March 2006

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Harry Potter's Aftermath

In the wake of Harry Potter everybody and their third cousin has been writing and publishing fantasy titles for young adults. (This is the part where in the interest of self-disclosure I admit that I am currently writing a young adult fantasy, but mine is really cool -- I swear!) The problem with a lot of these new titles is that they aren’t smart or exciting or fun to read -- mostly they are just sad attempts at being the next Rowling or Pullman or Jacques (and now even -- heaven help us -- the next C.S. Lewis). They are not books written by someone interested in telling anstory but rather in retelling the same story.

I persevere in my hunt for new titles in the genre, though, because I am a huge and lifelong fan of sci fi and fantasy; Madeleine L’Engle pretty much changed my life when I was twelve and Ray Bradbury is everything I have ever wanted to be in a writer. From personal experience, I know how important a well written fantasy tale can be to a kid searching for something amazing in their world. I read Harry Potter as a thirty-something adult and I’m not snarky about the writing. As for Philip K. Pullman, well, wow. Isn’t it great when you find an author who knocks your socks off?
So here are the latest very cool fantasy titles that have showed up on my doorstep and impressed the hell out of me. I wish I had a list of twenty books, or thirty or forty to tell the world about, but at this point, I’m just happy to be able to recommend four. Plus, as a bonus, I have an interview collection with some great fantasy authors that will be a treasure for anyone interested in the writing process.
First up is Laura Ruby’s imaginary world title, The Wall and the Wing. I really enjoyed Ruby’s haunted town story, Lily’s Ghosts, and was delighted to hear she had a new book coming out. Wall is quite a departure from the real world adventures Lily Crabtree found in Cape May, New Jersey, (albeit a ghostly real world), but it proves Ruby’s versatility as a writer. She has done a major genre change with this book, and pulled it off brilliantly. Both titles are winners and Ruby is now an author that I am certainly going to watch.

This time out, our heroes are two children who have forgotten everything about themselves before their dreary existence at Hope House for the Homeless and Hopeless. (Don’t you love it already?) Gurl and Bug know that they don’t belong there, they can’t stand having to live there, but they can not even imagine a life outside the walls of the orphanage. Their days are predictably dull there, even though they are full of miserable food, endless letter writing to thank people for donating to the House (although none of the children ever benefit from the donations) and unsuccessful flying lessons. Yes, everybody spends a great deal of time trying to fly at Hope House. In this world some people can fly, and everyone wants to be one of those people. Gurl clearly has no talent for flying, but Bug is convinced he will one day be a great “wing.” Of course none of this really matters to her after Gurl successfully sneaks out and finds a cat and discovers a talent far more amazing than flying. (Cats are rare and valuable animals in this world, and the effect this particular cat has on Gurl and Bug is nothing short of life-changing.)

The adventure that follows Gurl’s bold midnight adventure is full of cats and rats, the mafia, toy monkeys and a professor with a headful of grass. There is also an event that sounds a lot like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and a pen that proves the awesome power of the written word. More than anything though there is the wonderful friendship that Gurl and Bug work very hard at preserving and all of the wonder of a city that knows flying like we know walking.

The Wall and the Wing is a wonderful combination of the buddy novel and pure fantasy and it introduces not only some great characters but a world that seems to present Laura Ruby with endless possibilities for future books. And on a purely personal note, I also can not resist a story that proves why toy monkeys are not to be trusted. I always knew those little suckers weren’t happy just sitting on the shelf and smacking those cymbals! (Creepy little bastards!) All in all, Wall is an excellent adventure, smartly written and wholly original. I look forward to more from Ms. Ruby.

Passarola Rising might seem more like a historical novel or mainstream adventure story, but at its heart it is about an amazing flying machine. The fact that the man who designed this craft was real only makes it that much more wonderful and certainly a title that any fan of Jules Verne (or H.G. Wells) must certainly grab a copy of.

