March 24, 2016
(+++) CHOOSE YOUR GOOD, CHOOSE YOUR EVIL
Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls. By Raymond Arroyo. Crown. $16.99.
The Secrets of Solace. By Jaleigh Johnson. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The Elementia Chronicles, Book Three: Herobrine’s Message. By Sean Fay Wolfe. Harper. $9.99.
Predictability of plot and characters is not a reason to avoid preteen adventure/fantasy novels, but it does make it difficult to choose among them. Whichever one – whichever ones – a reader selects, he or she can be sure that there will be evil elements, dire dangers, fantastic family secrets, scenes of fear and worry and (almost) doom, plus the usual mentors and companions and nemeses required to make the stories exciting. Indeed, excitement is the primary reason-for-being of these adventure/fantasy books; characterization inevitably takes a back seat, when it is present at all. To the extent that an author can manage a consistent thrill ride, a book will attract at least some coterie of readers. And if it falls short or is not engaging enough, there are many, many more where it came from. So Raymond Arroyo’s Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls, a series opener, will be a lot of fun for some readers and can readily be abandoned by anyone who is not immediately gripped by it. Actually, the book is immediately gripping, starting in high-flown fashion with a quotation from King Lear about “monsters of the deep” and proceeding to an opening background scene, set during World War II, that is as chilling as a reader could wish. After that, though, things follow a common and predictable path. Headstrong 12-year-old protagonist Will Wilder has an apparently straightforward family: younger brother and sister, nice mom and dad. His Aunt Lucille looks like a sweet little old lady but is a bit on the unusual side, and readers will instantly realize that she will turn out to be very important; but before Will himself figures that out (he is a touch slow on the uptake), he will jeopardize the entire family and the town where they live. Will causes an accident that seriously injures his brother, and realizes that he can make things right by borrowing a healing relic from the museum that Aunt Lucille runs. So he takes it – and promptly unleashes the sort of unimaginable evil that is all too easy to imagine when it comes to books like this one. The emergence of deadly creatures from the waters around Perilous Falls (a town whose name alone tells readers what to expect from the book) is coupled with Will’s discovery that his family is (of course) not as plain and forthright as he had thought, and that he himself is involved in an ancient prophecy (yes, one of those) and has powers that he has been coming into only gradually (yup) – powers that let him see the encroaching evil that is invisible to others. Not a smidgen of this is new; in fact, the blend of sometimes-effective humor with action appears deliberately to recall the Indiana Jones movies, although nothing in the book justifies that opening Shakespeare quotation except on the most superficial level. Will and his inevitable friends and companions, especially Andrew and Simon, are interesting although not especially distinctive, and Aunt Lucille is a lot of fun because of the contrast between her appearance and her abilities (although, again, that sort of thing is nothing new). Arroyo seems to revel in the detailed descriptions of the demons and assorted baddies, and readers may enjoy that aspect of the writing – plus the overall pacing, which is handled skillfully. But those who start the book and decide it is not for them can readily switch to something else.
