August 13, 2009


Rapacia: The Second Circle of Heck. By Dale E. Basye. Random House. $16.99.

Magic Can Be Murder. By Vivian Vande Velde. Graphia. $6.99.

     Dale E. Basye still can’t quite get his hands around what is basically a wonderful concept: Heck, a place not quite as dismal as “h-e-double-hockey-sticks,” as Satan’s darker realm is referred to, but certainly not at all heavenly – except that there is some commerce, it turns out, between Heck and Heaven. In fact, in Rapacia, there is literally commerce between the realms, as the Galactic Order Department (GOD) supplies goods for Mallvana, an eternal-shopping-spree-come-true for both good souls (who sprout tiny wings that eventually grow) and bad ones. If this sounds confusing, it is only one off-balance element of Basye’s second novel, which follows Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go as a further exploration of the not-quite-ultimately-awful afterlife. Basye can’t seem to make up his mind whether he is writing a romp or a story with serious undertones. In the first book, 11-year-old Milton Fauster – who doesn’t really belong in Heck – ends up there anyway because of a hinted-at plot involving the forces of goodness. Will he escape? No one ever has. But he does. However, in Rapacia, the movement between Heck and earthly life has become a lot more frequent: Milton ends up returning to Heck and another character – the evil bully Damian Ruffino – ends up back on Earth. So much for consistency. Rapacia also features a weird “vice principal” – supposed assistant to Bea “Elsa” Bubb – called the Grabbit, a metal creature that speaks in rhymes and has powers of which even Lucifer isn’t quite sure. The Grabbit is somehow connected with a virtual performer named Yojuanna B. Covetta who at one point seems central to the plot but then eventually just disappears (and Basye seems to forget about Milton by the end of the book, too). Oh yes, the plot: much of it revolves around Milton’s kleptomaniac sister, 13-year-old Marlo, who does belong in Heck but who morphs from bad girl to sort-of-heroic bad girl in the course of the novel. Basye tosses around some amusing puns (one store is called “Halo/Good Buy,” and Milton – while on Earth – visits the Paranor Mall); and some of the scenes, such as one in which Milton is disguised as a stick of butter, are hilarious. Basye also includes grotesquely distorted historical characters as “teachers” in Heck. Alice Ivers Tubbs, perhaps the best known woman poker player in the Old West, is known as “Poker Alice” in legend and in the book, and Basye makes her a great deal more unpleasant than she was in real life. Fredericka "Marm" Mandelbaum was no angel – she was a famed criminal fence in 19th-century New York, who eventually escaped to Canada with a million dollars – but Basye makes her simply unpleasant. He is gentler in his treatment of Grace O’Malley (real name: Gráinne Ní Mháille), a famed Irish noble who once met Queen Elizabeth I (they spoke to each other in Latin) – but he still portrays her as a pirate whose speech is rather illiterate. Of course, Basye does not tell readers that some of his characters are distortions of real people, and few grown-ups will have any knowledge of the historical figures on whom those three teachers are based; but adults will at least realize that Heck’s competing poets, Byron and Keats, have real-world counterparts. In any case, Rapacia – intended for ages 9-12 – is something of a mishmash, as if Basye throws lots of little bits of plot at the page and follows this bit through while abandoning that bit and halfheartedly handling that other one. Maybe he intends to resolve some of what is left hanging in Rapacia in his planned next book about Heck, Blimpo. It would be nice if he brought more focus and organization to that book to balance the madcap elements that he already does so well.

     There is nothing amusing in Magic Can Be Murder, one of prolific author Vivian Vande Velde’s many explorations of the outré. Originally published in 2000 and now available in paperback, it is the story of mother and teenage-daughter witches who spend all their time moving from town to town, doing odd jobs, because they fear being exposed as magic practitioners and burned at the stake if they spend too much time in one place. The problem is that the mother, Mary, draws constant attention to herself through her apparent insanity, which involves (among other things) talking constantly to her daughter’s dead father and grandma, and an abbot, and a Mother Superior, and someone called King Fenuku, all of whom live in her head – and also talking to a baby that lives in her finger. This is more than an embarrassment to 17-year-old daughter Nola: it is an immensely heightened risk. Besides, neither Nola nor her mother really does much magic – the one spell they perform (repeatedly) is a sort of “far-seeing,” dropping someone’s hair in water and thus being able to see what that person is doing, no matter how far away he or she is. It is in one such far-seeing episode that Nola witnesses a murder, which she fears will be blamed on her and her mother – not a very rational fear in terms of the plot, but then, very few of Nola’s actions are entirely rational. And that is the problem with the book: readers are supposed to like Nola and will want to like her, but in many ways this teenager seems no more mature than she was at age five – her age when we first meet her. Nola makes mistake after mistake, repeatedly choosing the wrong course of action, and pulling apparently innocent people into trouble as a result. Vande Velde eventually shows that some of those people are only apparently innocent, and makes sure to give the bad characters their just deserts. But the way she does this – and arranges a very happy ending indeed for Nola and Mary – is just too contrived. And Vande Velde is less careful with plot here than she usually is. For example, she makes it clear that Mary’s outbursts are nearly constant and that the woman can barely take care of herself without Nola’s aid – but when Nola is forced apart from her mother for many days by the circumstances of the story, Mary gets along just fine and actually helps produce the happy ending. Magic Can Be Murder is an enjoyable bit of light reading, and Vande Velde’s pacing is as expert as ever, but this is scarcely one of the author’s more magically satisfying offerings.

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