Bartolomeu Lourenco was really born in 1685 in Brazil and after traveling to Portugal in 1705 designed a hybrid flying ship that was part balloon and part glider. There is no record that the Passarola was ever constructed but Lourenco did conduct flying demonstrations before the King in 1709 -- demonstrations that drew the attention and ire of the Inquisition. He was forced to flee before being tried for sorcery and was apparently unable to pursue his aviation research. He died at a young age in Spain, and disappeared into obscurity, until Azhar Abidi took the inventor’s life and turned it into a wild and delightful story about brothers and flying and the very nature of scientific truth.

Bartolomeu’s story is told by his younger brother Alex, his companion on many of flights. It is Alex who details how the Passarola was constructed:

Two panels of wood, presumably leeboards, extended on either side of the hull. Two cross sections displayed the hull’s interior. At the bottom of the hull was M hold where stores and provisions would be kept. The ship had two masts and three sails. The only difference between an ordinary boat and this craft was that the deck was suspended underneath four large copper spheres. 

These spheres are “vacuum spheres” and they are the secret behind how the ship rises and falls. After the brothers build the ship they immediately set out flying it around the skies of Lisbon and although the King is quite impressed, the Inquisition can not tolerate such a craft that dares to fly into the regions best known only to God. The brothers find themselves under attack and in a hail of musket fire, they sail away in search of a safe harbor from the Church.

From the moment they leave Lisbon, Bartolomeu and Alex find themselves falling into several amazing situations. They are sent to rescue the King of Poland and find themselves in a battle against the Russian Navy. They embark on a scientific effort to take latitude measurements in the Far North and determine what the correct shape of the world is. They find people previously unknown to the kingdoms of Europe and they see things that confound and confuse their very sensibilities. Ultimately what they discovered in the highest altitudes is challenged by men who will never know such great heights. Whether the approval of others is necessary to men of vision is left for the reader to decide and who is the greater success is something that even Alex can not know for sure, as he remembers his brother’s later achievements and compares them to his own much quieter life.

Passarola Rising is an old fashioned fantasy, one that embraces the fantastic elements posed by the early 18th century. It is a wonderful read, and for reminding us all of what Bartolomeu Lourenco dared to dream so long ago, it is certainly to be celebrated.

Kate DiCamillo has written a fantasy story that the younger set will adore, and rightfully so. I did not expect to enjoy The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane so very much -- I was afraid it would be a retread of the classic Velveteen Rabbit -- but  I was incredibly off the mark with that prejudgment and I’m not afraid to admit it. Yes there is a bunny and yes he is lost, but DiCamillo flips everything on its head and gives us an obnoxious rabbit who is sent on the trip of his life. And every time you think you know what will happen next, the author throws yet another curveball into the plot. And even though I did not think it could happen, she manages to make you fall in love with this bunny.

From the very beginning, the story moves along quickly and is full of lush descriptions of every thing Edward sees and touches. He bounces from the house and owner he takes for granted to a great ship and a dreadful accident and then to a succession of caretakers who all influence Edward’s view of the world. And while there is a message in here about the value of love, it is not heavy handed or coated in sugar. It is just what Edward figures out as he makes his way into the world, and by the time you reach the book’s perfect ending it will not matter if the message is clear to young readers or not -- it will only matter that they are happy for Edward, and for everyone he met on his journey.

I would be remiss in writing about Edward Tulane if I did not mention the gorgeous illustrations by Bagram Ibatoulline. The color plates in particular are lovely but every drawing in the book adds to the story by portraying the characters in such a richly detailed manner. Ibatoulline and DiCamillo make a great team, and their combined work has produced a truly lovely book.

In the midst of all the fiction I’ve been reading I received an awesome collection of interviews with thirteen of the top fantasy writers in the world today. The Wand in the Word is editor Leonard Marcus’s excellent record of interviews he conducted with writers such as Lloyd Alexander, Garth Nix, Madeleine L’Engle and Brian Jacques. There are questions here about childhood and school, about early writing and present work routines. The authors hold forth on how they research and revise and what they hope to accomplish in writing for children.

