April 29, 2021


My Pet Slime 3: Saving Cosmo. By Courtney Sheinmel and Colleen AF Venable. Illustrated by Renée Kurilla. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

Soul Riders 3: Darkness Falling. By Helena Dahlgren. Translated from Swedish by Tara Chace. Andrews McMeel. $8.99.

     Fighting the good fight, and winning, is not really enough in books for young readers. It is also crucial to fight in the right way, which means in battles tailored to the specific age ranges for which specific good-against-evil books are intended. For the very young readers who will identify with Piper Maclaine, eight-year-old creator of an ultra-cute homemade “slime pet” named Cosmo, the bad people have to be conquered in a thoroughly nonviolent manner and have to learn the error of their ways (if possible), and pretty much everybody has to end up being friendly with pretty much everybody else. That is exactly what happens in the conclusion of the My Pet Slime trilogy, which is also packed with enough mostly lighthearted adventure to keep fans of the first two books happily reading this one. Piper’s best friend (and former frenemy) Claire does a good job summing up the plot of Saving Cosmo when she says, near the end, that “a lot of cool things happened today. I got to rescue someone, then get captured myself, then break out, then go bowling with dominoes, then ride a giant slide, then race in a shopping cart, and then eat astronaut food…” Yes, that’s about it. But those are merely the human elements of the story. The book’s title, Saving Cosmo, shows that the major focus here will be on the wide-eyed, utterly adorable purple slime creature created by Piper with a lot of love and a pinch of cosmic dust (the contemporary equivalent of fairy dust) brought to Earth by Piper’s space-exploring Grandma Sadie. In the first two books, Cosmo started out being visibly alive and interactive only for Piper and Claire, but that element of the plotting is abandoned in the third book, because it is important to the story for a lot of people to see, get involved with, and learn to cherish Cosmo. And that gets into the color purple, which, it turns out in another necessary if clumsy plot twist, is Cosmo’s normal color – meaning that when he changes to other colors, something may be wrong. It turns out that he is really ill, so Piper has to save him, and there is the explanation of the title. Because of the age range targeted by this series, it is all right to have some heart-tugging separation between Piper and Cosmo – who is, after all, a creature of space, and (it would seem) belongs out there. But it is necessary, by the book’s end, to have everyone happily reunited and have Cosmo visible to and engaged with even more people – which is exactly what happens, accompanied by a lot of cute illustrations (the one of wide-eyed Cosmo on an exam table, attached to electrodes, with a cone of light beaming down on him, is almost too precious for words). As for conquering evil, evil basically conquers itself, as Piper’s Uncle Ricky realizes that he threw in his lot with bad guys and “made a mistake” but can now go to the police “to tell them everything and give them the proof,” because “I’ll get in trouble, but it’s the right thing to do,” and “the most important thing is family.” Young readers will enjoy the affirmations, ignore the plot holes, and delight in the adorableness of Cosmo and the ease with which the baddies are vanquished.

     Things are much more difficult in the Soul Riders trilogy, where family is also crucial to the plot – but in a much darker way, pulling its four teenage-girl protagonists into a whole series of dangerous, magic-imbued adventures based on the online “Star Stable” game. The basis of this trilogy is that Lisa, Alex, Linda and Anne are bonded not only with each other but also with four horses on the mysterious island of Jorvik, which is a linchpin of the balance of good and evil for the whole world. Jorvik is under threat from an ultra-evil creature called Garnok, his (or its) revenge-seeking human accomplice Mr. Sands, and three teenage-girl-looking demonic creatures who have scary horses on their side (the three are known collectively as Dark Riders, of course). All the machinations involve a parallel world to the green Earth, a place called Pandoria where the basic color scheme is pink (which would scarcely seem a frightening color, but which is designated as one for the purpose of these books). The usual trappings of young-adult fantasy are all trotted out, so to speak, in this horse opera, also so to speak. There are highly knowledgeable, magical druidic creatures of various types that seem to be out to help the four Soul Riders but may have their own agenda. There is an arcane book containing immensely powerful spells that the girls must use even without fully understanding them. There are a couple of adult human mentors/helpers, including one who was herself once a Soul Rider, but those adults are conveniently rendered unable to provide any real help, forcing Lisa, Alex, Linda and Anne to figure out what to do mostly on their own. The fecklessness of adults and resilience and stick-to-it-iveness of teenagers are basics of the Soul Riders books and the many, many other fantasies built on similar lines. The obviousness of the good and bad characters is foundational, too: Mr. Sands and his ilk operate through an organization called Dark Core, and they display that evil-sounding name all over the place. The sounds of the language in which the books are written – or perhaps those of the translation – are clunky and obvious, too, with one reference to “this momentous moment” and a time at which “the colors formed a colorful pattern.” And the plot holes in this trilogy are typical for the genre. For example, the girls need to prevent a dam from bursting, so they ride to a house in the village near the dam and try to warn the people there to evacuate. The villagers, of course, do not believe the disheveled and never-before-seen quartet of strangers on horseback, so the girls get some villagers to come see the dam and the danger for themselves….no, they don’t! That would make sense! Instead, they simply give up in frustration and save the village themselves – in such a way that the villagers will always believe they were right to ignore the Soul Riders’ dire warnings. Oh, the thanklessness of universe-rescuing! Less thankless, though, is family rescuing: Lisa’s father, who came to Jorvik for an ostensible job with Dark Core, is trapped and held hostage, and Lisa’s determination to save him (her only parent: her mother is dead, another common element of books like these) gets in the way of the Soul Riders’ mission and jeopardizes the four girls’ growing friendship and interdependence. But the girls and their horses all reconnect, of course, because they know if they do not, “No more rides in the woods and happy laughter, no music, no warmth and goodness.” Well, we can’t have that scenario! So eventually, not at all surprisingly, evil is defeated (with some difficulty and much soul-searching), proper balance is restored to the world(s), and readers who have stuck around for the entire trilogy will be satisfied to know that the Soul Riders could be called on in the future if Garnokian chaos should ever threaten again. The victory in Darkness Falling is hard-won rather than easily arranged, and the messages of camaraderie and peer-group identity are at least as strong as those of family ties. In these ways and others, the Soul Riders trilogy and others of its type aim for an older and presumably more mature (if not worldly) audience than do the My Pet Slime trilogy and similar series. Foundationally, though, there is not so much difference between these sequences: they are all about good (in some form) overcoming evil (in some form) – and they pave the way, for readers who develop an abiding interest in fantasy, for eventual indulgence in the genre on a thoroughly adult basis, in works such as The Lord of the Rings and its innumerable imitators.

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