May 15, 2014
(+++) FANTASIES ABOUNDING
The Islands of Chaldea. By Diana Wynne Jones. Completed by Ursula Jones. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $17.99.
The Luck Uglies. By Paul Durham. Harper. $16.99.
Bloodwitch. By Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
The Lovely and the Lost. By Page Morgan. Delacorte Press. $18.99.
Young fans of high fantasy can enter just about as many worlds as they wish and feel right at home. Worlds of wonder they may be, but although the specifics of the wonders differ, the progress of the stories follows predictable patterns that allow readers to slip into the books smoothly, slip out of them easily, and slide into others wherein still more strange-but-familiar characters and events take place. Among the most facile writers in this genre was Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011), whose The Islands of Chaldea was completed by her sister, Ursula Jones. The title, with its echoes of the Biblical “Ur of the Chaldees,” portends something serious, but one thing setting Jones’ books apart from similar ones was her sense of humor and ability to lighten things up while keeping them firmly within the epic-fantasy realm. There is nothing particularly unusual in the plot here: young Aileen comes from a family of magicworkers but has yet to display gifts of her own; she and her accomplished, magically powerful Aunt Beck are sent by the High King on a quest through the islands of the book’s title; and lo and behold, thanks to the strength and self-confidence she finds during the mission, Aileen comes into her magical heritage at last – with the help of a mostly invisible cat called Plug-Ugly and a thoroughly visible and wise parrot named Green Greet. The combination of amusing incidents and serious business here (the latter involving a chance for Aileen to rescue her missing father) is deftly handled, and the book is a winning one for its tone more than for any particular intricacies of plot or characterization.
The Luck Uglies has some animal amusement in it as well, such as an encounter with a small black monkey named Shortstraw that takes a shine to a little girl’s “Mona Monster.” Most of Paul Durham’s book, though, is darker and more serious, involving a place called Village Drowning where children play in cemeteries and on rooftops and worry about the possible return of dangerous creatures called Bog Noblins. The villagers used to be protected against those forest dwellers, now thought to be extinct, by the exiled secret society of the book’s title, but now that society is gone as well – perhaps. This is one of those books in which everyone knows who is good and who is evil, everyone knows what the rules and necessities of life are, and then the central character – a girl named Rye O’Chanter, in this case – starts to discover secrets and lies and hints that the true monsters are not the ones everyone “knows” to be monstrous. Some of the humor here is rather forced, as when a character known as Harmless (who isn’t) is being sought by one Constable Boil, who insists that Rye’s mother “produce the criminal sometimes known as Gray the Grim, or Gray the Ghastly, or Gray the Ghoul, or Gray the Gruesome… Son of Grimshaw the Black…brother of Lothaire the Loathsome.” Mostly, though, the story is serious, and told in entirely expected ways: “The girl has a right to know her history. …Haven’t we kept her in the dark long enough?” Much later, from the central villain: “You are but one man. …You live on borrowed time.” Filled with cliché but paced well enough to keep young readers interested, The Luck Uglies is another in a long series of coming-of-age tales set in different but recognizable alternative worlds.
So is Bloodwitch, in which Amelia Atwater-Rhodes starts a new vampire series set in the Midnight empire, which her fans will immediately recognize. This series, Maeve’ra, is yet another entry in the eternal discovering-truth-and-finding-oneself genre. The focus here is vampire-raised Vance Ehecatl, a “quetzal,” who was abandoned as a child by his family. They are shapeshifters – who hate vampires. Long protected by his vampire guardians, Vance is eventually forced to leave his home, and soon encounters another shapeshifter, Malachi Obsidian – whose revelations force Vance to start questioning what he has always considered to be the truth about his upbringing. The book’s title refers to what Malachi claims Vance to be: a possessor of rare, potentially destructive and very powerful magic that, of course, Vance himself knows nothing about. Those unfamiliar with Midnight will have some difficulty following the happenings in this novel, not because they themselves are complex but because of the language with which Atwater-Rhodes peppers the book: serpiente, pochtecatl, Obsidian guild, Azteca, Shantel, and so on. The vocabulary provides a feeling of depth, if scarcely reality, to the world of the novel, while Vance’s mistakes and successes move him toward both self-discovery and learning some of the secrets that have been kept from him. This is an entirely typical approach for a book that is both the first in a series and a tie-in to other novels: a lot is learned (but not too much), and a great deal is revealed (but scarcely everything that the reader will want to know). Atwater-Rhodes is an expert at creating books (and worlds) in the high-fantasy genre, and this one will not disappoint her fans, although it is not the best entry point for newcomers to the world of Midnight.
The Lovely and the Lost is a second book, the sequel to The Beautiful and the Cursed, which began a series called Dispossessed. There are two primary protagonists here rather than one – sisters Ingrid and Gabby Waverly – but the book otherwise follows the expected pattern of quest, rescue, discovery, threat and resolution. Set in an alternative version of turn-of-the-20th-century Paris rather than a completely invented world (and thus, by traditional definition, not exactly “high fantasy,” although it is close enough), The Lovely and the Lost takes place after Ingrid and Gabby have rescued their brother, Grayson (Ingrid’s twin), from a fallen angel, Axia. But this has not put a stop to the seething of the Parisian underworld of gargoyles and demons, which are after Ingrid’s blood – as are humans. The reason is that her blood has the power to command gargoyles, which no other human can do and which, of course, can be world-shaking and deadly in the wrong hands (or claws, as the case may be). Page Morgan’s gargoyles are frequently more interesting (and less stone-like) than her humans, but deft characterization is rarely a priority in epic fantasy, where the story tends to be what happens to the characters rather than anything occurring because of their individuality. The story arc here involves the sisters and Grayson learning to fend for themselves despite the protection offered to them by the Alliance – and also finding out whom they can trust and whom they cannot, in a typical twist for tales of this type. There is nothing amusing here, and it is particularly important not to find the dialogue funny: “‘You’re the one who wants to drain my sister’s blood?’ ‘Not all of it, my dear.’” Nor, for full enjoyment of the book, should readers find anything clichéd about such clichés as, “The problem, Ingrid was coming to realize, was that there were no hard and fast rules when it came to evil. It could change shape. Be one thing one moment and something else the next.” Morgan certainly plans to keep this series going – the next book will be called The Wondrous and the Wicked – and fans will know just what to expect in the way of uncertainties, entanglements and adventure as matters progress.