Such as, for example, The Secrets of Solace. Arroyo’s book is aimed primarily at boys; this one by Jaleigh Johnson targets girls. It is actually the second book in a not-quite-series that opened with The Mark of the Dragonfly, an engagingly unwieldy novel that somewhat uneasily combined elements of steampunk with more-traditional fairy tales. The earlier book featured the standard faux medieval model of kingdoms and fiefdoms populated by high-living royalty and by commoners left to scavenge for their livelihood, was all about the (usual) importance of friendship and camaraderie, included shapeshifters (“chamelins”) and other unusual-but-typical characters, and was most distinguished by having the inevitable quest journey occur via an uncommon method: on a fascinatingly described train called the 401. The Secrets of Solace does not continue the earlier book, though: it stands pretty much on its own, although readers who did read Johnson’s previous novel will find this one considerably richer and deeper. That would be a good thing, since The Secrets of Solace, although perfectly adequate in plot and characterization, lacks some of the intriguing complexity and steampunk sensibility of The Mark of the Dragonfly. What happens in The Secrets of Solace is that a typical central character – a disheveled orphan who is a loner and keeps getting in trouble (and is thus a blend of several tropes of adventure/fantasy for preteens) – lives in a land called Solace, where she is training as a cataloguer. In the course of her work, Lina Winterbock discovers a wrecked airship in a cave that no one with adult proportions can enter. She decides to restore it to prove her worth and (naturally) find her destiny. Also seeking destiny is Ozben, secondary heir of one of two dynasties that are at war elsewhere in the world. Ozben too is lonely and trying to figure out where he belongs, and he and Lina – who discovers his true identity – are soon bonding, and the story is told in alternating chapters from their perspectives. The growing closeness of Lina and Ozben makes both of them targets of assassins, and matters are complicated because the archivists of Solace are determined not to take sides in the war going on outside their land’s borders. The pacing of The Secrets of Solace is a little odd, even if the events themselves are generally unsurprising. For example, Lina’s parents’ death has been followed by the emotional withdrawal from her of her guardian, Zara – a state of affairs not explained until it is resolved rather abruptly late in the book. Similarly, Lina has an antagonist, a fellow apprentice named Simon, whose one-dimensional determination to put Lina in her place turns out – again, late in the book and rather too abruptly – to be understandable and based on Simon’s own inner life. The Secrets of Solace is all about the typical themes of love, betrayal and sacrifice, and the less-typical one of putting scholarship at the center of one’s life: the concept of Solace as a nation is one of the novel’s most interesting elements. However, if that theme and the comparative lack of background information on the world that Johnson has created make the book less than gripping, a reader can quite easily move on.
For instance, to Herobrine’s Message, the conclusion of Sean Fay Wolfe’s Minecraft-based trilogy, The Elementia Chronicles. The first two books of this fandom fantasy, Quest for Justice and The New Order, were comparatively standard-length novels, but this conclusion is anything but: it sprawls through nearly 800 pages. Intended from the start only for Minecraft fans and fanciers, the trilogy is self-limiting in its reach and its expectation that readers will know and recognize the characters and the situations in which they find themselves (although Herobrine, interestingly, is not a character in Minecraft, despite many players’ speculations about him). Some of Wolfe’s writing echoes that in much better fantasies, as in dialogue that recalls attitudes toward Voldemort in the Harry Potter books: “‘You know, Stan, that’s something that’s really bothered me,’ Sally spat out in annoyance. ‘You know who Lord Tenebris really is. And you know what he’s doing to Elementia, and thousands of other Minecraft servers, as we speak. He’s the most evil and destructive force that Minecraft has ever faced, so the least you can do is call him by his real name.’ Stan shuddered. It was true. He, along with the rest of his friends, had avoided calling Lord Tenebris by his true name. It just seemed that if they didn’t say it, they wouldn’t have to face it.” But of course the good guys have no choice but to face Lord Tenebris – whose true name is Herobrine – which also means confronting their own worries, uncertainties and all the rest. The whole of The Elementia Chronicles is resolutely serious in tone, which is too bad, because the series is badly in need of occasional lightening-up. Some elements of it are unintentionally funny, such as calling one land Nocturia, which is the medical condition in which people awake at night because they need to urinate. But the writing in general is intended to be intense and even dark, despite that fact that Wolfe and/or his editors do not always seem to know the meanings of some of the words Wolfe uses: “‘Yeah, someone threw a brick through our door,’ replied Ben forebodingly [sic], gesturing to the wooden door and brick lying in the empty doorframe, through which the boisterous [sic] anger of the crowd was still raging.” Good does triumph over evil by the end of Herobrine’s Message, as if there was ever any doubt, and Minecraft fans who enjoyed the first two books of The Elementia Chronicles will find that the third one wraps things up neatly, if scarcely in any surprising way. Those who are not Minecraft devotees or who, for one reason or another, find themselves less than enthralled by this extended conclusion of Wolfe’s saga, will have no trouble at all finding explorations of the good-vs.-evil theme, presented in various more-or-less entertaining ways, in other books. Lots of other books.