July 21, 2016
(+++) TRUE TO TYPE
In the Shadow of the Gods: A Bound Gods Novel. By Rachel Dunne. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
The Fog Diver. By Joel Ross. Harper. $6.99.
The Fog Diver 2: The Lost Compass. By Joel Ross. Harper. $16.99.
There is a reliability to genre novels that makes them attractive to adults and young readers alike. Without knowing a specific author or a specific setting, readers can nevertheless pick up heroic adventure/fantasies with the knowledge that good and evil will be clearly delineated, quests will be undertaken, “guidance” figures will appear as needed, settings will be designed to seem exotic but not so exotic that readers will be genuinely puzzled (as can happen in science fiction), characterization will take a back seat to action, and descriptive passages will be used primarily to heighten tension or elucidate plot points. There are more standard elements than these, but this is a good basic set of them, and all are to be found – for better or worse – in both In the Shadow of the Gods and The Fog Diver and its sequel. Being intended for adults, In the Shadow of the Gods has a particularly gritty feel about it, starting with a first chapter whose sudden outbursts of violence in a suitably portentous setting are intended to convey the seriousness of the issues to be explored. The issues themselves, however, are nothing special, involving the rebellion of certain gods against others and the determination of the defeated ones to return one day and overthrow their oppressors. That those oppressors are the god-father and god-mother of the losers is scarcely unusual in genre novels like this or, for that matter, in many of the mythic systems on which books like Rachel Dunne’s draw willy-nilly. Unfortunately for those seeking a genuine feeling of dark designs within the entirely formulaic setup of the book’s premise, Dunne has assembled a world that is supposed to be totally unlike ours but that somehow seems to use Latin (or at least vaguely Latin-sounding) roots for almost everything of significance. Thus, the elder, “parent” gods are “father” Patharro and “mother” Metherra (pater and mater plus the respective “o” and “a” endings); a helpful priest of those gods is Parro (as in padre); and the numbered acolytes of the fallen Fratarro (frater, brother) and Sororra (soror, sister; and again one “o” ending and one “a”) include Uniro (first), Duero (second), Trero (third), Noviro (ninth), Quindeira (fifteenth), Septeiro (seventeenth), and so on. This is just plain silly – laughably so if you know Latin and Latinate words, as Dunne apparently assumes readers will not. However unintentional, it is also the only thing laughable in a book distinguished as much by its complete humorlessness as by its preoccupation with gore. The novel’s plot jumps and meanders about as plots in this genre generally do, and certainly there is plenty of scheming and violence and plotting and fighting – and some hard-to-fathom plot twists, such as the decision that all twins must be killed at birth because otherwise they will somehow lend strength to Fratarro and Sororra, whose desire, incidentally, is simply to return, overthrow Patharro and Metherra, and plunge the world into everlasting darkness. Ho, hum. Or maybe fee, fi, fo, fum. Dunne does have a generally sure sense of pacing, despite some tendencies to meander and to stretch scenes to and beyond the breaking point; and her limning of the cold wastelands where many scenes take place is well done and produces more chills than does the action. In the Shadow of the Gods is Dunne’s debut novel, and the second part of its title, A Bound Gods Novel, makes it quite clear that there is more to come. So does the book’s conclusion, which unfortunately descends into vastly overdone “revelatory mode” and near incoherence – all in the name of setting up future novels. It is safe to assume that the followups will also be written with a sure hand; a mostly strong, if somewhat inconsistent, sense of pace; and a set of highly predictable occurrences fitting neatly within the book’s well-defined genre.
