July 16, 2020


5 Worlds, Book 4: The Amber Anthem. By Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Boya Sun, and Matt Rockefeller. Random House. $20.99.

     The marvels of the 5 Worlds series continue to pile up in the fourth book of the quintet, as the team of authors deepens the characters, explores their developing relationships further, and introduces some new and unexpected twists in this multi-world-spanning epic adventure. The story arc remains foundationally simple and easily graspable enough to allow the authors to toss in all sorts of outrĂ© elements without distracting readers from the progress of the primary plot. The basic idea here is that there are five interrelated worlds, settled long ago by obscure, poorly understood ancient figures called Felid Gods, about whom many mysteries remain. One of those mysteries is central to the totality of 5 Worlds: each world has on it a giant colored beacon, built for no known reason and now dark after having presumably been lit and important in some significant way in the dim past. The 5 Worlds quest is, at its simplest, the story of the re-lighting of the beacons and of the three young people who – against the feckless and often venal forces of their elders – make the re-lighting possible.

     The re-lighting is necessary because the worlds are overheating, already becoming uninhabitable by some wild creatures and soon, if the beacons are not re-lit, destined to turn into places where humans cannot survive. The relighting, done correctly, will cause some sort of massive realignment of all the planets and give all the races living on them a new lease on life – maybe. Exactly what will happen is one matter that remains a mystery and point of contention as the 5 Worlds saga continues. The parallel with worries about climate change (“global warming”) on Earth is quite clear, but is not overstated or delivered in a hectoring tone. Also clear, and also handled gingerly, is the fact that the adults in 5 Worlds have their own agendas and their own interpretations of what is going on – and many have deep-seated suspicions about the motives of three young people whose background is decidedly mixed and who seem ill-suited to any heroic endeavors. Of course, this part of the plot is straight out of innumerable “poor/uneducated/misshapen/underclass protagonist makes good” fairy tales; but as in so many other ways, 5 Worlds is told in a way that transcends and surpasses many of its models and its own underlying structure.

     This is a political universe, and the marionette strings of politics are in large part pulled by a bizarre creature known as the Mimic that is manipulating the governance and societal concerns of all five worlds: Mon Domani, Moon Yatta, Toki, Salassandra, and Grimbo (E). The Mimic is not only heartless in actions but also literally heartless because of some of the events in the books, but nevertheless appears unstoppable and, like all ultra-villains, seems to be steadily growing in strength. Yet the central characters barely manage, again and again, to outwit or out-think or outmaneuver the bad guy and his supporters and henchmen. The protagonists are Oona Lee, goodhearted but not-very-skillful student at a prominent school called the Sand Dancer Academy, who leads the quest and gains steadily in stature and self-assertiveness as she does so; An Tzu, a boy from the slums who knows how to trick and maneuver his way around his world’s oppressive society, and whose mysterious illness – in which parts of his body are constantly fading to invisibility – proves extremely important in the fourth book, providing a crucial link to the Felid Gods; and Jax Amboy, a star athlete in a highly popular game called Starball, originally an android construct but now fully human – thanks to symbiosis with a strange spiritual creature known as a Salassi Devoti.

     Among the clear but soft-pedaled elements of 5 Worlds is the extent to which the protagonists’ quest is a spiritual, moral and ethical one as well as one requiring them to make physical journeys from world to world, and around each world in turn, in order to light the ancient beacons in the correct order: white, red, blue, yellow, and green. Each color is associated with a different world and its beacon, and The Amber Anthem is all about Salassandra, which is permeated by the color yellow in its many hues. The fourth book is also, to a greater extent than the three earlier ones, about the tensions among the different races that populate the planets, and the need for members of all races to cooperate and work together in order to save all five worlds from destruction. This “we’re all in this together” theme – again, nothing unusual in fantasy quests, but handled with care and aplomb in this one – is quite explicit in The Amber Anthem, since the key to lighting the yellow beacon turns out to be, first, the rediscovery of the ancient anthem itself; and, second, its singing and proclamation by members of all five races – which requires figuring out exactly what those races are. Despite their differences in appearance (including skin color) and background, humans turn out to be a single race for this purpose. The second race is one of plant people, upon whom many humans of all types look down. The third race includes giant, usually completely silent, human-like beings known as Kyojin. The fourth, it turns out fortuitously, is the race of Salassi Devoti, native to Salassandra but long since gone – except for the one bonded to Jax. And the fifth race – well, there is something fortuitous about them, too, because the three protagonists have been sharing their adventures with a sentient creature made of oil, a shape-shifting (and often humorous and altogether delightful) character known as Ram Sam Sam. However, he, in the form in which readers and the characters themselves know him, is not sufficient to represent the fifth race. What is sufficient is one of the many mysteries solved in The Amber Anthem.

     Another important piece of the 5 Worlds puzzle incorporated into the myth-building in the fourth book has to do with the Mimic – exactly who or what he/it is, with what relationship to the Felid Gods, and specifically with what connection to An Tzu. The underlying motivation of the Mimic proves to be overly simplistic – one of the few false notes in a series remarkably devoid of them – and his last-minute decision not to destroy Oona Lee when he appears on the verge of doing so rings a bit false as a result. However, the question of the Mimic and An Tzu is clearly set up at the end of The Amber Anthem as the ultimate difficulty that the beacon lighters will face in the forthcoming final book, The Emerald Gate. It will clearly be a matter of overwhelming importance, and more than a small amount of heartache. But that is to come in the fifth book. For now, readers of The Sand Warrior, The Cobalt Prince, and The Red Maze can simply revel in The Amber Anthem, which is as skillfully told in words as the first three books, and filled with equally attractive and engaging art. There are parallels aplenty between 5 Worlds and other fantasy quest stories, and between this graphic-novel series and others. Yet 5 Worlds successfully sets itself apart from roughly comparable stories through the consistency of delineation of the characters’ personalities, their growth as individuals and as a group, and the apparent ease with which mystery after mystery is introduced and solved – only to whet the appetite for the new ones that keep coming up. 5 Worlds draws on many classic elements of fantasy quests and illustrated storytelling, but it does so in such a way as to make it virtually certain that the five-book sequence, when completed, will itself become a classic.

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