October 26, 2017


Have Sword, Will Travel. By Garth Nix & Sean Williams. Scholastic. $17.99.

The 12 Dares of Christa. By Marissa Burt. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     There are various ways to try a little too hard. Garth Nix and Sean Williams, for all their authorial experience, try a little too hard to be both funny and dramatic in Have Sword, Will Travel, the first book of a new series. How many people, one wonders, will “get” the title? It traces to an old TV series (1957-1963) called Have Gun, Will Travel, about a West Point graduate called Paladin who becomes a hired gunslinger way out West and carries a calling card with a knight (the chess piece) on it. Episodes may be available on YouTube nowadays, but how many members of the targeted preteen audience for Have Sword, Will Travel will have seen them? How many of their parents will have seen them? Well, never mind – the title is just one way, a small one, in which the authors try a bit too hard. There are others. Thirteen-year-old best friends Odo and Eleanor, a miller’s son and an apothecary’s daughter, are hunting eels one day when they turn up a sword stuck under water – which Odo pulls out and which proves to be a slightly addled talking blade called (in short form) Biter. The blade promptly knights Odo and insists he go on an appropriate knightly quest – much to the annoyance of Eleanor, who is deemed Odo’s squire even though she wants to be a knight (her deceased mother was one) and he does not. The faux-medieval world here is particularly faux in light of the fact that actual 13-year-olds in medieval times would have been married or on the verge of it, certainly not hanging around as best (strictly platonic) friends and catching eels together. Anyway, the humor of the sword-finding and Eleanor’s frustration persists for a while, until Nix and Williams decide to give the story a more-serious turn. Odo and Eleanor live in a village by a river that is quickly drying up, for reasons unknown, and they embark on a quest to find out what is going on and deal with it. Along the way they have a serious encounter with a bad-guy smith who is making weapons for “urthkin,” creatures of the dark underground that are decidedly not dwarves. The wayfarers and the story lurch past that event to the dark and dangerous Old Forest, wherein the young adventurers encounter the traditional blind seer and, given the extreme rarity of talking swords, just happen to happen upon another of them, which turns out to be (in short form) Runnel, Biter’s older sister (made by the same smith 70 years earlier). Eventually it turns out that the river is drying up not because of a dragon, as everyone along the river has assumed, but because of a gigantic dam built by a scurvy turncoat of a knight with whom Odo and Eleanor have already had a run-in. The reason the dam was built is – well, in the biggest of the many plot holes in Have Sword, Will Travel, that is never explained. But the thing still has to be destroyed, which proves remarkably easy after Odo and Eleanor rescue an old, enslaved man who happens to know exactly how to wreck the dam. Then everyone journeys quickly along the now-released river to confront the evil knight, Sir Saskia, before she can do even more damage – but it takes a deus ex machina, or more correctly a dragon ex machina, to set things right and make sure that both Odo and Eleanor are properly knighted and ready for their next quest. If all this sounds chaotic and rather ill-plotted, that is an accurate reflection of what Nix and Williams have done here. The sprinkling of old-style words (be prepared to look up, say, “drassock”) makes little impact on the thoroughly contemporary way in which characters speak to each other; and from start to finish, the book’s humorous elements (many supplied by the over-enthusiastic but memory-challenged Biter) coexist uneasily with its more-intense ones. Not surprisingly given its provenance, Have Sword, Will Travel is well-paced and easy to read. But it simply tries a bit too energetically to be both epic and amusing, and falls a little short on both scales.

     What Marissa Burt wants in The 12 Dares of Christa is to be heartwarming, and wow, does she push to get there. The title echoes “The 12 Days of Christmas” to a rather obvious degree, and the quest here is a dual one: to find beauty and joy in unexpected geographical locations and to find inner peace, all in the name of reclaiming the holiday spirit that Christa once felt in abundance but that now, at age 13 and with her parents recently divorced, she has lost. Burt ensures that the two parents are both there for Christa, in different ways. Her mom takes her to Europe for a winter-break vacation that Christa does not really want, and her dad makes sure that when Christa arrives in Italy, a package is waiting for her containing the 12 “dares” of the title. “Dare you to find the matching padlock at the Ponte Vecchio,” one reads; they are all along the same lines. Christa’s reactions are all similar, too – in this particular case, she writes, “Yesterday, Europe was all stars and wonder and ancient cathedrals, and today I want to hole up in my hotel room and avoid seeing everyone.” But that is not to be, not this day and not any day, for Christa has to get out into the world and learn that there is life after one’s parents’ divorce. Christa is scarcely a deep thinker. After she hears someone suggest that feelings about food can mirror those about life in general, she wonders “if deep inside I’m on the alert against any and all changes. And if I look deeper inside, I wonder if that’s because so much has changed that I haven’t wanted to. Whoa. Deep. I push it all out of my mind to think about later.” Unfortunately for Christa, “later” keeps coming, as does earlier – the latter being a point early in the book when she sees her mom embracing a man who, of course, is not Christa’s father: “Mom is kissing someone else. I mean, really, really kissing him, like I haven’t seen her kiss Dad in – well, ever.” Anyway, the dares keep coming, too, as Christa tries to deal with life and all like that there. No. 8, for example, is “Dare you to ride the Chunnel train,” which forces Christa to confront her fear of “being trapped in a metal tube hundreds of feet underwater.” Like all the other dares, this one works out just fine and brings some unexpected benefits, and in fact that is the whole point of The 12 Dares of Christa: life has its ups and downs, but more of the former than the latter, and confronting things that upset or worry you is a good thing because all works out for the best. Some of this treacle is excusable because the book makes it clear, starting with its title, that this is a Christmas story. But Burt seizes every possible opportunity to spread things a little too thickly, even making sure that Christa encounters people with real problems by having to serve a meal in a soup kitchen in London. For all its claims of depth-seeking, The 12 Dares of Christa is an extremely superficial novel – and although there is nothing wrong with that, especially considering the book’s seasonal slant, the over-emphatic feel-goodness of the book as it tries to tackle serious family issues makes the whole thing, ironically, come across as less sensitive and aware than Burt wants it to be.

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