June 12, 2014


The Hero’s Guides, Book 3: The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw. By Christopher Healy. Drawings by Todd Harris. Walden Pond Press. $16.99.

The Testing, Book 3: Graduation Day. By Joelle Charbonneau. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

Dualed #2: Divided. By Elsie Chapman. Random House. $17.99.

Star Carrier, Book Five: Dark Matter. By Ian Douglas. Harper Voyager. $7.99.

     It is possible, barely possible, to create an extended heroic-fantasy series that does not draw largely on cliché and is not largely patterned on other, earlier heroic-fantasy series. It is, however, extraordinarily difficult, which is why it can be so hard to be sure just which heroic-fantasy series you are reading: the characters’ names and the names of the settings may change, but all too often, there is a sense of “déjà vu all over again” in the occurrences and plot twists. Christopher Healy’s The Hero’s Guides therefore deserve a smattering of applause – no, make that more than a smattering – for their creativity and the sheer fun they bring to the whole “epic heroic stuff” model. This does not mean Healy is oblivious to earlier series of this type – in fact, he is so aware of them that he constantly draws attention to them and turns them neatly inside-out. Healy’s world here is that of fairy tales, and his whole trilogy turns fairy-tale tropes on their heads by having princes be bumbling, princesses be quite able to take care of themselves, and the various dastardly villains be as dastardly as usual, but usually in different ways. This in itself is nothing new: many authors have done fairy-tale reconsiderations for adults and young readers alike, and some (such as Vivian Vande Velde) have regularly engaged in humorous retellings of the old stories. But Healy – abetted by some really wonderful drawings by Todd Harris – goes a few steps further than others, and at considerably greater length: this is a 500-plus-page book. The various fairy-tale “Princes Charming” have names in Healy’s trilogy – Liam, Duncan, Frederic and Gustav – and, despite in many ways remaining determinedly one-dimensional, have considerably more personality than in the original tales. They also have significant anger-management and interpersonal-relationship issues. And in The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw they’re wanted for murder – along with Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel and Lila – because Briar Rose has been reported murdered. Thus, there is plenty for princes and princesses/fair maidens to do in the Thirteen Kingdoms, a map of which is thoughtfully provided. And there are plenty of amusements along the way, such as tongue-twisting references (the Jade Djinn Gem); suitably named stuck-up functionaries and compatriots (Euphustus Bailywimple, Daggomire Hardrot, Stumpy Boarhound, Deeb Rauber, Erik the Mauve); odd names for this and that (a boat called the Wet Walnut); and occasional references that only adults, and not all of them, will get (Val Jeanval, arrested for stealing a loaf of bread – see Jean Valjean of Les Misérables). The chapter titles are part of the ongoing amusement here (“An Outlaw Does Something Rash,” “An Outlaw Forgets to Pack a Change of Clothes,” “An Outlaw Doesn’t Know What Kind of Bird She Is,” “An Outlaw Puts His Right Foot In, Puts His Right Foot Out,” and so on until the final chapter, “The Villain Wins”). In fact, everything is part of the amusement, and the eventual happy ending(s) is (are) just silly enough and just absurd enough to make perfect sense in so senseless a context. There have been sagas aplenty in which fairy tales are eviscerated in one way or another, but few as amusing as this one.

     On the other hand, The Testing, Divided and Dark Matter, the first two books intended for teenagers and the third for adults, are series in which the paths are so well-worn that they have become ruts. These are (+++) books for readers seeking quick entry into offerings entirely typical of their genres and willing to look past numerous plot holes and a vast supply of clichéd characters and actions. Non-fans of these genres will give the books no rating at all, since they will have no reason whatsoever to read them. The Testing is an entirely typical dystopian trilogy based so closely on The Hunger Games that readers of Suzanne Collins’ books may find themselves wondering whether Joelle Charbonneau simply wandered into Collins’ universe and stayed a while. The Hunger Games trilogy is itself not very original and not particularly well-written, but it has become a gigantic success for a variety of reasons relating to timing and some excellent publicity machinery. The Testing is presumably for young readers who want more of the same: same vaguely troubling dystopia, same background of some sort of vague worldwide catastrophe, same vague delineation of characters (Charbonneau’s are vaguer), same horrendously murderous competition propagated because it apparently makes sense to kill off a lot of the small number of survivors of the aforementioned catastrophe, same shadowy government doing awful things because that’s what shadowy governments do, and so on. Graduation Day, sequel to The Testing and Independent Study, brings Cia Vale through the usual maze of deception, danger and betrayal, forcing her to make the usual difficult choices while as usual endangering those closest to her in order to allow the usual choice between a narrow, fear-driven future and a broad, hope-defined one. This is all so formulaic that it is hard to understand how anyone could consider it original. But originality appears to be beside the point: the idea here is to tap into readers’, umm, hunger for more stories about the heroism of a strong female protagonist in a dark and dismal near-future (and/or alternative-universe) world, complete with mild romance, substantial violence and all sorts of predictable trials and tribulations. Graduation Day goes nowhere particularly unexpected, but readers who want still more of its type of adventure will find it here.

