September 2006

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Tales of Adventure

I love a good adventure story, always have. Adventures seem to be the childhood books that stay with readers the longest -- consider Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or A Wrinkle in Time or any of the boy and girl detective series. More than nearly any other genre, adventure stories seem to cross the line of the sexes as well. They transport readers to another place, another time, or somewhere beyond the scope of our own reality. Here’s a look at a few new adventure titles that I’ve enjoyed over the past couple of months.

James Owen clearly loves a good adventure because he has mined a lot of them for his new book The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica: Here, There Be Dragons. Opening in London during the Great War, Owen immediately throws the specter of Sherlock Holmes in the face of his readers with a mysterious death, a curious police detective and a hasty meeting arranged at a club located at none other than 221B Baker Street. The story is not all about Holmes however; it’s just a wink in his direction as Owen’s heroes, John, Jack, and Charles, find themselves running for their lives into an alternate world. They are three Oxford men from London for God’s sake—how could they possibly suddenly be meeting Captain Nemo or attending a Parliament session with trolls, dwarves, and elves?

There’s a book of maps, The Imaginarium Geographic, that is literally the atlas of the known world, only it’s not the world that any of our heroes (or readers) are expecting. There’s also the legacy of Arthur and the tragedy that has befallen his descendents which left chaos and now war in its wake. There’s a usurper to Arthur’s throne, the Winter King, who must be stopped at all costs; and there is John, Jack, and Charles, who are in charge of saving the day.

It seems that whatever goes wrong in this alternate world (reached by dragon ship from London) has severe repercussions in our own. The current conflict over the empty throne has contributed to the First World War and if the situation in the “Archipelago” is not changed then what will happen on the battlefields of Europe is anyone’s guess. John is the one who has been trusted as the Imaginarium’s caretaker but he is suffering from a rather wicked case of shell shock. At one point he explains: “I had friends... friends who died, right before my eyes. And I feared for my own life. That kind of fear, once a man has experienced it, never fully goes away.”

There is all sorts of action here, mysteries to ponder, dramas to unfold, but underneath is a very direct message about doing the right thing. And in the end, when all of the secrets are revealed, Owen proves himself to be a great storyteller in the grandest of traditions. I don’t think he was riding on coattails with Dragons, I think he was just doing the best kind of homage to a lot of literary giants.

Catherine Fisher impressed me a lot with Darkhenge, which I reviewed earlier this year. With Corbenic she reaches back into the Grail King legend and gives us the best example of a “right to refusal” novel. What if you were suddenly tasked with participating in one of the greatest legendary stories of all time? Would you make the choice to jump right in or would you decide to sit back and think about it first -- consider your right to refuse the adventure? That’s what any normal, sane person would think, and that’s why Fisher’s story about teenage Cal and what transpires when he gets off the train in the wrong place is so appealing.

Corbenic is the castle of the Grail Kings, the place where the Holy Grail is believed to be guarded by the descendents of St. Joseph of Arimathea, the great uncle of Jesus. In the Arthurian legend, the knights found Corbenic as a castle that was falling down with the Fisher King left inside, the Grail’s guardian whose illness mirrored that of the castle. Galahad supposedly recovered the Grail and healed the king but there is a lot more to the story -- and many ways to interpret the Grail legend.

In Corbenic, Catherine Fisher gives the old tale a modern twist by casting the hero as a young man suffering from the pressure of dealing with his alcoholic mother. Cal is on his way to live with his uncle, get a reliable office job, and take a break from his mother when he accidentally leaves the train at the wrong stop. In the middle of a rainstorm he tries to find his way to a phone, but ends up at a castle during a party where he seems to be both expected and appreciated. The lord of the castle, Bron (in the legend Bron was St. Joseph’s son-in-law and the first Grail King), is very ill and desperately in need of some sort of help that he believes only Cal can give him. The teenager has a vision but denies it and leaves the castle’s occupants bitterly disappointed. Soon enough he is at his uncle’s and trying to forget everything that happened in the village called Corbenic, a place that does not appear on any train schedule or map. Then he meets Hawk and Shadow and his life takes another dramatic turn.

