Spirit Hunters. By Ellen Oh. Harper. $16.99.
The Supernormal Sleuthing Service No. 1: The Lost Legacy. By Gwenda Bond & Christopher Rowe. Illustrations by Glenn Thomas. Harper. $16.99.
Supernatural series starters for preteens inevitably have certain things in common, including the establishment of a team, the discovery of a mystery, and the explanation of why the inevitably feckless adults cannot solve a problem that must be and eventually is solved by the plucky young protagonists. But authors have to decide which of two directions is better for the first book and planned later ones: the highly serious and danger-filled one or the lighter and more-humorous type. Once that decision is made, the first novels in supernaturally focused series proceed in much the same way, with something bad happening, the supernatural nature of that something gradually becoming clear, the necessity of overcoming the bad thing by delving into its background developing, and the young team’s eventual triumph against all apparent odds providing a suitable climax and entry point for the next book.
Ellen Oh’s Spirit Hunters takes the serious path. Harper Raine and her family move to a new house – actually an old house – that immediately gives Harper the creeps. Her parents feel nothing, and her hyper-logical Korean mother, Yuna, cannot even admit the possibility of anything outré. Then Harper’s younger brother, Michael, starts behaving more and more strangely, in ways so obvious that the obliviousness of the adults becomes increasingly hard to swallow. Harper, sensitive and increasingly worried, becomes more and more alarmed. But Harper herself has a history that leads her parents to disbelieve her when she tries to tell them what she thinks is going on: she had a mental breakdown of some sort (she does not really remember what happened), was institutionalized for a time (she remembers little of that), and she is accused of eventually starting a fire (she is pretty sure she did not). Slowly but surely, Harper recalls bits and pieces of her earlier life, including the existence of her longtime friend, Rose, who happens to be a ghost living in a mirror. Harper and Rose are two members of the supernatural-perceiving team here; the third is Dayo, a new (and living) friend whom Harper has met in Washington, D.C., where the book takes place. Oh’s story becomes rather convoluted: there is a revelation about an evil ghost of a child, and that is the ghost causing problems for Michael; but there is a puppet master, an even-more-evil ghost, manipulating the evil child ghost, and it turns out that Harper must get rid of both of them to save her brother. How can she do that? Her Grandma Lee – from whom Yuna is deeply and apparently permanently estranged – turns out to be a mudang, a spirit hunter, and Harper has inherited the ability to be one as well (hence the plural title of the series). But, in a twist that is not fully believable even for fantasy, Harper herself must handle the exorcism of both ghosts afflicting Michael, and the puppet-master ghost, portrayed as super-powerful, is beaten much too easily by Harper even though this ghost is able to prevent Harper from getting help from yet another ghost who is a supposedly super-strong spirit helper of Grandma Lee. Of course, the explanation of Harper’s success is that she has such amazingly deep, if untrained, abilities as a spirit hunter, and those will be explored in future series entries. There is also a rather uneasy rapprochement between Yuna and Grandma Lee at the book’s end. All of the currents, cross-currents and counter-currents get a bit in each other’s way here, and the various ghostly manifestations are the entirely usual stuff of spooky movies (unreal fire, oozing walls and all that). Still, Harper is a character whom readers will be interested in meeting again, and the way her serious past personal troubles turn out to be keys to her future spirit-hunter success is an attractive element of the book – as is its slightly exotic Korean background. What the book lacks, clearly intentionally, is any sort of leavening humor at all: Spirit Hunters is all tension and intensity.
Not so The Supernormal Sleuthing Service. This is a book that is not quite sure whether it wants to be a lark or a sort-of-serious work; it ends up not quite being either. Wife-and-husband coauthors Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe start with an odd letter to central character Stephen Lawson from his grandmother, Nanette, known as Chef Nana, about her work at a hotel in New York that, at least according to the letter, has some very strange clientele. Then Bond and Rowe switch to Chef Nana’s funeral, where weird things happen to Stephen because his father has never bothered to tell him anything whatsoever about his mother (who has long been missing) or the Lawson family or much of anything else. The father’s neglect almost lands Stephen in supernatural hot water, because it turns out that his mother is a fey and a ruling member of the supernatural realm (here called “supernormal”; hence the series title). The specific fey Stephen encounters are the bad guys here, trying to get him to join their ranks by hook or by crook; when he refuses their initial clumsy overture, they steal a Lawson family cookbook (yes, a cookbook) that is full of all sorts of magic and history and whatnot. So Stephen has to form the “sleuthing service” of the title with “a short boy about Stephen’s age” with “close-cropped red hair and glasses” (that would be Ivan, son of two supernormal-world detectives) and “a girl with a high, curly ponytail and a flouncy black dress” (that would be Sofia, daughter of high-ranking supernormal-world diplomatic types). The assembled three-young-person team proves strikingly inept, largely because the kids disobey pretty much every rule the adults have set down at the hotel, which is a gathering place for supernormals of all sorts and a location where a truce is permanently in effect. The kids make wrong decision after wrong decision, and Bond and Rowe are fairly clumsy about it: the team members think they are a lot smarter and more-aware than they are, and their ineptness trips them up time and again; and then Stephen (in particular) gets terribly distressed because he may cost his father his newfound job and prestige (the fey who stole the Lawson cookbook did so while disguised as Stephen). Misstep follows misstep until eventually, of course, the kids succeed, but the authors so obviously and so frequently push events in the direction in which they want them to go that the book feels clumsily and forcibly crafted rather than carried through on the basis of either plot or character. The humorous elements are actually the best ones here: there is a highly self-conscious talking elevator that steals the scene every time it appears, having more personality than the three team members put together; there are croquet-playing and somewhat accident-prone gargoyles; and there is a delightful dragon character who is obsessed with art and absolutely delighted by Stephen, a budding artist who discovers accidentally that some figures in his drawings actually move around (a fey ability that he apparently inherited from his mother). On the whole, The Supernormal Sleuthing Service is silly and light enough to be a pleasant read for preteens who are not especially concerned with plot or characterization niceties. Its very basic good (Lawsons) vs. evil (many fey) plot will certainly be carried into later series entries, as will the camaraderie of the three-person sleuthing group. And hopefully the elevator, gargoyles and dragon will get bigger roles in future installments.
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