What I really liked about this collection most were the personal questions, such as why Phillip Pullman made Lyra’s daemon a marten and if Terry Pratchett based Granny Aching on a real person. Overall though I was just so impressed by the talent that Marcus managed to gather (Susan Cooper, Jane Yolen, Ursula K. Le Guin!), that I flew through reading the book. The writers are honest and funny and all pretty much admit that they work very hard at writing and that anyone, from any background, can be a writer. Clearly they all love writing fantasy and having young adults as their target audiences. Reading their comments would be very inspiring for any writer, regardless of their age, but it is particularly perfect for the teenager who thinks they will never make it or who has heard one too many times that they need to stop wasting their time on stories and concentrate on things that really matter. (I can still hear it in the back of my head, even twenty years later.) I am delighted with this collection and will recommend it easily to any writer, of any genre, who wants to learn more about the craft.

Finally, remember this name: Amanda Hemingway. I have just read the first two books in her wonderful new fantasy series, The Sangreal Trilogy, and they are so wicked cool that I can hardly stand it. I don’t know why these books aren’t on everybody’s nightstands the way His Dark Materials was, but I hope they will catch on in a very big way. The Sangreal books do echo Pullman’s trilogy just a tiny bit in that they also present a different way of looking at organized religion and the history of Christianity, but the viewpoint and stories are wholly original. In Hemingway’s case the Grail legend is also re-examined as magic, science and alternate worlds all converge in one of the most amazing and impressive bits of story telling that I have enjoyed in quite awhile.

The saga begins in The Greenstone Grail when eleven-year-old Nathan makes a mysterious discovery in the woods near his uncle’s home. Hemingway then quickly backs up to briefly explain just how Nathan and his mother Annie came to live in their small village and the strange questions that have plagued them since Nathan’s birth. After Nathan sees something that day he can’t explain in the Darkwood, events quickly unfold leading up to an amazing confrontation the following summer with a very nasty creature from the dark side of faery. There are revelations aplenty about everyone around Nathan, from an Uncle who has lived forever, to a witch, to a new neighbor who is not at all what she seems.

The second book The Sword of Straw follows up the hunt for the Grail with a story about a very dangerous sword that Nathan must recover from its hiding place on a distant world. While he is eager for adventure, it is in this book that Nathan begins to realize that the decisions he must make in his quest are not going to be easy, and they might leave him with a less than happy ending. His best friend Hazel has her own issues to deal with here, as she begins to fulfill the destiny introduced to her in the first book. The parallel storylines show how difficult it is to be a teenager in any case; even when you just might be the best hope for more than one world’s survival.

I don’t make snap judgments about books because I know that sometimes it can take 30 or 40 pages for a story to take off (I loved The Historian after all), but Greenstone captured me from the very beginning. When Nathan began dreaming of alternate worlds and a larger story began to reveal itself, I knew I was in this series for the long haul. As everyone banded together on the hunt for the Grail, and struggled to learn just what it’s greater significance is, I became more and more impressed by how Hemingway was able to weave together multiple storylines and keep the pace moving forward on all of them with no confusion to the reader. Her books are not overwritten or over-dramatized, they just take you on voyages through space and myth with every turn of the page, and they keep you on the edge of your seat as you race to see just what Nathan and the people he cares about will discover next.

What is really fantastic though is how all of it ties to stories we already know so well (in the second book she gives a great riff on The Sword in the Stone) and the suggestions of how all of this ties into the known legends of King Arthur or the stories of the Bible are very impressive. It’s so smartly done that I don’t see how any reader would not be impressed. Personally, I can’t wait for the third book in this trilogy. The whole series has been so thrilling and wonderful thus far, I just can’t imagine how Hemingway is going to top what she has already written.

In one way or another, all of the books in this column made very happy; made me glad that I am a person who reads and reads and reads. I hope they make all of you feel the very same way.

The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby
Harper Collins 
ISBN 0060752556
336 pages

Passarola Rising by Azhar Abidi
ISBN 0670034657
240 pages

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick Press 
ISBN 0763625892
228 pages

The Wand in the Word edited by Leonard Marcus
Candlewick Press 
ISBN 0763626252
197 pages

The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway
Del Rey Books 
ISBN 0345460790
360 pages

The Sword of Straw by Amanda Hemingway
Del Rey Books 
ISBN 0345460804
336 pages