Cal is so multi-layered -- from his concerns and frustration with his mother to his uncle’s determination to make his life as bland and predictable as possible -- that clearly he is a young man with more than one choice to make on many issues. His new friends present their own subtle pressures, showing Cal a world that seems to consist purely of role-playing, but has just enough reality to make the reader wonder where the line between fantasy and reality is drawn.

Corbenic is outstanding. There are few authors that can so skillfully bring legends into contemporary storylines without making the plot seemed forced, and Fisher is clearly at the top of her game here. I loved this book for all of the smart and serious ways in which it insists the reader consider Cal’s predicament and understand the magnitude of the choice he must make. Yes, we all want adventure but do we understand what it might entail? Do we understand just how great a burden that adventure might be?
Are we willing to go where the adventure will take us?

In Jeanette Winterson’s Tanglewreck, eleven-year-old Silver seems to have been expecting adventure to come knocking. She is an orphan, and dreadfully misses her parents and sister who disappeared on a train trip to London four years earlier. Her horrid aunt now takes care of her and Silver’s life is one of hunger and misery. The only bright spot is that she lives in Tanglewreck, her family’s beloved, if somewhat dilapidated, home. As the book opens there are highly publicized “time tornadoes” striking down in modern day London which produce odd collisions between the past and present. Silver knows nothing of this, but when Abel Darkwater shows up at her house with questions about a missing family heirloom called the Timekeeper, she knows she cannot trust him. Her aunt is immediately drawn into Darkwater’s promises of fortune; she jumps at the chance to go to London so that Darkwater can try to determine the location of the missing clock from Silver’s memory. Soon enough though, our heroine is running through the streets in the middle of the night trying to escape Darkwater’s evil plan. She is running, that is, until she sees the wooly mammoth and the boy (who does not look completely like other boys).

In many ways Winterson reminded me of Philip Pullman, as it is clear that she does not think her young readers need to be talked down to, even when discussing big concepts like the nature of time and life. There is not only time travel, there is also a journey across the universe to a place where all the previous popes live in a Disneyland-style Vatican City, and the “Quantum” controls everyone’s lives. Twins are harvested for nefarious medical purposes (shades of a futuristic Dr. Mengele). In other realities, life doesn’t seem so bad, and that is the lure that Silver must resist.

I was swept away by Tanglewreck, by all the possibilities of science and magic that Winterson offers up for her readers to consider, as well as by the many deft touches the author includes to raise this book up above so many of its peers. Pope Gregory XIII is here, the pope who changed the calendar in the 16th century. Bedlam hospital is brought from the past to the future, along with all the horrors of life for its inmates. Even Stephen Hawking offers up his ideas about the nature of time.

Tanglewreck forces its readers to consider the significance of personal freedom and the strength that individuals must find to fight for their own power. “Let us take care of you,” is the constant lure in this book. Silver gets it, with a little help from Gabriel and some other friends.

Janet McNaughton’s The Secret Under My Skin is a science fiction tale set in a future society that is still suffering from the effects of catastrophic environmental degradation and an ensuing “technocaust” that has left much of the population suspicious of technology. Teenager Blay lives in a government work camp controlled by the “Commission” and alienated from the nearby townspeople. Unlike many of the other children, Blay is drawn to reading and spends her spare hours absorbing as much of the computerized library as possible. She is smart enough to know that this interest will bring her unwanted attention at the camp and works hard at being just like everyone else -- dull, depressed, and dedicated to the cause of supporting what her keepers tell her is important. Life in 2368 seems very bleak indeed.

