May 16, 2013
(+++) MIST AND MAGIC
Troubletwisters, Book Three: The Mystery. By Garth Nix and Sean Williams. Scholastic. $16.99.
The Flame in the Mist. By Kit Grindstaff. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
“In Portland, nothing ever seems to make sense,” would be a laughable line if one were talking about, say, Portland, Maine, or Portland, Oregon. But it is a perfectly sensible statement when talking about the Portland of the Troubletwisters series, where in fact very little does make sense – and when things turn out to make too much sense, all it takes is a little clouding of one’s memory to prevent a person from connecting the dots. The Troubletwisters protagonists are twins Jack and Jaide Shield, and they are, yes, a shield between good and evil, and just in case there is any uncertainty about that, the force they fight again and again is actually called The Evil. They get much help from others with powers (“Gifts”) similar to theirs, notably Grandma X – yes, she is really called that – plus assists at times from ordinary people such as their school friend, Tara, whose memory, however, must be suppressed because….well, just because. “After The Evil had been vanquished [temporarily, in the previous book of this series], one of Grandma X’s fellow Wardens, a big-haired man named Aleksandr, had used his Gift to cloud Tara’s memory of everything that had happened to her.” And so we are now in the third Troubletwisters saga, a book that moves along expertly thanks to the pacing talents of Garth Nix and Sean Williams but that is nevertheless, really, a little silly when it comes to such things as plot coherence. This series entry has to do with an old castle in Portland and the old man who lives there and then dies there mysteriously – of course “mysteriously” – so that Jack and Jaide have to search the house for a treasure that The Evil wants and that they must find first. But it happens that they do not know what the treasure is or what it looks like, and that certainly complicates things. In fact, complications abound here – Nix and Williams are good at pulling them out of every narrative corner. They are not so good at keeping their writing believable – it often seems on the verge of being unintentionally funny: “If Ari suspected that there was a giant, vulnerable bird cooped up, who knew what he might get up to?” “Jack shook his head, remembering kamikaze insects that had been drawn toward him, only to die upon touching his skin.” There are some intentionally funny passages, too, but by and large, The Mystery is an adventure, complete with a talking death mask, issues involving the twins’ mother and father (as well as Grandma X), a painting of a woman in yellow, characters named Rodeo Dave and Zebediah, a macaw that talks in nautical phrases, and a meaningless quatrain that – as usual with meaningless quatrains in books like this – turns out to be very important indeed. The twins eventually figure out what they are looking for, and find it, and then things get really complicated as The Evil reemerges in a way that surprises Jack and Jaide but probably will not surprise readers – it is a pretty obvious twist. A revelation about the generalized importance of twins in the Troubletwisters world is the main plot advance here, given that the defeat of The Evil – yet again – is scarcely unexpected. The Troubletwisters series is light reading, despite its occasional moments of drama, and preteens who enjoyed the first two books will not be disappointed in this third entry.
The Flame in the Mist is a more-intense good-vs.-evil story, and is something of a rarity in modern preteen fantasy adventures because it is a standalone novel rather than the first of a series (although it is certainly possible that future books could be set in the same world if this one is successful). This is Kit Grindstaff’s debut novel, and it is a remarkably sure-handed one in navigating the largely familiar territory of sort-of-alternative sort-of-history. Set in a land that somewhat resembles medieval England, the book is the story of Jemma Agromond, who somehow knows she is not really an Agromond, that being the name belonging to a vicious family that rules Anglavia and keeps the land shrouded in mist, and in which the mother wears a perfume called Eau de Magot. Jemma’s red hair is an obvious symbol of fire or light to burn away the mist, eventually, and there is never the slightest doubt about how evil the Agromonds are: an early scene has them using a death chant to evoke a spirit that will keep light away and force everyone to live in darkness. So the book’s theme is quite explicit and straightforward from the start. So are many of the accoutrements of Jemma’s adventures: ghosts, an ancient prophecy that she must fulfill, a mysterious book, a close friend and helper, and animal companions. Actually, the animals are not typical for a story such as this: they are rats – golden ones, to be sure, and telepathic, but still, they are rats, and as such are rarely cast in heroic roles. This casting-against-type may be why they turn out to be some of the strongest and most interesting characters in the book (weasels, on the other hand, are decidedly evil here). Despite the sort-of-medieval setting, the dialogue here is entirely modern, with some attempt to set “country” characters apart by giving them a kind of “rural-speak.” For example: “Been watchin’ yer fer years, haven’t I, while you was doin’ yer fetchin’ an’ carryin’ in the kitchen an’ stables. You never saw me, ’cause I kep’ hid to make sure you wouldn’t.” The speech of all the characters can be awkward, with passages such as, “‘Me no kill,’ he said, ‘only find what fall off crag.’” And many elements of the book are far from surprising, such as Jemma’s discoveries about her real family, including the fact that she has (or had) a brother, and the way Jemma’s dreams reveal reality to her. Grindstaff’s authorial inexperience shows from time to time, as in a scene during a wide-ranging search by multiple people in which the only two characters with information important to Jemma happen to stop precisely within earshot of her current hiding place and happen to discuss exactly what she needs to know to advance the plot. There is also a hilariously inapt scene in which Jemma discovers news clippings (which are barely plausible), one of which contains a thoroughly incongruous reference to “a family spokesperson” (so silly in this “medievalism and magic” context as to be laugh-out-loud ridiculous). In general, Grindstaff seems less interested in reaching beyond her novel’s genre than in exploring it thoroughly – which means that The Flame in the Mist will be of interest to young readers who enjoy fantasy adventures in a sort-of-medieval setting but will scarcely attract others. The light-vs.-dark theme is at times overdone: “Here, we call [today] Sunday, in honor of the sun, the bringer of light and life. ‘Mord’ is everything opposite to that: darkness, and death. Before Mordrake Agromond, there was no Mord-day. Only Sunday. We have always refused to call it otherwise.” And the final confrontation, which Grindstaff handles well, has the inevitable effect of setting something mystical and light against something mystical and dark, with the light, of course, finally triumphant. The ending of The Flame in the Mist is no surprise, and neither are many of the individual events in it, but because the book as a whole has a well-told story and some attractive characters, both human and animal, genre fans will certainly enjoy it.