November 17, 2011


Children of the Lamp, Book 7: The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan. By P.B. Kerr. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $18.99.

Alex Van Helsing, Book 2: Voice of the Undead. By Jason Henderson. HarperTeen. $16.99.

Supernaturally. By Kiersten White. HarperTeen. $17.99.

Possess. By Gretchen McNeil. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     Conclusions, however inevitable, are difficult, but the Children of the Lamp series ends with a bang – well, really with the prevention of a bang – in its seventh book, The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan. P.B. Kerr has produced these books at a reliable one-a-year pace since 2004’s The Akhenaten Adventure, taking djinn twins John and Philippa Gaunt and their uncle Nimrod all over the world and into all sorts of realms of fairly scary and moderately dark fantasy. These have always been adventure stories, not chillers, and The Grave Robbers of Genghis Khan continues in the same mode, albeit with some scary (and historically accurate) stuff in the background: “How and where to bury Genghis Khan with honor but without drawing attention to his burial place? …A huge underground mausoleum was excavated by slaves who were then slaughtered to a man; the soldiers who had killed these slaves were themselves executed in their turn. A large part of the mausoleum was taken up with their corpses. Finally, when the grave was ready, the funeral cortege set off and, leaving nothing to chance, everyone it met on the way was also murdered. It’s said that about twenty thousand people died in order that the whereabouts of the grave of Genghis Khan could be kept a secret.” This background turns into a search for a camel that died some 800 years earlier. Why? Because volcanoes all around the world are erupting, putting out a strange golden lava. Kerr pulls all these odd elements together as neatly as usual. Indeed, magic plus environmental catastrophe equals a most exciting brew here, complete with appropriate foreshadowings, such as Nimrod’s remark, “I have the distinct feeling that by the time this is over, none of us will ever be the same again.” This proves to be the case – in a way that neatly wraps up the series – and the volcanic eruptions end up producing lovely mountain lakes and reservoirs. What is lost at the end – the ability to make successful wishes – turns out to be something willingly surrendered: “I really think the only things worth having are the things you work for,” decides Philippa, and even if preteen and young teenage readers (the book’s target audience) do not agree, it will at least be clear why, at the end, Philippa and John feel this way. This is one series that many readers will miss: Kerr’s consistency of tone and plotting made it a great deal of fun to read. But perhaps, in a few years, readers of Children of the Lamp will be ready for Kerr’s far more adult and hard-boiled novels, such as the Bernie Gunther series, which he writes under the name of Philip Kerr.

     The second Alex Van Helsing novel goes beyond the first one, Vampire Rising, in plot points if not in plot consistency. In Voice of the Undead, Alex is in training with the Polidorium (as in John Polidori, early writer of vampire tales) and is working toward becoming a vampire hunter (like his ancestor from Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Alex, who is 14, is attending a boarding school called Glenarvon Academy; and beneath Lake Geneva – on whose shores Glenarvon rests – is a vampire academy called the Scholomance. The vampire school has a long history: “The Scholomance had been around for hundreds – possibly thousands -- of years. Dracula himself attended the school, when he first became a vampire, or so said the Polidorium, and so had reported Abraham Van Helsing, Alex’s great-great-great- (that was three greats) grandfather.” Glenarvon is burned as the vampires of the Scholomance try to get Alex, who has to be on constant lookout for his archenemy, Elle, although where she fits into the various plots is not clear: “Elle had talked as though she were in some kind of disagreement with the Scholomance – whether to kill him or to torture him, apparently.” The whole story takes place in the modern world, so that fight scenes read like this: “Elle…grabbed him by the collar, dragging him back. Alex smashed against the table that held the iPod and it toppled over with the speakers, still playing. The voice went on as he grunted in pain, crunching his ribs against the table.” And so on. All this derring-do has comic-book intensity to it (no surprise: Jason Henderson writes comic books and computer games). It is scarcely surprising that a particularly evil force here has the distinctly comic-book-like name of Ultravox. Readers looking for a very light take on various things vampiric will enjoy this not-quite-a-romp book, which gets a (+++) rating for its pacing and a few interesting plot twists. The whole series would be better if Henderson let the humor flow more frequently and more naturally, but as it is, readers are generally supposed to take the events seriously – which is nearly impossible.

     This is not to say that things are any more realistic in Supernaturally or Possess, which are also (+++) books and are primarily aimed at teen girls in the same way that Voice of the Undead mainly targets boys. Kiersten White’s new book is a followup to Paranormalcy; Gretchen McNeil’s is the start of a series. This is White’s second book; it is McNeil’s first. White’s protagonist, Evie Green, is 16; McNeil’s, Bridget Liu, is 15. Evie has a better-developed personality, complete with a sense of humor, some irony, dissatisfaction with “normal” life, believable fear when she is pulled back into contact with paranormals, and some quick-thinking ability: “I might be an Empty One, able to suck the souls straight out of paranormals, but I’d only done it once before. And that was different; the souls had been trapped and they wanted to come to me. This thing probably didn’t want to give me its life energy.” Evie also has a habit of saying “oh, bleep” that is amusing the first hundred or so times, then merely annoying. Bridget lives in a darker world – McNeil’s focus is exorcism – and a mental landscape filled with secrets: “So her father had given her an exorcist’s good-luck charm when she was seven… Could it have been a weird twist of fate that this charm just happened to catch her dad’s eye in a store window? No. That was too ridiculous for even Bridget to buy. But the alternative was even more disturbing: Her dad had known exactly what that medal meant when he gave it to her. …Nothing but questions that had no answers. That was her life now: one giant question mark.” These two books’ plots are different, their protagonists are different, the ins and outs of the stories are different, but in many ways those differences are all superficial. Both the books are stories of young women coming into their own, finding (or re-finding) love, learning their own powers and abilities, using them to combat dark forces and – not incidentally – discovering more about themselves. That is, these are both coming-of-age novels with supernatural elements. Neither breaks any new ground in this well-worn genre (actually two well-worn genres, the supernatural novel and the coming-of-age tale), but both have a fast enough pace and enough excitement to keep some teenage girls interested. Which readers will prefer which book will depend on reactions to the central characters: those who enjoy Evie’s wry sense of humor and occasional self-deprecation will not likely be equally interested in Bridget’s intensity and strong determination. But certainly White and McNeil have both created characters whose adventures can build a fan base – or two fan bases.

No comments:

Post a Comment