June 26, 2014


The American Fairy Trilogy, Book Three: Bad Luck Girl. By Sarah Zettel. Random House. $17.99.

The United States of Asgard, Book 2: The Strange Maid. By Tessa Gratton. Random House. $17.99.

Hexed. By Michelle Krys. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

     If only things could be different. Really, really different. Except, you know, also the same. Like, a totally different world, but one where everybody thinks and talks and does things and, you know, relates the same way everybody does in this one. How cool would that be? Pretty cool, it seems, if the sheer volume of books for readers ages 12 and up – primarily female readers – is any indication. All of these series books combine real-ish settings and real-ish characters with fantasy elements that are designed to bring a sense of wonder and magic into circumstances that, at bottom, are very much the same ones facing everyday teenagers in our own everyday world. Sarah Zettel’s Bad Luck Girl is actually set in an alternative past: a 1930s Chicago in which fairies and other magical creatures abound. But this conclusion of The American Fairy Trilogy remains firmly rooted in the approaches and typical interpersonal elements of other “young adult” novels. Callie LeRoux, the trilogy’s protagonist, has at this point accomplished something important in all books of this type: she has brought her splintered family together. True, in this case the family is otherworldly – her father is an Unseelie fairy prince – but the rescue-and-uniting theme is quite ordinary. The fact that Callie’s action has provoked serious trouble – in this case, a war between the fairies of the Midnight Throne and the Sunlit Kingdoms – is also expected, however supernatural the combatants may be. And the fact that the war forces Callie and her inevitable best friend, Jack, to flee for their lives, is also scarcely unusual. The most interesting thing in Bad Luck Girl is Callie’s discovery of magical creatures called Halfers, genuinely unusual make-believe entities that are half fairy and half anything from a steel girder to an electric spark. A book about them could be genuinely intriguing, but they are subsidiary (although important) characters here. As usual in works of this type, Callie is not merely a fairy but a child of prophecy, someone ultra-special, as readers of these fantasy books would like to consider themselves to be; and although the problems Callie encounters lead the fairies to dub her the Bad Luck Girl, it is certain that she will win through the challenges she faces and emerge stronger and more firmly tied to her family than ever: “My father smiled down at me, approval shining in his eyes.” Readers who enjoyed Dust Girl and Golden Girl will find this conclusion of Callie’s story satisfying if scarcely surprising, and will relish the fact that the final word of the book, complete with ellipsis, is, “Until...”

     Things are barely getting going in The Strange Maid, which is merely the second book of Tessa Grafton’s planned five-book series, The United States of Asgard. This series is a mashup, different from but in the same general vein as steampunk: dragon slaying and rune casting coexist here with cell phones and rock bands. Much as in The American Fairy Trilogy, the idea here is to mix familiar real-world things with creations of fantasy, stir everything together, and see what emerges. In The Strange Maid, what shows up is the story of Signy Valborn of Vinland, this novel’s protagonist – Grafton plans to build the first four novels around four different characters, then bring everyone together for the grand finale. Signy is an entertainer: she dresses like a Valkyrie for Vinland tourists. And it is important to remember that in this world, Valkyries are real: they help the president of the United States run the country (the Norse gods are real, too, and are celebrities of a sort, with Baldur the Beautiful being the most popular – which makes a certain amount of sense, actually). Signy also helps put a tame mountain troll on display; the creature belongs to troll hunter Ned Unferth, who is predictably young and handsome. But all is not well in Signy’s world: Baldur, scheduled to rise and live among people during spring and summer, does not do so, for one thing; for another, mountain trolls attack and destroy Signy’s town – and after the destruction, Ned and his troll are missing. So Signy sets out to find them, and that is her quest in this five-part series of related and somewhat interlinked quest stories. Signy dreams of becoming a warrior, and of course finds during her adventure that she really does have the warrior spirit, but not in quite the way she imagined. Nordic or not, this is a coming-of-age story, for all that it contains such Beowulf-and-Norse-mythology-inspired lines as “I can’t help thinking that we need our own King Hrothgar to make the cycle complete” and “I think of the bright pearl of Odin’s mad eye, and the laughter of his ravens, so like the echo of seagulls crying outside.”  The clever scaffolding that Grafton uses to erect her tale has less sense of wonder in this second book than in the first, The Lost Sun, since it has now become part of the background rather than itself being a major element of the story. As a result, The Strange Maid becomes a more-straightforward adventure than its predecessor, but the unusual world setting remains interesting, and readers who found the first book’s concept and characters engaging will enjoy this one as well.

     A fantasy series does have to start somewhere, and Michelle Krys’ starts with Hexed, which is also the author’s debut novel. The standard elements of fantasies, recognizable in The American Fairy Trilogy and The United States of Asgard as well, are all here: a protagonist who is more than she seems and more than she knows; a search for self that leads toward a grand destiny; a war between powerful supernatural opponents; and a series of concealed truths that the central character must uncover in order to save herself and others. The protagonist here is Indigo (Indie) Blackwood, a kind of high-school queen bee with a strong social network: she is a cheerleader and has a clich├ęd football-star boyfriend. She has the usual oddball parental unit (her mom runs an occult shop and is ridiculously possessive of a family Bible). And she becomes involved with the usual mysterious stranger, whose name is Bishop and who is predictably sexy and predictably infuriating. Krys knows the right elements to put into this particular genre formula, but she mixes them rather uncertainly: the seams of the plot show through, and there is the feeling, again and again, that characters do things because the unseen author needs to manipulate them into doing those things. That is, there is even less sense here than usual of real-seeming characters motivated by their own personalities. The creakiness does not really matter, though, because the plot moves along predictable vectors: the Bible is stolen, and Indie finds out that she must get it back because failure to do so would doom all witches, and by the way, she is a witch herself. And, oh yes, there is a lengthy ongoing war between witches and sorcerers, and Indie, like it or not, is now right in the middle of it. The writing here fits the formula but does not go beyond it: “The grandfather clock in the dining room ticks away the seconds of silence.” “I make a promise to myself that if I somehow, miraculously, make it out of this mess alive, if I somehow am a witch, I’m going to get good at magic.” “A bloodcurdling scream pierces the air…” “‘You can be happy, you know. It’s okay for you to be happy again.’” The plotting is formulaic, too, with uncertain alliances, betrayals, difficult occult training, and so forth. By the time readers get to the expected words, “It’s over,” which of course mean it’s not over, they will either have whetted their appetite for the upcoming sequel, Charmed, or will have moved on to some other blend of fantasy and reality in the teen-escapism mode.

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