December 29, 2016
(+++) SOME SCARY STUFF
Nine of Stars: A Wildlands Novel. By Laura Bickle. Harper Voyager. $7.99.
Shadow House #2: You Can’t Hide. By Dan Poblocki. Scholastic. $12.99.
Anyone living in an area in the grip of winter and finding things not cold enough can come to these books, one for adults and one for young readers, for an added helping of chills. Some of the usual willing suspension of disbelief is required, of course; and as is often the case with dark fantasy, a larger helping helps. In the case of Nine of Stars, that disbelief suspension gives entry to an unusually well-written, if entirely genre-bound, novel that is supposed to be the first of a series – but, unfortunately for readers, really isn’t. There is very considerable backstory here, and Laura Bickle uses it skillfully to give her characters greater depth than is usually accorded to participants in supernatural fantasy. The very first time readers meet geologist and protagonist Petra Dee, in a doctor’s office, Bickle draws attention to the scars on her arms: “a burned handprint, slashes, and a pale speckle from corrosive acid,” and then has Petra muse about the handprint being the last touch of a dead lover, the slashes being from an attack by a drug lord, and the speckle coming from the blood of a basilisk. This instantly and effectively shows readers that Petra lives in a world like and also quite unlike ours, and gives a hint of her background, prior adventures and how she has become the person she now is. It also immediately piques the reader’s curiosity – but Bickle does not give detailed information on Petra’s intriguing past, leaving readers hanging. The same is true for Petra’s boyfriend (and, later, husband), Gabriel: we quickly learn that he is a once-supernatural creature turned fully human. In his case, that fact does get explored more fully, because of its importance to the plot – but of his earlier life, we get at most dribs and drabs rather than the fuller explanation that Bickle makes readers eager to obtain. And then there is Petra’s father, a fascinating minor character who is an alchemist but not quite in his right mind because of early-onset Alzheimer’s, and is in a nursing home and only occasionally lucid – what exactly is his story? And what is the background of another intriguing minor character, Maria Yellowrose? These and other difficulties with Nine of Stars flow from the fact that the book is not really the first in its sequence. It is Bickle’s third book, after Dark Alchemy and Mercury Retrograde, but the first two were digital-only publications that readers of traditional printed books are unlikely to know. Nine of Stars actually continues the stories of the earlier novels, so Bickle’s brief back-references to prior events make sense to anyone reading this book as a new adventure – but remain tantalizingly opaque to people meeting Petra here for the first time. The story of Nine of Stars is nevertheless an effective and well-told genre tale. It involves supernatural evil dwelling in and emerging from the vast wilderness around Temperance, Wyoming, where Petra and Gabe live. Gabe, although now human, is 150 years old and a former Pinkerton agent, transformed by alchemical processes into something called a Hanged Man; he is the last of that kind, all the others having perished when a nasty piece of work named Sal Rutherford burned a mystical and potent tree called the Lunaria. Rutherford’s cousin, Owen, is now sheriff in Temperance, and he is probing the death of Sal and the Hanged Men (not that he knows that is what they are). This puts him on the trail of Gabe and Petra, who are themselves on the trail of a strange wolf-killing supernatural being called Skinflint Jack. There is really quite a lot going on here, and Bickle juggles the various plot elements skillfully and writes about them convincingly, pacing the book well and keeping its progress satisfying while leaving plenty of room for successor novels to explore the territory further. Nine of Stars is well crafted and well presented – although the abrupt cliffhanger ending is a cheap trick, well beneath the quality of what has come before. In general, the characters are interesting enough so readers will want to know more of them in the future. But the full flavor of the book is missing, except for digital-novel-oriented readers who already have more information on these characters’ pasts than Bickle reveals here.
The pasts do not much matter in Dan Poblocki’s Shadow House trilogy, and in any case the characters do not have them going back very far – this is a novel for preteens and young teenagers, after all. The house of the series title is described as a place “where past and present intertwine,” but really it is simply a place where various spooky things happen for no particularly discernible reason, until some sort of explanation is pulled out of pretty much anywhere or nowhere. The second book in the series, You Can’t Hide, follows essentially the same path as the first, The Gathering, in which the five protagonists of the series were brought to the house through different means: Poppy, living in an orphanage, got a letter inviting her to live in her great-aunt’s mansion; Marcus was invited to a music school; Azumi was invited to a school as well – in her case, a prestigious and academically challenging one; and brothers and sitcom stars Dash and Dylan were invited to film a horror movie. Someone nefarious is pulling the strings here – that is for sure, and is always the case in books of this sort – and You Can’t Hide starts with Dylan meeting someone who fills the evil-character bill, a person named Del Larkspur who manipulates or hypnotizes or otherwise squooshes Dylan into a role called “The Trickster.” Then the four other group members find themselves separated – of course, since that weakens the group dynamic that lies at the center of success in books for this age group. The separation happens after a confrontation with two honest-to-goodness adults who turn out to be neither honest nor good nor, it seems, adults: they are the usual shadowy and drooling figures of evil who adorn not-very-creatively-haunted houses. “What’s wrong? Only everything!” muses Dash at one point, in what passes for introspection here. Actually, that summation is just about right. The house changes shape for no apparent reason except to confuse the stalwart kids; and oddities appear as needed, such as a second Azumi – no one is sure who is who, but at least the two are readily distinguishable because one has short hair and one has long hair. “Everything here is trying to divide us up. We have to stick together,” says sensible Poppy, and she is as correct in her observation as Dash is in his. For his part, Dylan, who is a little slow on the uptake, eventually realizes that the mask Del gave him – and which Dylan finds he cannot remove – is in charge of his actions: “Dylan knows that he’s not in control anymore.” Another trenchant observation. Eventually the plucky kids meet Cyrus Caldwell, the onetime director of Larkspur Home for Children, which is what the building was before it became Shadow House – but instead of being a tower of evil, he is a sick, disfigured, stuttering old man who, when Marcus says he is evil, replies, “Oh, how I w-wish it were that simple.” Really, although matters here are not simple, they are certainly formulaic, and it is quite certain that all will be revealed and explained in the forthcoming third book of the Shadow House trilogy. And it is likely that in that book as in this one and the first, Poblocki’s creepy illustrations will do a good deal more to produce wintry chills than will his straightforward writing style and mostly easy-to-anticipate plot twists.