     Divided follows a similar pattern, and in fact also involves a deadly test. It is the sequel to Dualed, the debut novel by Elsie Chapman, which featured a 15-year-old girl named West Drayer who, in yet another of those standard-issue dystopias, is forced to hunt down and kill her Alternate, a genetic twin raised by another family. Only by destroying her Alt can West prove that she herself is worthy of future life in the city of Kersh. This world makes less sense than do many similar dystopias, because there is little explanation of why there are Alts in the first place and why one has to be killed. Furthermore, it is unclear in the first book why West, apparently an ordinary girl, becomes a striker – an assassin hired by the rich and powerful. It would have been good to understand this early on (it happens rather early in the first book), because in Divided, the whole point is that West is told she must take on another contract-killing assignment – and this one comes with unusually potent inducements, including safety for her future children as well as a clean slate for West herself. It will be obvious to readers that so attractive an offer must mean the target is one that will cause West significant difficulty, and so it turns out: she is supposed to kill her dead brother’s Alt. Complications abound, including the development of the love between West and Chord from the first book (which was not very convincing there and is not much more so here). The main issue is that the Board, which is in charge of Kersh and which has given West her assignment, is clearly corrupt. This is thoroughly unoriginal, but as in the first book, Chapman keeps the pace of events moving quickly enough so readers will not be tempted to think too closely about the holes in the plot – and at least this time the rationale for the Alts is explained, even if it is not a very good one. Divided is not the end of West’s story – it concludes with a very clear setup for the next book – and hopefully some of the lack of clarity here will be resolved in the follow-up volume, as some loose ends from the first book are tied up in this one. The fact remains, though, that there is little surprising in Divided, a book for readers looking for a certain type of adventure and not wanting to think too closely about the rather rickety superstructure on which the story is hung.

     Ditto Dark Matter, in this case for readers who think space-opera military fantasy is the same as science fiction. Dark Matter, the fifth book in the ongoing Star Carrier series, is yet another thoroughly unbelievable, fast-paced novel in a sequence devoted to wars and politics both on Earth and around the universe. The first four books, Earth Strike, Center of Gravity, Singularity and Deep Space, firmly established the heroism of Admiral (later President) Alexander Koenig, the evil of the relentless Sh’daar, the necessity of sometimes making a pact with the (metaphorical) devil, and the inevitable negative results when one does so. By the time of Dark Matter, there is civil war on Earth between those who want humanity to stride triumphantly into the future and those who want to give in to the Sh’daar and become part of their massive Collective – at the price of limiting human technology. Ian Douglas (one of the many pen names of William H. Keith, Jr.) is always ready to bring in a new deus ex machina to complicate matters further and prevent his plots from bogging down into, say, thoughtfulness. This time he has another alien race show up, through an artificial wormhole 16,000 light years from Earth, leaving Koenig with a severe moral and resource dilemma: continue fighting the Sh’daar and possibly weaken Earth forces in the face of the new alien threat, or ally with the Sh’daar against the others and take the huge risks that are now known to come with trusting this implacable enemy? This is, to be sure, a rather ho-hum plot in space adventures, and has been done so many times before that it is hard to see what new directions Douglas may take it in. In fact, he does not move it anywhere new, but uses a combination of old and newly introduced characters to move the story along and allow plenty of time for battle scenes, last-minute turnarounds of fortune, and other predictabilities. Just as Graduation Day and Divided are no worse in plot or writing than others of their ilk, so Dark Matter is fine for what it is. The problem is that, again as is also the case with Graduation Day and Divided, it just isn’t very much. These books are mildly entertaining, mildly engaging novels for people already predisposed to read works of a particular type. The fact that Graduation Day, Divided and Dark Matter are eminently forgettable will not be of any particular concern to readers who find the books congenial: they can remain secure in the knowledge that where books like these exist, more, from these authors or from others, are sure to follow.

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