Blay is selected to help a young girl in the town, Marrella, who is training with a group called the Way, to be a bio-indicator. In the early days, after the breakdown of democracy and during the height of the environment crisis, the bio-indicators risked their lives to gauge the damage caused by the degradation of the ozone layer. During Blay’s time the position is largely ceremonial, but as the Way is now a political threat to the Commission, it is a ceremony taken very seriously by the people. It is a position with close ties to the environment, which Blay finds herself increasingly drawn towards. At this time, too, Blay begins to learn some of the secrets about her own life and how she came to be an orphan, abandoned and living on the streets.

There is a lot about Secret that makes it a classic sci fi story: the post-environmental society struggling under an authoritarian government; the presence of long-outdated technology and the resurgence of an agrarian society; even the conflict at the end as the Commission struggles to reassert its authority. It is rooted in current fears about the environment and certainly contains something that modern teens can identify with. Blay is smart and smartly written -- she doesn’t jump into her new situation without exhibiting a certain amount of caution and concern. The revelations that slowly come her way as Marella’s lessons commence ratchet the tension up in steady notches until the final chapters when, quite literally, the whole world changes.

I love good science fiction, but finding it for young adults is not so easy. I was happy to see McNaughton’s book and to lose myself in the world that she has carefully crafted. I hope things do not turn out the way that McNaughton has imagined them in Blay’s world, but I am glad that there are insightful and intelligent writers who are willing to sound the alarm about what trouble may come. Science fiction has often appeared as the canary in the mine to me, and because of that it is the genre that young adults really should not be without.

Finally, Matthew Skelton has crafted a novel that is a huge love affair to what makes books the mysterious, amazing, and hopeful objects they are. Anything can happen in a book, right? You can go anywhere; you can do anything; you can be anyone. A book can make miracles happen; it can be everything you need at the moment in your life when nothing is going right and nothing makes sense. The right book can sometimes save you, and Skelton knows that. Consequently, he has written a big adventure story that largely takes place in a famous college over a short period of time, and involves a brother and sister. And it’s all about a book, a book that literally leaps off the shelves of a library in Oxford and lands in the hand of our hero, Blake Winters. What happens next involves Johann Gutenberg, blank pages that carry significant messages, forbidding underground passageways, and a bit of Christina Rossetti. In short, it is all things bookish and exciting and wonderful and yet… I feel like I need to add a caution to this review.

There were moments when I was reading Skelton’s Endymion Spring that I fell madly in love with this story. There are moments of perfection, such as when Skelton writes about Rossetti and Goblin Market; when Blake’s mother describes the Bodleian Library in a way that sends his imagination off into pictures of a labyrinth of tunnels deep underground filled with “millions upon millions of volumes;” when he and his sister “Duck” walk through darkened streets and he notes that “it had rained heavily and the street lamps smeared patches of electric blood on the pavement.”

But in the midst of a lot to enjoy and relish there is some confusion, muddled plot points, and leaps of logic that just do not seem right. There are moments when I had to have faith in the author, and then I had to again and again. In the end this left me with a book that I liked but wanted to love; a book that was good but should have been great. It’s a story that I think most twelve-year-olds would read, but it will not stay with them like the His Dark Materials series.

Endymion is his first book, and certainly shows an enormous amount of promise. Any small criticism I might have will be wiped away by his future efforts, I imagine, and for the young teens who are happily following Blake’s search for clues in scary libraries, I doubt what I have to complain about is going to matter much anyway.

Cool Read: Mohieddin Ellabbad is an Egyptian author and illustrator well known in the Arabic-speaking world. With The Illustrator’s Notebook, Toronto publisher Groundwood Press seeks to bring him to a Western audience as well. Although it is presented in picture book format, this is most certainly not for the little kid crowd—in fact, this impressive look inside the inner workings of an artist’s mind is a gold mine for teen artists, writers, and scrap-happy crafters. Each page is a filled with a full color, collage-style drawing that Ellabbad then describes and discusses in the margins. By the end he manages to give his readers not only a healthy dose of his own sources of inspiration but also a fascinating opportunity to view the world through an Egyptian lens. This is a gorgeous book and should not be missed by any creative soul.