March 31, 2016
(+++) MAGIC DARK, MAGIC LIGHT
The Thickety, Book 3: Well of Witches. By J.A. White. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
A Dragon’s Guide #2: A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter. By Laurence Yep & Joanne Ryder. Illustrations by Mary GrandPré. Crown. $16.99.
Darker than most heroic-quest adventure fantasies for preteens, J.A. White’s The Thickety series further develops, in the third of four planned novels, the themes presented in A Path Begins and The Whispering Trees. These involve moral certainty and the impossibility of attaining it; the difficulty of knowing for sure whether people are good or evil, and the extent to which circumstances rather than predilections determine what “good” and “evil” really mean; the pluses and minuses of obsessive dedication to a cause; and the existence of real horror – and how one copes with it. This last is worth emphasizing: there are some genuine scares in White’s series, which means it will not be for everyone. Furthermore, the third book, despite providing some backstory, does not really stand on its own as an entry point to the series – readers need the first two to make sense of what takes place here. That said, what happens in Well of Witches is that White uses timeworn, even clichéd themes, such as the juxtaposition of outward and inner journeys, to enlarge and deepen what is essentially a coming-of-age tale set in a world of witches (and witch hunters). There is more emotional and ethical/moral depth to White’s books than is usually found in heroic fantasy for younger readers (or older readers, for that matter). Yet the characters, even to some extent central protagonist Kara Westfall, remain “types” in many ways. Kara is 13 in Well of Witches and is traveling with Taff to find Grace, whose spell on their father the two want reversed. To accomplish that, they must rescue Grace herself (a hateful character when introduced in the first book) from the well of this book’s title – and find it in their hearts to forgive her. They also must encounter and deal with (and try to understand) ancient mysteries and some of the new creatures that White introduces here, notably the Faceless. And they must do all this against a backdrop in which a war on magic is about to break out in the World. Other characters from the first two books reappear here, from Kara’s friend and potential love interest Lucas to the evil (but rather enthralling) Rygoth; a number of new characters are introduced, too. In nearly 500 pages, White has plenty of space to showcase new creations and bring existing characters along on the road to understanding and maturity. Well of Witches is a “journey” book, while A Path Begins was a “homeland” one and The Whispering Trees dealt largely with death, regret and redemption. Kara has already been through a great deal, including losing and regaining her own powers, by the time Well of Witches comes to its cliffhanger close. A significant issue with this series is that the thematic differences from book to book virtually mandate reading the entire grouping of novels from start to finish to understand what is going on and what it all means – but the fourth and last piece of the tetralogy has yet to be written. This means that the frustration level for readers who finish Well of Witches will be even higher than usual when one is left at a deliberately provocative and inconclusive point in the midst of an extended adventure. The Thickety is certainly a thought-provoking series, and it goes in some unusual directions for a sequence intended for ages 10 and up. There is little value to reading Well of Witches on its own, but readers who met Kara in White’s first series entry and stayed with her through the second will find this third one, in which her assumptions about herself begin to crumble along with her assumptions about the worlds she lives in, to be an exciting if somewhat mystifying addition to the world of the World.
A far lighter series for a slightly younger readership, ages 8-12, features the husband-and-wife writing team of Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder amusingly exploring the notion of magical creatures living in a city that coexists invisibly with San Francisco – a city in which, among other things, dragons (such as narrator Miss Drake) keep humans (such as Winnie) as pets. Miss Drake has had a lot of pets – after all, she is 3,000 years old – but Winnie is (of course) something special and unusual. There is some intermingling of magical and non-magical creatures (here called “naturals”) – for instance, at the Spriggs Academy, where Miss Drake sends Winnie for school in A Dragon’s Guide to Making Your Human Smarter. But the “smarts” that one presumably gets in class are not enough for Winnie here, even though the school has some mighty unusual ways of teaching: Isaac Newton is the science instructor, for example, and Winnie crosses paths with Nessie of Loch Ness fame. The school episodes in this dual-narrator book (Miss Drake and Winnie present different chapters and sections of chapters) are primarily humorous; even some of the less-pleasant students whom Winnie encounters are not really very threatening. But there is a threat here, as in the previous book, A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans. It comes in the form of Winnie’s grandfather, Jarvis, who is determined to take her away from Miss Drake and gain custody of her, even if that means resorting to kidnapping. This somewhat more serious plot element – although it is not too serious, since readers will know that Jarvis cannot possibly succeed in the long run – is mostly the province of Miss Drake, while the school adventures are mostly in Winnie’s purview and told in her voice. But the whole point of these books is that friendship, including interspecies friendship, overrules all notions of “pets” and “owners” and is an absolute necessity for making one’s way in the world and, oh yes, fighting off evildoers. So it is only when Miss Drake and Winnie join forces that their combined cleverness, flexibility, pluck and, lest we forget, magic, can be brought fully to bear on the nefarious Jarvis and his plots. There is nothing particularly original in the “friendship above all” theme or in the notion of an ordinary (but special) protagonist pairing up with an extraordinary (and magical) character. But the overall lighthearted tone of both books in this series is pleasant, and the illustrations by Mary GrandPré – best known for her work on the U.S. versions of the Harry Potter books, of which readers will find some echoes here – enliven the chapter openings and the novel as a whole. The message of the series, presented plainly when Winnie at last confronts her grandfather, is an absolutely conventional one for books designed for preteens: “‘Money is happiness,’ Granddad snapped. …‘No,’ I argued. ‘You can’t be happy without friendship and love.’” And of course what Winnie finds with Miss Drake, and for that matter at the Spriggs Academy, are the precious things that money cannot buy. Even Jarvis, it turns out, has a soft spot – a small one – for certain non-monetary compensation; and it is eventually Winnie who ties everything up neatly by being just devious enough, and just enough of a hard bargainer, to convince Jarvis that “she’s the granddaughter I always wanted and everything I could wish for in an heir.” The book’s sentimental ending is a trifle on the treacly side, but readers already enamored of Winnie and Miss Drake will enjoy what is sure to be only a respite before they return for another round of draconic, if not iconic, adventures.