June 26, 2008


The Dead & the Gone. By Susan Beth Pfeffer. Harcourt. $17.

Seekers #1: The Quest Begins. By Erin Hunter. HarperCollins. $16.99.

Warriors: Firestar’s Quest. By Erin Hunter. HarperTrophy. $7.99.

Warriors (Manga Book 3): Warrior’s Return. Created by Erin Hunter. Written by Dan Jolley. Art by James L. Barry. Tokyopop/HarperCollins. $6.99.

The Percheron Saga, Book Three: Goddess. By Fiona McIntosh. Eos. $14.95.

      Although the quest story is as old as The Odyssey and Gilgamesh, it is still a fertile form for authors, especially useful for exposing heroes to ever-changing dangers and having them go on inner find-yourself quests to parallel the outer ones. The Dead & the Gone is more inward that outward, and it is a book with a very unusual background, being Susan Beth Pfeffer’s second novel on the same subject. The first, Life As We Knew It, was based on the idea of a meteor striking Earth’s moon with enough force to knock the moon into a closer orbit – with disastrous consequences for Earth’s weather. The premise doesn’t stand up scientifically; but what Pfeffer really wanted was a way to get into a story of unanticipated disaster and the reaction to it of ordinary people. Life As We Knew It was the diary of 16-year-old (later 17-year-old) Miranda, living through the aftermath of catastrophe in a small town. The Dead & the Gone is another story of the aftermath of the same catastrophe – this time focusing on Alex Morales, who lives in a big city. This book is not so much a sequel to the other as a parallel novel. Life As We Knew It stood entirely on its own, and so does The Dead & the Gone, but readers will certainly get more of Pfeffer’s worldview and exploration of faith, family and courage by reading both books than by reading either one alone. Pfeffer does not take the easy descent-into-barbarism approach of many apocalyptic novels, preferring to create a world in which people remain basically good (with exceptions, of course), simply trying in their bewilderment and fear to survive as best they can. The book starts on May 18, as the earlier novel did, and runs through December 29; and Alex faces many of the same challenges as Miranda, despite the differences in the novels’ settings. A major one is disease, which claims many lives – almost including Alex’s own. Religious faith is a big part of what pulls Alex and some of his friends through, but most of what matters here is simple courage and the ability to face the challenges of each day anew, without any assurance of living until the end of it. In that respect, Pfeffer’s world is perhaps not all that different from our terrorism-bedeviled one today.

      Nor are the worlds of Erin Hunter so different from our human world, even though Hunter uses animals rather than people as epic heroes. Seekers opens a new series for Hunter, who is best known for her books about cat clans and the feline warriors, medicine cats and hunters who populate them. Seekers shifts the focus to bears, but its themes of power, searching and betrayal will be immediately familiar to fans of Hunter’s other books. In the new series, cubs of three different species – black (Lusa), polar (Kallik) and grizzly (Toklo) – are separated from their families and find themselves searching, initially separately, for food and security. Later joining, they travel toward the Northern Lights as escorts of a mysterious shapeshifting cub who may be destined to bring about the spiritual renewal of all bears. The self-discovery, battles and adventures will be appealing to young readers who already enjoy Hunter’s various Warriors series about cats.

      Those series themselves continue to appear in new forms. Warriors: Firestar’s Quest is now available in paperback. Billed as a “Super Edition” and structured as a story in itself rather than as part of a longer sequence, the book follows the legendary leader of ThunderClan after he discovers that his warrior ancestors have lied to him on a crucial matter. He must leave his home in the forest to discover the truth, entering into what proves to be a lengthy and complex quest indeed. The book runs more than 500 pages and will be of greatest interest to readers already thoroughly immersed in the various Warriors sagas. For those not yet so involved in them, their manga versions may be a good entry point – certainly for younger readers (the novels are intended for ages 10 and up, the manga books for ages 8-12). The third manga adaptation picks up where the second ended, with Graystripe and Millie finding Graystripe’s ancestral home destroyed. Injured by a truck, Graystripe is helped back to health by a truckstop cat named Diesel, and realizes – as Millie stands by him – that he has never told her how much he cares for her. By the time he does, they have taken a long journey together – at the end of which they find at least some of what they have been looking for.

     What adults look for in fantasy quests is somewhat different from what young readers seek; but except for the complexity of the plots and the names of the characters, the books for older and younger readers have much in common. Goddess is the concluding book in Fiona McIntosh’s Percheron Saga, which has been a long journey into and out of the desert surrounding the city-state around which the saga revolves. After establishing the main characters in Odalisque and setting up a conflict involving mortals and gods alike in Emissary, McIntosh deftly pulls the threads of the tale together in Goddess. And there are certainly plenty of threads, as one character explains to Zar Boaz: “My Zar, there is nothing comfortable about your life right now. The Galinseans are threatening to raze your city; a madman rebel has stolen your wife and child, and as there’s no ransom, presumably he’s after something far more sinister. You’ve got your mother acting regent in a palace under threat whilst you’re not sure whether the wife you risk your own life for has a lover who happens to be your own head of security, and, even more tangled, he’s your mother’s new consort!” That is a pretty good summary of where the plot stands a bit more than midway through Goddess. Getting from that point to the end requires a daring rescue, resignation to defeat (“this could be our last night of life and I would rather share it with someone than be alone”), the return of a frightening condition called “the drezden sickness,” a series of body changes by immortals, the awakening of stone giants, and more. Wonder follows wonder in a way wholly typical of tales of this type, with McIntosh reserving a variety of twists and turns for her conclusion – or rather multiple conclusions, for just as she ends one part of the tale, she takes up another until it, too, is finished. All this is quite skillfully done, but even in a trilogy as well-crafted as this, there remain many, many echoes of other quest stories told by this and other writers, and pre-echoes of similar quest tales yet to be written.

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