trying to find out what the laws mean, and what the whole Seeker experience was supposed to mean and has now come to mean, is a great deal of what Traveler is about. In addition, star-crossed lovers Quin and John are not only separated in Traveler but also have gone their own different ways in terms of training: John is learning from Maud (known as the Young Dread) so he can become strong, fast and powerful enough to avenge the death of his mother – Catherine. Thus, Catherine’s story helps pull Quin and John apart and at the same time unites them in their different forms of seeking – the sort of adept narrative twist that Dayton employs in Traveler as she did in Seeker. The book is perhaps too packed with the secrets and the twists and turns typical of its genre, and is certainly too Perils-of-Pauline in its pacing: again and again, a chapter ends with a cliffhanger, thus presumably pulling readers quickly into the next chapter but also showing a certain level of authorial manipulativeness that is overdone. Still, the technique is undeniably exciting, at least the first few times Dayton uses it. By the end of Traveler, Dayton has answered a lot of questions, raised others, resolved a love triangle, and left her characters in difficult positions from which she will need to extricate them in the series’ concluding volume. The Seeker trilogy does have formulaic elements, such as setting events in different geographical areas without really differentiating the locations; and in truth, the overall story arc and writing style are not especially distinguished. But the pacing and skillful use of multiple viewpoints are as impressive in the second book of the trilogy as they were in the first, and Traveler is certainly strong enough to leave readers eager for the wrap-up of the adventure in the forthcoming Disruptor.