September 20, 2012


The Kill Order. By James Dashner. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

Rain & Fire: A Companion to the Last Dragon Chronicles. By Chris & Jay D’Lacey. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. By J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin. $17.99.

      No matter how deep or how long a series goes, no matter how many books it takes to tell the story, there seems always to be room for at least one thing more – something strictly for existing fans of the sequence, not necessarily of significant interest in itself, but adding a bit of new material here and there to what readers already know.  One time-honored way of extending a series is through a prequel, detailing events before the main sequence begins, and that is what James Dashner has provided in The Kill Order.  This is a what-happened-before story for fans of The Maze Runner and its sequels, The Scorch Trials and The Death Cure.  Those three books are fairly standard teenage-dystopian stuff, complete with invented slang (which grows tiresome fairly quickly), portentous acronyms (notably WICKED, “World in Catastrophe Killzone Experiment Department”), and the usual sequence of events: protagonist gradually learns who he is and what is going on, befriends someone who of course dies, has a love interest who may be a traitor or may not be and who also eventually dies, has to make difficult decisions about who is truly a friend and who is an enemy, and so forth.  The main series protagonist, Thomas, appears in The Kill Order only as a toddler, in a two-page epilogue that will imply much to existing series fans but that falls flat as a conclusion in the context of The Kill Order itself.  But the point is really that there is no context for this book on its own – the whole thing makes sense only as part of everything that happened (or, to use the time frame of the prequel, will happen) in The Maze Runner trilogy.  The prequel is 13 years before the events of The Maze Runner, a time when solar flares destroy civilization and a mysterious, deadly disease called the Flare virus strikes the survivors.  The protagonists, Mark and Trina, go on a dangerous quest – another standard genre feature – to learn the origin of the disease and find a way to save what is left of humanity.  Their search takes them through thoroughly predictable dangers, from the aftereffects of natural disasters to the predatory nature of some who lived through the catastrophe.  There are the usual impossibly noble helpers for the central pair (“I’m really, really sick. I need to die. I need to die and I don’t wanna die for nothing”), and the usual terrifying weapon (the Transvice – another of those portentous names – which dissolves people), and the inevitable success of the quest at a terribly high cost.  Because Dashner writes well, if not very inventively, and has a knack for pacing The Kill Zone just as quickly as the trilogy to which it connects, most fans of The Maze Runner and its two sequels will find this a satisfying return to the dystopian world with which they have become familiar.  But even though the events here take place before those of the trilogy, this book makes a poor introduction to the main sequence, which is more interesting and complex than this novel would lead new-to-the-series readers to expect.

      Rain and Fire attaches to its series, the seven-book Last Dragon Chronicles, in a different way.  It is a companion book, a sort of concordance to the main sequence, useful for keeping the many characters and events straight but  not intended in any way as a standalone work.  It is “no dry academic textbook to be pored over in some dark and dusty tower,” asserts Jay D’Lacey in the introduction, where she describes herself as Chris D’Lacey’s “wife and business partner.”  True, a dark and dusty tower is not required, but it wouldn’t hurt: the book is filled with definitions, descriptions and drawings that will require some poring and pondering among readers who lived with the Last Dragon Chronicles from its start in 2001 through its 2012 final book, The Fire Ascending.  Interestingly, Rain & Fire originally came out in 2010, when the series was just five books long; at that time, it included a look ahead at Fire World, the sixth book.  In its new, updated edition, Rain & Fire ends with the same question-and-answer pages that Chris D’Lacey includes in The Fire Ascending.  Details of the editions aside, Rain & Fire is useful mainly for helping keep things straight in a series that spans not just one world but many.  It explains that David Merriman is David Rain “in one of his other guises” among the humans of Co:pern:ica.  It offers information about and a picture of Bonnington, the cat that “is transformed from a lazy, slightly stupid tabby into a creature of wonder when he ‘commingles’ with a Fain entity in Fire Star.  It explains that the Arctic settings are “not often tied to any specific real-life places,” but the guest house where Lucy and Tam stay in Dark Fire “was based on a bed-and-breakfast that Chris and I stayed at in Glastonbury, England.”  A very helpful chapter called “The Light and the Dark” summarizes and highlights the entire seven-book sequence while also commenting on it, as in the note that the first novel, The Fire Within, “gives absolutely no clue to the power and profundity yet to come in the rest of the books.”  As a whole, Rain & Fire certainly has considerable usefulness for readers trying to keep things straight in the main sequence of novels or considering rereading the earlier ones in light of those that came later.

      Of course, it is possible to create a (++++) companion book or prequel for a multi-book series, but the circumstances and author’s ability figure mightily into the effort.  J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a simpler book than The Lord of the Rings and, in a sense, “hangs off” the larger and far-more-complex work, but it was written for a different audience and published (in 1937) before The Lord of the Rings itself came out.  Tolkien intended The Hobbit for young readers and The Lord of the Rings for older ones, and in fact he originally wanted The Lord of the Rings to be a single-volume work that would be a companion to The Silmarillion, which, as it turned out, Tolkien never completed.  The Silmarillion takes place at a time earlier than that of The Hobbit, which occurs prior to The Lord of the Rings, so the whole question of which book or books may be deemed a prequel or prequels to which other or others gets complicated.  Happily, though, The Hobbit itself does not.  It is a straightforward yet very resonant adventure story, featuring a prototypical “unlikely hero” in the person of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and it is simply packed with forms of amazement and wonder and a sense – very, very rare in heroic fantasy, including books heavily influenced by Tolkien – that there are tremendous events that predate the quest told in The Hobbit itself and equally important ones that are still to come.  The new Houghton Mifflin edition of The Hobbit is not really new – it is the firm’s 2001 edition with a new cover that mentions the forthcoming “major motion picture” (which will actually be three movies).  In any case, this edition remains a very handsome one, running 330 pages for the story itself and then including the start of the Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of The Lord of the Rings, to give young readers a taste of what comes after Bilbo’s adventure has ended.  The book is easy to read, the type and paper well-chosen to have a slightly archaic look and feel, the original illustrations all included, and the story as wondrous and wonder-filled as ever.  Young readers not yet familiar with The Hobbit have a real treat in store here, while anyone who read the book some time ago, or knows Tolkien only through the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, also has much to which to look forward.  This is a very lovely edition of an exceptional book that deserves a top ranking in any rating system yet devised.

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