February 14, 2008


Darkside, Book I. By Tom Becker. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

The Midnight Library, Volume VIII: The Deadly Catch. By Damien Graves. Scholastic. $5.99.

      There have been many tales of the dark side of life, of places where evil runs rampant, where everyday lives are as steeped in depravity as more-familiar everyday lives are filled with pleasantries. The whole idea of darkness existing alongside the good is as familiar as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But if split personalities are nothing new, Tom Becker’s Darkside is nevertheless a book that feels new, because it is about the split personality of a city, not a person. “Many years ago, during the reign of that hag Victoria, the authorities decided to clean up the streets [of London],” one character explains. “Their gleaming city was too good for the likes of us. So they rounded up our grandparents – all the freaks, lowlifes, and criminals they could find – and herded them into this one area. We’re their descendants. Everyone in Darkside has evil in their veins – some just have more than others.” Now that’s a neat setup – but the book would not work if it focused only on Darkside and those who live there. Becker knows enough about plotting to create a young hero with whom readers can identify – his name is Jonathan Starling – and give him a mysterious connection to Darkside that has placed him in great danger, forcing him to find his way to this evil place in order to unravel the twisted skein of his own identity and family background. This is scarcely a new plot device, but Becker handles it well and parcels out the revelations skillfully. Darkside doesn’t appear on maps and is outside the consciousness of everyday “Lightside” Londoners, but there is more to it than that: “To come to Darkside you’ve got to think differently. There’s so much evil in the air that you’ve got to open your mind to it all, or it’ll drive you insane.” Easier said than done for decidedly non-evil Jonathan – who, it soon turns out, is being sought by one of the most evil Darksiders of all, a man with the singularly appropriate name of Vendetta. In a neat twist, Vendetta hires a foul and much-feared detective to find Jonathan – but that detective has actually become Jonathan’s protector. And there are additional twists throughout the book, both in Darkside and in Lightside (after Jonathan gets back in a mundane but surprising way). Becker ends the book satisfactorily, too, not forcing readers to wait for the coming sequel, Lifeblood, to get answers to a number of questions. But readers will want that sequel by the time they go through all the excitement of this initial story.

      The Midnight Library is now in its eighth volume, offering far more formulaic horror than Darkside provides. These are reliable, mildly spooky books written under the pseudonym Damien Graves by a number of authors. In the case of The Deadly Catch, which gets a (+++) rating, the stories are by Allan Frewin Jones, who has contributed to this series before and handles its basics well. The title story here is about two boys who go kayaking, get into mysterious trouble involving something in the water, think they have been rescued by a passing boat, but find out otherwise. “The Trap” is a rather silly piece about what would happen if mice became intelligent, banded together and turned the tables on humans – nothing that hasn’t been done many times before. “Sticks and Stones” has been done before, too: girl buys something in a mysterious store that has disappeared when she goes back; that something (lip gloss, in this case) turns out to have magical powers; but the powers involve hurting people; and eventually they are turned on the girl herself. As always in The Midnight Library, it is not enough to be a basically good kid – something bad’s gonna get ya anyway. That’s the main chill factor in The Deadly Catch and its predecessors. It’s not much, but young readers looking for a touch of a scare that arrives quickly and can easily be forgotten will find this latest book as effective as the earlier ones.

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