The genre is the same for The Fog Diver, originally published last year and now available in paperback, and its brand-new sequel, The Lost Compass. The intended audience is different, though: these are books for preteens and young teenaged readers, and as such offer somewhat less extreme violence, a somewhat reduced intensity of action, and fewer grandiose “adult” themes. There is plenty of action, though, even more than Dunne offers, because the fantasy/adventure genre for this age group does not spend time being atmospheric. It is all about camaraderie, the bonds of friendship, ways to support each other, and a constant stream of “Perils of Pauline” occurrences (even though virtually no readers of these books will have any idea as to what Pauline and her perils might mean). Genre stories like this one emphasize the importance of friends and of one’s peer group rather than individuality, and frequently dwell on the evils of the adult world. There is usually a positive adult character or two, cast in the role of mentor and/or rescuer, but the main action and the main success belong emphatically to the young people featured in the story. These two Joel Ross novels fit these elements together neatly. The books take place in a standard-issue future dystopia; in this one, the Earth is cloaked in a white mist that is deadly to people but not to other living things. The mist conceals within it the precious objects of long ago that poor slum dwellers like the four protagonists of the books must hunt for and trade to survive. The first novel neatly sets the scene while presenting the essentially formulaic characters. It is inevitable in stories like this that the members of the central group are different but complementary, and that the most-central of them all has a deep secret that will eventually be revealed. Chess, the 13-year-old “tetherboy” who makes the actual dives into the fog, has that secret: one of his eyes actually appears to contain some of the fog, the result of a vicious experiment conducted by the evil Lord Kodoc in years past. This feature may (or may not) help him survive longer and perhaps find things that others cannot locate. The other young people who crew the airship from which Chess explores are Hazel, the captain; Swedish, the pilot; Bea, the mechanic; and Loretta, the best fighter in the group. All are one-dimensional and are as bold and supportive of Chess as can be. And all four are involved with Mrs. E, a woman who serves as mentor and rescuer but in the course of the story comes (unsurprisingly) to need rescuing herself: she develops a fog-related sickness that subsides long enough for her to play a commanding role one single time, at exactly the right moment in the narrative. There are some clever aspects of The Fog Diver, including misstatements of what the past must have been like (the kids believe there were once a ruling Burger King and Dairy Queen), decisions on what things from olden times have real modern value (paper money is only good for toilet paper), and the fact that Lord Kodoc’s airship is a kind of transformer whose “harmless” version is called the Teardrop while the name of its battle version is an anagram: Predator. Aside from these elements, the book is predictable, including its cliffhanger ending, in which the young people escape from Lord Kodoc and head for the supposed sanctuary of a place called Port Oro.
The Lost Compass picks up there. Far from being a sanctuary – it is a trope of novels like this that supposed havens turn out to be anything but – Port Oro is in danger of being swallowed by the mist. This can only be prevented if someone can find a long-lost object known as the Compass – and, naturally, the only one who may be able to find it is Chess. And so this book’s quest begins. The Compass is said (by legend, of course) to be “a nano-machine that controls the Fog,” and of course legend also says that the Compass “would emerge when the time was right.” The “nano” reference makes sense in context: it was revealed in the first book that the Fog is actually made of nanoparticles, originally designed to stop pollution but then becoming a threat to humanity after a spate of self-determination leads them to conclude that humans are pollutants. This is not particularly believable, but it is important to remember that this story is genre fantasy, not genre science fiction, despite a smattering of science thrown over it as a veneer. What matters here is the seeking and the finding, the revelations of how special Chess is and why, and the true meaning of some of those legends – one character aptly comments, “Sometimes old stories get garbled.” Actually, sometimes language does, too, not only in amusing post-apocalyptic ways but also when Ross has a character use some very old slang indeed as if this sort of language just happened to survive the destruction of most of Earth nearly unchanged: “After hundreds of years, everything got cattywampus.” Eventually, with an inevitable additional confrontation between Chess and Kodoc as a climax, everything gets sorted out, and this particular chess game (surely that is why Ross gave his hero that name) leads inevitably to checkmate of the bad guys. The Lost Compass wraps up the story begun in The Fog Diver, although Ross could probably figure out further adventures to tag onto this second one – and probably will, if fans of the books decide they want once again to revisit this particular version of an exciting but ultimately unsurprising genre adventure.