July 30, 2009


Alyzon Whitestar. By Isobelle Carmody. Random House. $17.99.

Fairy Tale. By Cyn Balog. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Will teens ever tire of supernaturally tinted coming-of-age novels? Apparently not anytime soon, if the ongoing production of these books is any indication. Both experienced writers, such as Isobelle Carmody, and newcomers, such as Cyn Balog, clearly feel there is still plenty of life in this fantasy subgenre – and certainly these authors’ new books are lively enough, even if neither really offers anything new or unusual.

     Carmody’s Alyzon Whitestar – the title character has a perfect name for this subgenre – features an ordinary girl with an out-of-the-ordinary family, who then has an accident that makes her something beyond the ordinary, too. Accidents in novels like this, as in superhero comics, rarely destroy or disfigure – they add powers. The nature of Alyzon’s new ability is the cleverest thing in the book: she develops an extraordinarily heightened sense of smell. Yes, all her senses become more fine-tuned, but smell – which tends to get short shrift in both mainstream and romance writing – develops the most strongly. She does not simply smell body odor or perfume – she smells people’s essential natures, their moods, their intentions. Some of what Alyzon discovers is not exactly surprising: readers will figure out quickly why the cutest boy in school smells so bad to Alyzon. And some of Alyzon’s reactions to her newly developed powers are straight out of superhero comics – she “cursed her carelessness” after almost revealing her smell-related abilities to a friend, because “I didn’t want her to change the way she acted toward me. Wasn’t that the whole reason I had decided to keep my extended senses secret?” Alyzon soon finds her heightened abilities putting her in touch with the depths of other people’s imaginations – and dredging up thoughts and emotions that shake her to the core. Furthermore, it turns out that Alyzon’s own family (musical father and artistic mother) may be in danger. Alyzon does end up confiding in close friends, who believe her about her powers (perhaps a shade too easily), and she finds herself getting even more deeply into people’s essences (“I had the utterly strange and dreadful impression that something dark and ancient was looking at me out of [his] eyes”). A grand confrontation and a major sacrifice by Alyzon lead to a well-paced conclusion that neatly ties up the book’s many threads – but these are threads with which many other self-discovery books involving the supernatural have been sewn.

     The bland title of Fairy Tale leads into a story that, if not dull, is thoroughly familiar. It’s one of those torn-between-two-worlds tales, about what happens to two almost-16-year-old lifelong friends when it turns out that one of them is not human after all – and is destined to become king of the fairies. That would be Cam Browne, who lives next door to Morgan Sparks and has been her best friend forever…and now, with hormones doing their predictable teenage thing, is bound up with Morgan in all sorts of mutual attractions. Morgan, although thoroughly human, is a much more interesting character than Cam, the changeling who starts changing into what he needs to become in order to be Fairy King. Morgan realizes that something is wrong even before Cam explains his heritage and destiny; Morgan comes up with a plan to fool the fairies and keep Cam with her; and Morgan is the one who starts to have doubts about any future with Cam as it becomes increasingly evident that he is indeed one of the fairy race. Morgan is the book’s narrator, and she’s good at it: “My parents are the world’s youngest senior citizens.” “I’m sitting in the front office with a bald Goth girl in a Kill Your Mother T-shirt and a dude who appears to have forgotten to wear his pants today, since he’s just wearing white boxers.” “She looks like hair gel to me.” “Relaxing, not completely but just enough so that my heart isn’t pounding out of my chest, I go back to my Fluffernutters. Morgan comes across as a real-world, grounded person – but instead of that making her situation somehow more believable, it makes it less so. Complicating the book is the character of Pip, the healthy human boy taken by the fairies when Cam, who was sickly and not expected to survive, was left among humans. The fairies return now-teenage Pip so Cam can come back to them, and Pip is key to the plan to outwit the fairies so Cam can stay with Morgan, but it turns out that fairies cannot truly love, and everything involving Pip and Cam gets (predictably) tangled, and of course there is a fairy enemy for Morgan to drive everything to a climax, and – well, pretty much everyone except Morgan is pretty much predictable pretty much all the time, and pretty much everything that happens is pretty much to be expected. Balog has managed to create an attractive and interesting protagonist – but even Morgan’s spirited narration cannot make Fairy Tale come across as much more than formulaic.

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