Life As We Knew It. By Susan Beth Pfeffer. Harcourt. $17.
The Gateway Trilogy, Book Two: Winter Door. By Isobelle Carmody. Random House. $16.95.
The Magician Trilogy, Book One: The Snow Spider. By Jenny Nimmo. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
There’s nothing enjoyable about winter in any of these books, which use it for purposes from science fiction to fantasy. The best novel here, and the only one that stands on its own, is Life As We Knew It, which posits a bit of scientific absurdity but then handles the consequences with chilling (literally chilling) realism. Susan Beth Pfeffer, author of more than 70 books, here imagines a meteor striking Earth’s moon with enough force to knock the moon into a closer orbit – with disastrous consequences for Earth’s weather. It is best not to examine the premise too carefully, because it doesn’t stand up scientifically; but what Pfeffer really wants is a way to get into a story of unanticipated disaster and the reaction to it of ordinary people. The book is told as the diary of a girl named Miranda, who – with her mother and two brothers – lives through the lunar disaster, then tries to survive after volcanic eruptions and other disturbances have occurred and the Earth has settled into a deep, gray winter. It’s literally gray – the snow isn’t white anymore, and there is a lot of it – and everyday life becomes a series of harrowing struggles, never more so than when a flu epidemic hits and there is not much anyone can do but hope that some people will survive. Miranda is realistic enough to be depressed and unhappy much of the time – and worried about her father, whose new wife was due to have a baby around the time of the catastrophe. And Pfeffer is a good enough writer to leave plenty of loose ends at the novel’s conclusion – as would be expected in the diary of a teenager (Miranda turns 17 during the book). The oft-anticipated predatory behavior of humans after a disaster is absent here, perhaps unrealistically, as everyone hunkers down and tries to make it through just one more day. This is truly a winter’s tale.
Winter Door and The Snow Spider are, respectively, the second and first parts of fantasy trilogies, and are more formulaic than Pfeffer’s SF novel. Winter Door starts with the worst winter on record – though it does not compare with Pfeffer’s creation – and begins with one foot planted firmly in reality: Rage Winnoway is worried about her mother, who has still not fully recovered from a car crash, and is also increasingly worried about the school bully, Logan. But this book keeps its other foot firmly in fantasy, with Rage concerned about the effectiveness of the healing magic she has found, and disturbed because her only friend, Billy Thunder, has – again – turned into a dog. This is a story of two worlds, as was the first book of this trilogy, Night Gate. Rage is having dreams about a threat, unnatural creatures seem to be lurking in the woods, and even the snow seems somehow abnormal. It goes without saying – but Isobelle Carmody says it anyway – that Rage’s dreams are true and that there is again a threat that Rage must counter, even at high personal cost.
Personal cost is a mainstay of fantasy, and it appears as well in Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider, originally published in England in 1986. Here we have a traditional fantasy plot: a spell has been cast on Gwyn’s family, and Gwyn may be able to break it with magic – if he truly has magical ability. Gwyn, who somewhat resembles a young Harry Potter (Gwyn is nine), has no real friends to turn to; even his parents are distant, ever since the mysterious disappearance of Gwyn’s sister, Bethan. Nimmo is most effective at portraying Gwyn’s loneliness, which only becomes more acute after five gifts from his grandmother reveal that he does indeed have magical prowess. His ability makes Gwyn more isolated than ever – there are no good friends versed in magic here. But there is plenty of wonder, including the spider of the title, whose name is Arianwen and who spins magical cities and flying ships. A strange young girl named Eirlys (“snowdrop” in Welsh) also figures in the wintry plot, which comes to a climax with a frightening rescue scene that hints of what is yet to come as The Magician Trilogy continues.
October 19, 2006
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