September 04, 2008


Poison Ink. By Christopher Golden. Delacorte Press. $8.99.

The City in the Lake. By Rachel Neumeier. Knopf. $15.99.

Shadows in the Twilight. By Henning Mankell. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

     Readers ages 12 and up who are looking for scares, fairy tales and stories of sensitivity have plenty of places to go, such as these three recent releases. Poison Ink is an intriguing mystery-horror thriller about bonding and tattooing gone wrong. It is about five girls who don’t fit into the usual high-school cliques and decide to form a group of their own, asserting their bonding by getting matching tattoos. But although four of the girls – Caryn, Katsuko, Letty and T.Q. – get the tattoos, the fifth, Sammi, is put off by the appearance of the tattoo parlor and worried about what her parents would say. So she does not get the tattoo – and soon finds the other girls ignoring her. This would be a fairly standard friends-to-enemies high-school story – “as much as it hurt her the way they’d defriended her, she missed them” – if it were not for what Sammi finds while breaking up a fight one day: Letty’s tattoo, originally five waves coming up from a heavy black circle, has grown. Now the lines are longer and are curling, vinelike, in all directions – like something evil spreading all over Letty’s body. “Everything had been poisoned, and the poison was spreading,” Sammi had thought earlier as her former friends turned nasty and started acting out in all sorts of bad-girl ways. Now Sammi knows she was right, but in a way she never expected. The tattoo artist, with the improbable name of Dante, must be behind whatever is happening. And Sammi has nowhere to turn – even a boy named Adam, with whom she has been becoming close, has deserted her after getting text messages, apparently from Sammi, showing her to be a slut who is using him. And there is worse to come, all of it highly melodramatic but quite effective in its one-dimensional way.

     The City in the Lake, Rachel Neumeier’s first novel, is one-dimensional, too, but differently. This is a fairy tale of a fabled city surrounded by old magic that has become unbalanced since the land’s prince has mysteriously disappeared. At the center of the story is a girl named Timou, who lives in a village a four-to-five-day walk from the city and is learning to be a mage and healer – but who is pulled into the matter of the missing prince after her father joins the search for him and fails to return. Timou senses that the mystery of the prince and that of her own unknown mother are somehow related, so she begins her own quest. And when she eventually encounters the prince, Cassiel, she explores his mind and realizes, as he himself does not, that “you are the heart of the Kingdom. …You are the source of power, and your power is the Kingdom.” Mage meetings, castle politics, and a source of potent evil are all part of the tale, and when the identity of Timou’s mother is finally revealed, there is nothing happy about the knowledge. The book is filled with the usual portentous dialogue – “the dark is most powerful when it breaks into the light,” for example – but the characterizations are strong, and Timou’s final journey is an interesting one. This is a book that successfully masters many of its own clichés.

     Shadows in the Twilight is cliché-ridden, too, but in another way. This is a very earnest novel, intended as a companion to Henning Mankell’s previous book, A Bridge to the Stars, which was a coming-of-age novel filled with affecting if superficial emotional insight. Shadows in the Twilight revolves around the same central character, Joel Gustafson, who in the new book is almost 12 years old and thoroughly bored with his community. Then he is run over by a bus – but emerges completely unhurt. And so he decides to repay the favor, whatever it was and however it came about, by doing a good deed for someone else. The plot machinery is pretty creaky, since what Joel decides to do has no direct relationship to what happened to him: he determines to find a husband for Gertrud, a shy young woman he knows. But his elaborate plans, which involve first finding the right man and then secretly bringing man and woman together, go badly awry, and he ends up being hurtful rather than helpful. Joel talks and thinks in capitalized words – what happened to him was the Miracle, and he will start a Secret Society someday, and the disappointing person he tried to find to marry his friend is the Caviar Man, not to be confused with the Barefooted Man, and so on. Joel’s grandiose thoughts contrast with his extreme naïveté in ways that are sometimes cringe-inducing, and when he finally reveals his plot to Gertrud and suffers as a result (both emotionally and physically), it is really no more than he deserves. Mankell tries too hard in this book to evoke sympathy and empathy for Joel. Shadows in the Twilight will appeal to readers who wanted to know more about Joel after reading A Bridge to the Stars, but it is not a particularly satisfying book on a standalone basis.

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