March 30, 2017
(++++) FUN AND EVERLASTING LIFE (FOR KIDS AND ADULTS)
Who Let the Gods Out? By Maz Evans. Chicken House/Scholastic. $16.99.
Immortal Unchained: An Argeneau Novel (No. 25). By Lynsay Sands. Avon. $7.99.
Ah, immortality. Consider Tithonus, brother of King Priam of Troy, lover of Eos, goddess of the dawn, and one of the saddest characters in all Greek mythology. At Eos’ request, Zeus granted Tithonus immortality, but because she forgot to ask for him to have eternal youth, Tithonus aged and deteriorated and eventually withered – into a cicada, in some versions of the tale. Consider this a cautionary story about getting what you want, or think you want – although neither Maz Evans, writing for young readers, nor Lynsay Sands, writing for adults, will have any of that nonsense about the perils of living forever. There is amusement to be had within the adventures here, yes; but serious points about eternal life and its possible difficulties? Look elsewhere.
What readers will find is an exceptionally amusing preteen fantasy-adventure in Who Let the Gods Out? In this book, the first of a series, Charon ferries characters among the four realms of Elysium, Earth, the Asphodel Fields, and the Underworld, delightedly accepting a blue button instead of 3,000 drachma as his fare and explaining that it is so valuable that it includes his tip. This is a book in which the old gods have retired after Zeus destroys all the Daemons, except for one called Thanatos (the personification of death in Greek mythology), whom he imprisons and who manages to escape by hoodwinking a mortal boy who ends up beneath Stonehenge, where Thanatos has been kept chained. It is a book in which the family farm of said boy, Elliott Hooper, is under threat from development-crazed next-door neighbor Patricia Porshley-Plum, cruelly but aptly nicknamed Horse’s-Bum. It is a book in which the sacred code of the immortals begins with number 1 and then progresses immediately to b, then 7, then xic, then F2, then 39.4, and then xy, and includes everything from “immortals cannot break an oath” to “immortals cannot herd giraffes on a Tuesday.” It is a book in which one immortal, a mere child of 1,964 years named Virgo (as in the constellation of which, yes, she is a personification) makes the mistake of seeking something different in eternal life and ends up on Earth, covered in cow poop, and eventually held responsible for Thanatos’ escape and told (by more-adult personifications of constellations) that she must recapture him without using any of her immortal powers. It is a book with touches of underlying seriousness: Elliott’s mom’s mind is giving way, and the two of them (no dad here) are completely out of money and on the verge of being evicted and having their tumbledown farm foreclosed. But this is really just a plot device to explain why Elliott goes along with Virgo to try to recapture Thanatos – in the same way that Virgo’s entanglement with Elliott is just a plot device to free Thanatos so he can snarl and threaten and generally be the bad guy. Really, there is nothing especially well-plotted in Who Let the Gods Out? But really, it does not matter much. Evans does not hesitate to pull ideas out of nowhere, bring in coincidences willy-nilly, and otherwise manipulate the reader in unconscionable ways that she gets away with only because the book is so doggoned funny and fast-paced and frenetic. A typical line: “‘Don’t worry about matters that your suboptimal mortal intellect can’t understand,’ she said haughtily, her sneakers squelching across the field.” And then there is the matter of the kardia, a kind of soul pendant that is made of different substances depending on what type of immortal is wearing one: Thanatos’ is black, of course, while the one worn by Charon (who announces himself as “proprietor of Quick Styx Cabs”) is glass because he is a Neutral who can “get on fine with all sides.” That includes the fairy yelling loudly into a cell phone, “I CAN’T TALK NOW! I’M ON THE SHIP OF DEATH!” And there is much more of this sort of thing. Young readers will not exactly laugh forever at the happenings in Who Let the Gods Out? But they will laugh throughout the book, and that will be quite enough.
There are amusing elements in Lynsay Sands’ writing, too, and in fact they are much of what distinguishes her from other authors of supernatural fantasy for adults. In other ways, Sands’ books are very much of their genre. For instance, you can tell they are for adults because they are filled with romance and, yes, sex (definitely a no-no in books for preteens, whose fantasies are not supposed to be on that level yet). Immortal Unchained is in fact offered as an “Avon Romance,” but it is that on top of being a fantasy-adventure, not instead of it. Books like this have little in common with the old-fashioned so-called “bodice rippers,” and not only because there is nary a bodice to be seen or ripped. Here the female protagonists are every bit as strong, intense, involved, savvy and, yes, sexy as the men. Sands is quite good at producing books of this type: Immortal Unchained is no less than the 25th book in her Argeneau series. It is a (+++) book partly because it is formulaic but mostly because it is difficult to figure out everything that is going on, and what everyone has to do with everyone else, without already having read at least some of the series’ earlier entries. For example, the central male character here is Domitian Argenis (men in these books invariably have names like Domitian – never, say, John or Pete). Domitian is the brother of Drina, and readers who are not quite sure who Drina is and why the relationship matters will not get many clues here. There is also a character from earlier books named Dr. Dressler, and he is crucial to this book’s plot, but what is also crucial – and not easy to figure out if this is one’s first delving into the Argeneau sequence – is why he was supposed to be one of the good guys in earlier books and why that mattered. In any case, here we have Sands’ version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, with mysteries and diabolical experiments and a fairly hot romance involving Domitian and a cop named Sarita whom Domitian knows to be his “life mate” but who has some growing up (experientially, not chronologically) to do before the two can be as thoroughly and permanently mated as they are destined to be. Actually, it has to be said that Immortal Unchained starts rather slowly and rather obviously, with a character named Lucian (again, it helps to know the earlier books here) telling Domitian not to get onto a helicopter that Domitian promptly gets onto, with the result that Domitian is soon chained to one of those ever-present tables in one of those ever-present secret labs before Sarita frees him, and then – well, there is some of Sands’ welcome trademark humor between the two, as well as a strong physical connection. And of course there is plenty of action, much of it tied to earlier books’ plots involving the mysterious disappearance of immortals for reasons unknown and by means uncertain. All of which Domitian tries to unravel. With Sarita’s help. At bottom, this is little more than yet another of the innumerable rethinkings of Wells’ tale, one of the most frequently updated and imitated of all SF/fantasy stories (and none of the updates, including this one, really holds a candle to the original). On the other hand, there is a certain level of silliness here that is quite different from anything in Wells and also different from the type of humor that is common in books for younger readers, such as Who Let the Gods Out? And Sands does a generally good job of using that silliness to make Immortal Unchained into something more than just another vampire story with vague overtones of Wells’ tale of strange beasts on a strange island. This is not much more than a formulaic series entry, but it is a little more, and that will keep Sands’ fans’ happy – although anyone wondering why people become her fans in the first place will not find out from this book and really needs to go back to earlier novels in the series. Then a newfound fan can look forward to the forthcoming 26th Argeneau book, to be called Immortally Yours.