June 09, 2016
(+++) FANTASIES IN OTHER WORLDS AND OURS
The Witch’s Child, Book 1: Julia Vanishes. By Catherine Egan. Knopf. $17.99.
Forever Beach. By Shelley Noble. William Morrow. $15.99.
The opening book of Catherine Egan’s The Witch’s Child sequence has enough plots in it to be the start of multiple series, not just one. It is a fantasy, set in a world where magic definitely exists but is definitely dangerous – mostly to those who practice it, who are publicly drowned in so-called Cleansings. It is a coming-of-age novel about 16-year-old Julia, who has the ability to become unseen – not invisible, just unnoticed – and may have inherited it (and who knows what else) from her mother, who was drowned for being a witch. It is a murder mystery: someone or something is stalking the streets and environs of Spira City, killing people apparently randomly. It is a power-of-the-pen tale, quite literally: the banned witches exercise their evil (or perhaps not so evil) powers by writing things down. It is a 21st-century version of those Victorian Gothic tales of wives and relatives kept in the attic, except that here it is more a matter of weird beast creatures kept in a basement. There are so many plot strands here that it is easy to become confused, knowing that they will all be patched together as the series progresses but suffering, during this first entry, from never being quite sure what connects to what else and how. Furthermore, the book is a kind of alternative-world story as well as a fantasy: It is almost but not quite historical fiction, with familiar our-world elements twisted just enough to show that this is another place. For example, “‘It was Girando’s telescope that struck the first blow against the old beliefs, three hundred years ago,’ said Frederick, smiling at me. ‘Before that, even educated people believed that all the power in the world was of the world. Earth, fire, air, water – the spirits or gods called Arde, Feo, Brise, and Shui.’ …He points at one of the smallish spheres. ‘That is out planet, Earth. Do you see? We are not even the largest of the planets circling the sun. Here is the moon, circling us. This nearest planet to us is Merus, the Red Soldier. And here is Valia, the Silver Princess, Earth’s twin.’” On top of all this, the book is a family drama – not only because of Julia’s dead mother but also because she has a crippled brother, Dek, who cares deeply for her and is very smart; he is not much developed in this first book but may become more important later. Indeed, there is a lot that is not highly developed here: the entire book feels like a setup for later ones. What rescues Julia Vanishes from mediocrity, though, is the skill with which Egan paints her characters in a few lines and with a few descriptive phrases – plus the character of Julia herself. She is the typical strong female protagonist found in many books for teenage readers (this one is for ages 14 and up), but she is far from a “good” character: she is a thief and spy, and proud of it, using her ability to be unnoticed to further her exploits and coming only gradually to believe that maybe there is more to life that ferreting out or removing other people’s knowledge and possessions. Julia narrates the book, but there are also third-person-narrative chapters that advance the story. Some readers will find them useful, while others may consider them stylistically intrusive, but they do provide a perspective beyond Julia’s and give information of which Julia herself cannot possibly be aware. Readers’ attraction to this book will be almost wholly dependent on how they respond to Julia. Strong but flawed, knowledgeable about some things but ignorant about many others, skilled but in ways that readers are meant to perceive as negative (the spying even more than the thievery), she has a strong personality, a cynical view of the world, and even, apparently, the ability – rare in novels for this age range – to make difficult romantic decisions without going through a hundred pages of angst. There is too much happening in Julia Vanishes for readers easily to take hold of everything Egan is doing or planning, but those willing to grasp Julia herself as the story’s anchor will find the book well worth reading and its coming sequels much to be desired.
Speaking of the hundred-pages-of-angst style of writing, Shelley Noble has it down pat in Forever Beach, which is actually angst-drenched for nearly all its 400-plus pages. The book is an old-fashioned heart-tugger, a weepy story whose contemporary twists do nothing to disguise its fusty insistence on the importance of warm friendships to resolve a plot and the use of unbelievable coincidence to move it along. The modernity, what there is of it, comes from this being a single-mother adoption story, not the sort of thing the Victorians would deem suitable for mass consumption. The would-be adoptive mom, Sarah Hargreave, deeply loves her foster daughter, Leila; but in the middle of the adoption process, Leila’s drug-addicted biological mother, Carmen Delgado, reappears unexpectedly and petitions the court for the return of her daughter. The reappearance and the heartbreak it causes Sarah are not surprising or coincidental – such things do happen, rather often, in the foster-care and adoption systems. But then, to avert the loss of Leila, Sarah and her social worker seek the help of a prominent family lawyer, Ilona Cartwright – who turns out to be someone with whom Sarah grew up in, yes, a group foster home. And not just any someone: Ilona, then with the name Nonie Blanchard, was Sarah’s best friend forever, until suddenly she wasn’t: a wealthy family adopted her and she left Sarah’s life forever. Now the two, after feelings of betrayal that, it turns out, go both ways, are thrown together for the sake of Leila, and must confront their personal pasts as well as Leila’s future and the vagaries of the adoption process and foster-care system. Oh – and tossed into the mix, almost as an afterthought, is Sarah’s longtime boyfriend, Wyatt, whom she has been keeping at arm’s length while totally focused on adopting Leila. Essentially, the book is about friends who do and do not stand with someone who is undergoing a major life change and significant emotional turmoil; and it is about coming to terms with one’s own past and the resentments of childhood that have a way of hanging on well into one’s adult years. It is a tearjerker for sure, following a predictable story arc that leads to a confrontation between Sarah and Carmen, the abduction of Leila, her rescue thanks to another of those convenient coincidences, and an eventual happy ending. Yes, books like Forever Beach can be cathartic, and anyone involved in the foster-care or adoption system in any way will find parts of this one to which to relate. But Noble lays everything on so thickly and paints her characters with such obvious brush strokes that the story has less power than it might with surer plotting and deeper characterization. It is effective at manipulating readers’ emotions, but by the end, readers may not be pleased at the extent to which they have been manipulated.