November 24, 2010


The Familiars. By Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson. Art by Peter Chan & Kei Acedera. Harper. $16.99.

The Healing Wars, Book I: The Shifter. By Janice Hardy. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $7.99.

Firelight. By Sophie Jordan. Harper. $16.99.

The Frenzy. By Francesca Lia Block. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books. By Francesca Lia Block. HarperTeen. $9.99.

     The treatment of magical animals – and people who can magically change themselves into animals – itself changes, sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly, as books target older readers. The Familiars, for ages 8-12, never loses sight of humor as it takes its central animal characters through a series of escapades. Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson construct a series of scenes along the lines of a movie (the book is in fact due to be made into one) – starting at the very beginning, when the alley cat Aldwyn ducks into a pet shop to escape a pursuer and soon finds himself selected as familiar to a wizard-in-training named Jack. The problem is that Aldwyn, clever though he is, is not magical, and that creates immediate friction with Skylark the blue jay and Gilbert the tree frog, the familiars of the other two wizards-in-training apprenticed to wizard master Kalstaff. It is pretty easy to see where The Familiars is going: Aldwyn will be challenged in some major way and will prove himself worthy after all. That is exactly what happens, but the fun here is in the journey as much as in the destination. Kalstaff is defeated in a magical attack, and the three young wizards are captured by the evil queen of Vastia and wrapped in dispeller chains (to prevent them from doing magic). So the three familiars set out to save them, and the rest is the typical quest journey so common in fantasy literature. Kalstaff’s last words set the tone for what will happen: “Heroism appears in many forms. …Not always man or woman but also fur, feather, and tongue.” As the quest progresses, the familiars learn that animals, not humans, were once the great wizards of the land (they see this in paintings created during the “Enchantaissance”). Through adventures with a cave troll, Mountain Alchemist, Gilbert’s relatives and a seven-headed hydra, the familiars show their pluck and courage, even when confronted by a deadly…bunny. And their success at the end is engineered so a sequel, or several, can easily be created.

     The first book of The Healing Wars trilogy, now available in paperback, was Janice Hardy’s first novel. The Shifter is an exploration of the price that might have to be paid by someone with the power to heal others. What if a healer can take pain away only by taking it into herself – and must then shift it to someone else? Being for older readers than The Familiars – Hardy’s novel is for ages 10 and up – The Shifter is a darker book. Its central character, Nya, comes from an aristocratic background that no longer matters, because of a war that has gone against her land, Geveg. Nya is a Taker – one who takes away pain – as was her mother; her father was an enchanter. Now there are only 15-year-old Nya and her sister, Tali, and it soon turns out that Nya must find a way to rescue Tali, which requires Nya to make a deal with the evil Baseeri who lord it over Nya and all the Gevegians. The complex sociopolitical situation makes the tasks of Healers all the more difficult, and the importance of an enchanted metal called pynvium – in which pain can be stored – complicates things further. For Nya, although she is a Taker, cannot push pain into pynvium – only into another person. She therefore cannot become a full-fledged Healer, but soon finds that she can be turned into something else: a weapon. And, not surprisingly, Nya is more than she seems, as she learns from what she does with pynvium: “How did I make pynvium flash? Only enchanters could trigger the metal to do that, like Papa had done during the war. I’d inherited his eyes – had I gotten more than that? What exactly was I?” Nya’s quest for survival, for saving Tali, for figuring out why Takers have been mysteriously disappearing, and for discovering her own nature is a familiar one in fantasies for this age range. But the underlying premise of The Shifter makes the novel more interesting than many others. “Doing what’s right is seldom easy,” Nya remember her Grannyma telling her. And indeed, none of what she does is easy, nor is any of what she learns; but by the end of The Shifter, Nya knows a great deal more about who and what she is, and what she needs to do next as The Healing Wars trilogy continues.

     There is shifting of a more typical sort – typical in fantasy novels, anyway – in Firelight. Sophie Jordan (pen name of Sharie Kohler) is a romance and werewolf-romance writer who here tries something ever so slightly different: dragon romance. Firelight, for ages 12 and up, focuses on the draki, who can shift between dragon and human form, and in particular on Jacinda, a rare fire breather and a free spirit among her kind, who refuses to be bound by the rules and makes a flight in daylight – only to be caught by dragon hunters who just happen to be nearby. One hunter in particular, the handsome Will, becomes very important to her: he lets her go free. Not so the draki elders, whose planned punishment for Jacinda is so extreme that Jacinda’s mother takes her and her sister into the human world, to live permanently in human form in a desert city. But of course that is only the start of an adventure/romance whose supernatural elements are secondary to its entirely traditional Romeo-and-Juliet-style plot – which does not have a happy ending, but certainly invites a sequel.

     Francesca Lia Block’s The Frenzy and Dangerous Angels, both for ages 14 and up, are cut from similar cloth but woven somewhat more intensely. In The Frenzy, Liv transforms at 13 (not 11, like Jacinda), and she is a werewolf, not one of the draki. Liv too has a boyfriend, Corey, although their relationship is not as fraught with difficulty as that of Jacinda and Will. Liv’s problems are ones of trying to discover exactly who or what she is, trying to understand what has happened to her and why, and trying to cope with an alcoholic and abusive father while dealing with the murders in the nearby woods and the role that she, or others like her, may have in them. There is something very modern about a werewolf with a cell phone, who takes the antidepressant Lexapro, who sees a psychiatrist, and who has a good guy friend who is struggling with his homosexuality. But ultimately The Frenzy is yet another example of finding one’s true inner being, figuring out where the wolf and human personas overlap, and understanding how to integrate the two. This is an old plot and an oft-told story, but Block certainly paces it effectively and writes it well.

     She writes Dangerous Angels even better, and it is a more unusual book in many ways. Five books, actually: Weetzie Bat (1989), Witch Baby (1991), Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys (1992), Missing Angel Juan (1993), and Baby Be-Bop (1995), all collected in a single new paperback edition (Dangerous Angels was originally published in hardcover in 1998). The shapeshifting here is subtle and seems to affect the entire environment rather than individual characters. Weetzie Bat was Block’s first novel, written when she was just 18 although published some years later. It was and is an odd and affecting combination of lyrical fairy tale and gritty realism. It is still impressive, as are its successors. The original book’s acceptance of gay and common-law marriage, abortion, deliberately conceiving a child in such a way that any one of three men could be the father, and the AIDS epidemic, made it controversial and still make it feel timely. Yet it is not a sensationalistic book; nor are the others included in Dangerous Angels. What is ultimately shifting shape here is nothing more or less than love, which is almost palpable as a character even though it remains tantalizingly elusive. Witch Baby, for example, is about the title character seeking her birth mother, finding her, then realizing that love is really with Weetzie Bat and Weetzie’s odd collection of friends – not with someone to whom she is related by blood but who does not really want her. And so on, in many shapes and forms, through all five short books. It is Block’s style, itself subtle and shifting in shape, that is the greatest attraction here, as when Witch Baby, narrating Missing Angel Juan, says, “I think about Charlie like the black cat and Cake like the white monkey and how they are both parts of me and about butterflies shedding the withery cocoons, the prisons they spun out of themselves, and opening up like flowers.” Butterflies are the ultimate shapeshifters, and there is something of that sort of transformation permeating the Weetzie Bat books, less overt than the change from, say, human to dragon or wolf, but more poetic and, in a curious way, more real.

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