July 21, 2011


Mistwood. By Leah Cypess. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Nightspell. By Leah Cypess. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Fallen Angel 2: Eternity. By Heather Terrell. HarperTeen. $8.99.

The Amanda Project, Book 2: Revealed. By Peter Silsbee. HarperTeen. $8.99.

Fly Trap. By Frances Hardinge. Harper. $16.99.

     The standalone novel sometimes seems an endangered species these days. With fewer and fewer young people reading for pleasure – or reading traditional books at all – publishers seem more determined than ever to produce books in series, so that those who do choose to read will get lots more of the same once they decide they like a particular author or story line. The multi-book series is especially popular in the fantasy realm, with Mistwood and its followup, Nightspell, being typical of the genre. Leah Cypess imagines a young girl named Isabel who can shift to animal form or to wind or mist, and who has such comic-book superheroic characteristics as super strength and super speed. Isabel is the incarnation of the immortal Shifter of Samorna, but knows nothing of who she is or of her destiny to protect the realm when it is in danger. Typically for novels for teens – Cypess’ are intended for ages 13 and up – there are romance elements intertwined with the fantasy adventure, as (in Mistwood) Isabel is wrested from the forest by Prince Rokan, used by him to protect himself at court, and eventually forced to figure out where her loyalty and her heart really need her to go. The book is all about using and being used: “These weren’t the people she was meant to protect. They had fooled her into thinking they were, even after she should have known better, but that didn’t matter anymore. She didn’t have to care about what happened to them. She didn’t have to care about what happened to anyone.” But of course Isabel does care, and thus this tale of a sort-of-goddess is also a coming-of-age romance, as are so many modern fantasies. “‘Legends don’t laugh, or argue, or make sly remarks. Legends don’t want and need and feel,’” she is told at one point; but of course Isabel does all these things and yet is the Shifter, complete with uncertain loyalties and a gradually expanding understanding of the extent and limitations of her power. Eventually Isabel’s choices prove terribly difficult (not surprisingly), and “what she should have done, and what she did, were two different things entirely.”

     And this sets up Nightspell, which is in part a sequel and in part a companion book. Many of the underlying themes are the same here, but this is actually a more intriguing book, since the setting is genuinely new – not something one can often say about a modern fantasy. Cypess here creates a place called Ghostland that is aptly named, for ghosts “live” side by side with the living, and the strange palace court sleeps away the day in order to hold parties every night. This is a family story, of a brother and two sisters, with the focus primarily on the sisters – one of them trapped in Ghostland and the other determined to rescue her, but not by paying the price of betrothal to the realm’s undead prince. The whole issue of ghosts and the living is intriguingly handled, alongside the quest of Darri to find and somehow save her sister: “She missed Callie so much it was like an ever-growing hole somewhere inside her.” Underlying all the machinations in Ghostland is the ghosts’ determination to wreak vengeance on those who killed them. Discussions tend toward the bizarre here, as when Darri asks Kestin, the prince, for details of who killed him and how, and how he felt after learning he was dead. The mysterious Guardian turns out to have a crucial role in Ghostland, and so does Clarisse, a major character from Mistwood whose appearance here is a key element tying the books together. Cypess brings this book to a satisfying (and suitably heart-wrenching) climax, then tacks on an ending that is just upbeat enough to make readers wonder whether she may have some other “companion” book in mind.

