June 17, 2010


Heck Series No. 3: Blimpo—The Third Circle of Heck. By Dale E. Basye. Illustrated by Bob Dob. Random House. $16.99.

Living Hell. By Catherine Jinks. Harcourt. $17.

Ghost Huntress, Book 3: The Reason. By Marley Gibson. Graphia. $8.99.

Frontier Magic, Book One: Thirteenth Child. By Patricia C. Wrede. Scholastic. $9.99.

     Two hardcovers, two paperbacks; one attempt at humor, three at more-serious scariness. In any form, from any angle, there are some hellishly frightening things out there. Or down there, in the case of Dale E. Basye’s Heck series, whose third installment is as initially clever and subsequently overdone as the first two. Basye has a fundamentally wonderful idea: there exists a third realm, neither Heaven nor “h-e-double-hockey-sticks,” where bad but not totally doomed kids go when they die, in which they endure a sort of preteen-to-teenage Purgatory until they get promoted upstairs or demoted downstairs when they reach age 18. But sometimes mistakes are made, and one is certainly made in the case of Milton and Marlo Fauster, victims of an exploding marshmallow mall sculpture. Marlo, a kleptomaniac and Goth girl, may indeed belong in Heck, but Milton, a do-gooder from the word “do,” doesn’t. But he is manipulated there because of something going on in the Galactic Order Department (GOD). Then he escapes. Then he returns (that is, dies again) to try to rescue his sister and his best friend in Heck, Virgil (and the names Fauster, as in Goethe’s Faust; Milton, as in Paradise Lost; and Virgil, as in Dante’s guide in The Inferno, are not coincidences). In Heck, Milton creates chaos of the sort that Heck’s minions do not appreciate wherever he goes – including, in this third book, in Blimpo, where fat boys and girls are condemned to run in hamster-wheel-like DREADmills to produce infernal power to further one nefarious scheme or another. Basye works by throwing out plot point after plot point in almost random order, seeing which ones stick and postponing resolutions of the others until later books (the fourth, already being planned, will be called Fibble and devoted to the circle for liars). A lot of this is awfully amusing, but much of it is amusingly awful – and it is hard to tell which description Basye prefers. In the earlier books, he liked to drag in obscure historical characters as teachers and hangers-on; here, he uses better-known people, including Jack Kerouac, Fats Waller, Elvis Presley and King Tantalus. In the earlier books, a lot of the spice came from Marlo’s attitude, but in Blimpo she seems to have had a personality transplant that is not for the better, losing her ability to talk back and to give better than she gets, and eventually falling for a ruse so transparent that even the naïve Milton would have seen it coming. Also, the plot elements involving Damian, a horrid bully who pursued Milton in life and in Heck before himself being reborn, are really creaky – the most Damian can say for himself, when asked what he really desires, is, “I guess what I want most is for everyone else to be miserable.” BOR-ing. The squabbling angels who appear in one chapter are dull and rather silly, too – these are the good guys? The book’s grand finale is well done – Basye pulls lots of things together while deliberately leaving loose ends for later books – and so are Bob Dob’s chapter-heading illustrations, although their repetitiousness becomes tiresome after a while. The Heck series remains clever, but keeps slipping into the category of “too clever for its own good.”

     Living Hell is scary and entirely serious, but perhaps too serious for its own good. This is a science-fiction tale with a plot as well-worn as they come: passengers aboard a star-faring ship suddenly threatened by unspeakable evil. In this case, the ship (in a common SF theme) is traveling for generations toward some unknown new planet, and supplying all the passengers’ needs. But then something happens to its CAIP – “Core Artificial Intelligence Program” – and the ship’s sensors start to perceive the passengers as invaders to be destroyed. In other words, the ship becomes a sort of living body whose inner defense mechanisms – in the form of various types of machinery – are programmed to get rid of the “infection” of all the people. There is nothing especially new about this idea, but Catherine Jinks handles it stylishly and with a strong sense of pacing, although she does tend toward the melodramatic: “I’ll never forget that moment,” says the narrator, Cheney Sheppard. “It changed everything. …I knew that things would never be all right ever again. I knew that the old world was gone. And I was right.” Most of the book is a struggle for survival against the very ship that has been the means of survival for all the humans. Ship components start to act like “NK cells…Natural Killer cells,” and do all sorts of horrible things to people: “His face was a living nightmare. The skin was mottled with purple blotches; his jaw hung open, exposing a swollen gray tongue; his eyes were swimming, not with tears but with some kind of gluey stuff that dripped like honey. They seemed to be melting away.” Lots of people vomit when they see this sort of thing. Cheney and his friends eventually survive when the ship stops recognizing them altogether – much as a human body does not pay attention to the bacteria in its intestines – but of course the relationship between ship and people is altered forever, and Cheney insists that his cautionary first-person tale is important for future ship dwellers. It is a thrilling genre story, to be sure, but non-fans of SF will find it overheated.

