May 25, 2006


Seeker: Book One of the Noble Warriors. By William Nicholson. Harcourt. $17.

Gregor and the Marks of Secret: Book Four in the Underland Chronicles. By Suzanne Collins. Scholastic. $16.99.

     Most fantasy-adventure stories for preteens and young teenagers are “finding yourself” tales: the heroic quest, whatever it may be, is an outward manifestation of an inner search to decide who you are, what you will become, and where you fit in the world.  It’s all very Jungian, as the authors of these books seem to know well (if more intuitively than intellectually).  A couple of sentences in Seeker encapsulate that book and many others of its kind: “She was ordinary in every way, and had no reason to think she was different from everyone else.  But she was.”  This is the inmost belief of many, many readers in this book’s target age range of 12 and up – and, truth be told, of many adults as well (hence the popularity of adult quest fiction, which is another story, if a related one).

     Well-written books of this type disguise their essentially formulaic plots beneath a wealth of action scenes, assorted red herrings, and, in general, a fair helping of magic.  Seeker is well written – and it has an interesting gimmick that sets it apart from (if not above) other novels of this type: despite the singular title, there are three seekers here.  One, the eponymous 16-year-old hero, intends to join the Nomana, a band of fighting monks whose name means Noble Warriors.  They live in a castle-cum-monastery and protect the All and Only, the god who made all things.  But Seeker is not the only one wishing to join the Nomana.  Morning Star, who is also 16, has long wished to join and is now on a journey to make her dream come true.  The third seeker (and in some ways the most interesting) is a river bandit known simply as the Wildman, who is bested by the Nomana and, impressed, determines to become one of them.  The fates of these three protagonists intertwine in predictably unpredictable ways: we know there will be twists, coincidences and chance meetings, even if we don’t know specifically what they will be or where or when they will occur.  The action takes place against a backdrop of enemies seeking to destroy the All and Only.  Seeker introduces its characters effectively, moves its plot along nicely and sets up future books skillfully, though it is not, in the final analysis, unique or even especially creative in plot.

     The Underland Chronicles actually were creatively plotted in the beginning, but now, in the fourth book, they are starting to wear thin.  This series targets readers ages 9-12 and remains fast-paced enough – and simply enough plotted – to engage them.  But after Gregor the Overlander, Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane and Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods, there is little new to learn about Underland here.  In each prior book, Gregor has fulfilled a prophecy, wittingly or unwittingly, but there seems to be no such mystical road map here: Gregor simply joins the young queen Luxa on a quest to find out why mice are disappearing from Underland.  Luxa credits the mice with saving her life and seeks to find out what has happened to them; Gregor comes along to help.  Of course, if turns out that things are darker and less straightforward than they seem at first, and there is a prophecy involved, after all – one that will put Gregor to the ultimate test in the fifth book of the series, which is supposed to be the last.  Gregor and the Marks of Secret reads more like a setup for that finale than a solid book in its own right.  It has moments of danger and excitement, but it seems more a placeholder than a self-contained adventure.  Only in the fifth book will we find out for sure if this story of missing mice is a crucial puzzle piece.

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