February 22, 2007


The New Policeman. By Kate Thompson. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Swordbird. By Nancy Yi Fan. HarperCollins. $15.99.

      An Irish fairytale for musicians, The New Policeman is a complex, neatly woven, multilevel story in which Kate Thompson bites off more than she can chew but makes the digesting both easy and pleasant. The basic “quest” plot here is a staple of fantasies for both adults and teenagers (the book is intended for ages 12 and up), and the initial setup of the story is thin: the mother of protagonist J.J. says what she wants for her birthday is more time, so J.J. sets out to find her some. Furthermore, the basic fantasy premise here has often been used before: a “leak” between our everyday world and the world of magic. But despite these unpromisingly ordinary elements, The New Policeman is a delight to read, especially if you can read music as well as words. Chapter after chapter ends with a reference to music and the actual score of a song. “I suppose we’ll play a tune,” says one character at the end of a chapter, and Thompson presents the music for “The Teetotaller.” In another chapter, J.J. hears an old story; is told that “from that day to this, there has always been music in this house”; and the sheet music for “The Priest and His Boots” follows. The New Policeman is, in fact, a treasure trove of Irish folk tunes (the title tune, “Lucy Campbell,” “The Wise Maid,” “The Fair-Haired Boy,” “The Lad That Can Do It,” and many more), plus an occasional newly composed tune (“The White Donkey,” by Thompson herself). The focus on the end-of-chapter music, though, does tend to crimp some of the writing style, and the complexity of the plot melds uneasily with the musical theme: there is the search for time, or specifically for a place where time stands still; the mystery of the new policeman himself; a possible murderer in J.J.’s family background; and more. The book is well written and often exciting, and the musical selections come more and more to reflect J.J.’s feelings as the adventure progresses (for example, “My Mind Will Never Be Easy” and “Far from Home” both appear late in the book). But there may be a touch too much cleverness here for some less musically inclined teenage readers.

      Swordbird has a more straightforward presentation but a more unusual provenance. Nancy Yi Fan wrote it when she was just 11 years old, in 2004; and although English is her second language, it is the language in which she chose to create the story. Swordbird combines elements of a dream the author had about birds at war with her personal feelings about terrorism in the wake of the murderous attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Clearly the then-eight-year-old was deeply affected by the terrorism; her subsequent dream may have been the result. The precociousness of the author recalls that of Christopher Paolini, who wrote the commercially successful Eragon when he was 15. But just as Eragon was essentially a pastiche of heroic fantasies by earlier authors, Swordbird is basically a revamped fairy tale with Aesopian overtones. This does not make it an uninteresting book – in fact, the target audience of readers ages 8-12 will likely find it enthralling – but it does make it the sort of formulaic work that would garner little attention if written by an adult author. Still, taken on its own terms, without lading it with expectations, Swordbird has considerable charm. The simple story is about the peace of Stone-Run Forest – where cardinals and blue jays live together – being disrupted by an evil hawk that turns them against each other. The warring birds eventually discover that it is the hawk that is their true enemy and unite against him – only to find that he is too strong for them, and their only chance is to call upon the Swordbird, son of the Great Spirit. The Swordbird may not even be real…but of course he turns out to be real, and he does save the day, and he leaves behind this message: “Peace is wonderful; freedom is sacred.” Readers will likely wish this were more than a fairy tale.

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