     The third Ghost Huntress book – following The Awakening and The Guidance – is at about the same temperature as the first two. This time, Kendall Moorehead has a dream or vision of her own death, and communicates her feelings in her usual not-very-literate way: “How can I be such a whiny, selfish little me-me-me’er…when nothing’s even happened to me! Get over yourself, Kendall. I mean, Jason and Taylor’s mom is clinging to life. …Like, she could die! Like, Jason and Taylor could be orphans. (Well, not technically, since their dad is alive and well and living in Alaska.) But seriously!” A little of Kendall’s introspection goes a long, long way. But what she mostly does is investigate the paranormal, which in this case involves exploring a mansion in Radisson, Georgia, where she has been warned that a really nasty spook is to be found. Could this be connected with Kendall’s premonition of her own death? Ya think? Kendall is possessed by the angry spirit, and she has a big fight with boyfriend Jason Tillson (“I think my tear ducts are just as horrified as I am”), and she has a near-death experience in which she is told that people “who really matter will stick to you like peanut butter on the roof of your mouth,” and she receives a huge revelation about her family while in her spirit state, and – well, a lot goes on here, none of it the slightest bit believable, but lots of it exciting. And all of it is intended to be uplifting, as when a vengeance-seeking ghost is told, “Life isn’t one big party, ma’am.” And yes, the ghost is supposed to take that statement seriously. “Where do I go from here?” wonders Kendall after events come to a climax. Why, on to the next book, miss….

     After all this seriousness and intensity, Patricia C. Wrede’s Thirteenth Child is a pleasure simply because it is somewhat lighter. Not really light, mind you, but occasionally humorous enough so it makes a pleasant change from all the deep and dark stuff that seems to cluster around tales of ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, on Earth or beneath it. For example, this first book in a series called Frontier Magic contains a scene in which a half-grown mammoth has to be controlled by warding spells. After that is done, “Professor Jeffries called one of the students over, a big man in a long brown muffler, and started giving him what for. Seems he’d been the one to set the mammoth off, flapping his scarf at it to find out what it would do. Professor Jeffries told him that would have been a foolish thing to do to an elderly, well-broken cart horse, and it was downright idiotic to do it to a wild mammoth three times as big.” This is a minor event in the book, but Wrede’s description of it neatly encapsulates the down-home folksiness that she mixes here with magical matters. The focus of the book is Eff, born a thirteenth child and – unfortunately for her – having a twin, Lan, who is the seventh son of a seventh son. That makes Lan favored by fortune and Eff distinctly ill-favored, but of course this will not prove to be the case; Thirteenth Child is quite predictable in that respect. What is most interesting about the book is Wrede’s decision to set it on a “frontier,” more or less similar to the frontier of the American West (hence the style of the writing). But this is a frontier with settlers on one side of a magical dividing line – and wilderness beasts on the other. Eff and Lan grow up and learn magic the same way Western settlers’ kids got their schoolin’ – it’s just what is done in this setting. But a cloud of doom always hangs over Eff, of course, until she eventually proves herself, as readers will figure out quickly that she will do. Wrede interestingly transposes Western lore into the magical sort: “We’re still inventing ourselves. But we’re not starting from just one kind of magic, no matter what the folks back East may think. Columbian magic is a mixture and always has been – Avrupan and Aphrikan and Hijero-Cathayan and some traditions that haven’t ever grown large enough to make a theory of a style of magic, plus a few bits folks have just made up for themselves at need, all thrown together.” The folkloric and magical elements sometimes coexist uneasily here, and the fact that Eff’s eventual success is a foregone conclusion robs Thirteenth Child of some inner drama. But the book is well written and nicely paced, and Eff is an interesting enough character so that readers who find they like the world that Wrede creates here will be interested in Eff’s further adventures.

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