     As a sequel, Eternity is more straightforward. It is simply a continuation of the story begun in Fallen Angel, in which Heather Terrell introduced Ellie and Michael and had them fall in love even as they discovered their superhuman powers. Yes, this is yet another romance replete with supernatural elements, although here the characters are angels (not necessarily good angels) rather than, say, vampires or werewolves. Very loosely based on biblical Apocrypha, Terrell’s tale of half-human, half-angelic beings called Nephilim is filled with typical high-school worries and concerns as well: “I painted on my smile as I walked down the hallway toward my locker, where Michael was waiting, and kept my lighthearted banter going for a while once we met.” The book’s opening gives promise of something offbeat (“The end of time does not start as, well, apocalyptically as you might think”), but once the story itself begins, everything is pretty much as expected, with the usual teen trials, uncertainties and tribulations that just happen to be set against an incipient Judgment Day and an ongoing battle between the ultimate forces of good and evil. Much of the dialogue is on the unintentionally laughable side: “‘Ellspeth, we have been waiting for you so that we – fallen and Nephilim alike – can win back our place on earth and in heaven. And take our place as benevolent rulers of humanity.’” And there is something hilarious as well about a book in which one sentence says that an angel has appeared by direct order of “the Maker, God, Yahweh, the Creator – whatever name you’d like to give to Him,” while two sentences later the writing is about “that intangible, slightly mischievous quality that I first saw in the Tillinghast gymnasium.” If Terrell followed through on the hints of humor, Eternity would be a more interesting book; as it is, she wants it taken seriously as a supernatural adventure, with the result that it seems just like all the other please-take-this-silliness-seriously teen-oriented fantasies out there.

     The second book in The Amanda Project series is a straightforward sequel as well. The concept here is that the fictional Amanda herself is writing stories that will gradually reveal who or what she is. Thus, this book’s cover gives the authors as “Amanda Valentino and Peter Silsbee” (the first book “co-credited” Melissa Kantor). There is nothing unusual at all about having a book series written by different authors; The 39 Clues pretty much perfected the technique. The Amanda books clearly draw on that series in more ways than one: here too there is readership participation – through codes that are scannable on mobile devices and through a Web site. And here too there are implications that there are strange doings afoot – mysterious and perhaps even supernatural – with Amanda at the center of them. But who or what is Amanda, exactly? That is the central question here – unfortunately, not a particularly interesting one. Protagonists Hal, Callie and Nia continue in Revealed to follow uncertain trails and possibly false (or possibly true) clues, while worrying about whether they could be targeted in some nefarious way if they are not careful (in this book, the vice principal is attacked, and a note from Amanda is found in his car; and the friends discover a locked box that may perhaps contain important information – but of course they cannot open it). Naturally, Hal, Callie and Nia (none of whom has any distinct personality) must continue to do English papers, history tests and the like as they try to unravel the Amanda mystery. The whole book proceeds simultaneously on these two levels, the mundane and the mysterious, but unfortunately neither level is particularly creative or particularly interesting. Some humor here and there would have helped leaven the ongoing earnestness, but there is none to be found: readers are supposed to become seriously involved in the whole Amanda Project, not take it lightly. Those who are serious about it will find pretty much the same approach in the second book that there was in the first.

     For readers slightly younger than teens, starting around age 10, humor seems a more acceptable part of fantasies, sequels included. Fly Trap is a followup to Fly by Night, in which young readers first met Mosca Mye, an orphan who finds her way quite effectively through various devious doings; Saracen, a guard goose; and con man Eponymous Clent. In the first book, the trio managed to start a revolution, sort of by accident, and much of the plot turned on 12-year-old Mosca’s ability to read – a rare and dangerous gift in a world where books are considered dangerous. It is Clent who first introduces Mosca (and Saracen) to a world of crazed dukes and double-crossing criminals; and Clent’s own loyalty, to Mosca or anyone else, is never to be taken for granted. In Fly Trap, Clent and Mosca (and Saracen) are stuck in a strange town called Toll, whose personality changes every night. There is plenty of deviousness to go around in Toll, and there are some old enemies resurfacing, and there is a kidnapping to be prevented, and some Luck to be stolen – and, in general, all the elements for a nicely handled picaresque novel. Fly Trap is not quite as entertaining as Fly by Night, having some of the feeling of revisiting people and places that were unusual the first time but seem a trifle less exceptional the second. But this lengthy (nearly 600-page) book, whose British author really does have a way with words, flows well simply because the writing is generally so stylish: “And a tale he told, of Mosca Mye, with much flash and flourish, a tale that took all dangers and made them magnificent as djinn, a tale that gilded each sickening gamble with a dashing nonchalance.” Young readers who, like Mosca, love words for their own sake, will surely enjoy this chance to revisit a land and a time where books really matter – more than they often seem to matter in the real world today.

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