January 04, 2018

(+++) ADDING HUMOR TO ADVENTURE


How Oscar Indigo Broke the Universe (and Put It Back Together Again). By David Teague. Harper. $16.99.

Daniel Coldstar #1: The Relic War. By Stel Pavlou. Harper. $16.99.

     Excitement is not enough for some authors of novels for preteens – to keep things interesting, they like to add a heaping helping of funny stuff, or at least a touch of it here and there. That this will be the combination in David Teague’s latest book is obvious from its lengthy and partly parenthetical title. The story itself is less unusual, being focused, as so many preteen novels are, on the usual tropes of self-discovery, teamwork, honesty, friendship – all that good stuff that really is good stuff but that comes up so often in books like this that it tends to wear thinner than it does in real life (where it comes up much less frequently). In any case, the plot here turns on one specific fantasy element: Oscar Indigo comes into possession of a watch that can stop time. This is not science fiction but fantasy: how and why the watch works, and all that stuff, is quite irrelevant. What matters is that Oscar is a team-oriented baseball player who in fact does not play at all: he is a perpetual bench-warmer who has never had a hit. But that is all right with him, because he is brimming with team spirit and as such has great value to everybody – as the star player, Lourdes, tells him directly. The problem is that Oscar wants so much to help the team that, when Lourdes is injured and Oscar has to fill in for her, Oscar uses his watch to stop time long enough to arrange a game-winning home run. That does indeed help the team and, not coincidentally, turn Oscar into a hero. But of course Oscar knows he cheated, sort of, by rearranging the universe, so he feels bad – but nowhere near as bad as he is going to feel when he finds out the consequences of his time stopping. Those include flying reptiles out of the dinosaur age, a tsunami, and, ummmm, a second sun. Something is wrong, very wrong, and Oscar knows just what it is and just why. What he does not know, what he must figure out, is what to do to set things right. That sets him on a typical fantasy quest, in the course of which he encounters some bit players who are actually more intriguing in many ways than rather dull Oscar himself. One is Dr. Smiley, who is neither more nor less than the keeper of the universe – a keeper who likes things tidy, which they are not when the time is out of joint (so to speak). Another is the octogenarian woman who once struck out Babe Ruth, Eleanor Ethel Ellington, and if you have not heard of her, you must be living in some other universe. Which is kind of the point of How Oscar Indigo Broke the Universe (and Put It Back Together Again). It is not the main point, though: the primary thing here is the usual affirmation of goodness and team spirit and friendship and all the rest. And all that is well and good, except for the nagging sensation readers may have of having heard all that good stuff before. If they do have that feeling, it is not a case of remaking the universe – it is simply one of remaking story arcs in ways that leave the fundamentals unchanged.

     The story arc of the first book in the planned Daniel Coldstar series is a familiar one as well: much of The Relic War strongly echoes Star Wars. Stel Pavlou uses an old trick of exposition by having the protagonist start out with few memories and gradually regain them, thus bringing readers into the story as the central character himself figures out what is going on. The whole thing starts when Daniel awakens in one of the underground “relic mines,” where kids known as “grubs” search endlessly for mysterious artifacts left behind by some unknown past race and now desired by the usual brutal and evil overlords, or rather Overseers, as they are called here. Daniel does not recognize anyone when he awakens, but the other grubs seem to know him and are surprised to find him among them “again.” So we know Daniel has a past, probably one of some importance, to ferret out. One of the grubs, Blink, helps Daniel understand what is going on in the mines and what he is supposed to do. But as Daniel remembers bits of the past, he starts thinking of escape and the future. Helpfully, Daniel finds a relic powerful enough to defeat the Overseers – Pavlou introduces more-obvious authorial manipulation of the story than is really necessary. Eventually Daniel escapes from the mine, stows away on a cargo spaceship, and finds a mentor in the form of a robotic rat, who eventually connects Daniel with good guys known as Truth Seekers and their organization, the Guild of Truth. If this sounds both confusing and overly complex, that is because it is – and it is obvious, too, with the Guild of Truth quite clearly a white-hat organization while the evil Sinjas (whose name includes “sin” and sounds like “ninjas”) are equally clearly black-hat constructions. Pavlou strives to keep the book moving smartly along with occasional forays into humor and lots of short chapters with cliffhanger conclusions. But The Relic War is mostly a collection of clich├ęs, with dialogue that readers interested in the fantasy/SF genre will find irritatingly familiar (especially when villains are speaking) and with entirely arbitrary “weird characters” (such as ones with fingernails instead of hair) tossed in to diversify the cast a bit. Some of the terms in The Relic War are confusing enough so the back-of-book glossary is helpful, if not absolutely necessary. And it is possible that this series opener is so sprawling and confusing because Pavlou wants to gets all the basics of his imagined universe out there for greater exploration later. Hopefully, if that is the case, future Daniel Coldstar volumes will have greater originality in both plot and characterization than does The Relic War.

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