The Summoning: The Darkest Powers #1 (2008), by Kelley Armstrong

I’ve promised to fill in a questionnaire about Kelley Armstrong’s The Summoning for a friend’s research project, so I set myself to reread the series (the questionnaire rather requires it). I remembered reviewing The Reckoning (2010) when it came out, and being gratifyingly surprised at how much I enjoyed the series, but I guess time had mellowed my recollections. Picking up The Summoning for a second time, I was again immediately sucked in to the powerful world of Chloe and her friends. Fortunately, I have a horrible memory for plot (hence the need to reread), so it was (mostly) all new the second time around. But equally enthralling. I read it through in one sitting, only rising for a Skype meeting in the afternoon and to make dinner in the evening. Almost reneged on that responsibility, actually.

All that I said about The Reckoning remains true (and please read it so I don’t have to repeat myself). Chloe and her friends and associates are very realistically drawn—for teens who have paranormal abilities—and their struggles translate easily into the lives of less “special” teens in the general North American population (even better, I would hazard to guess, for otherly-“special” teens in the general North American population).

We meet Chloe as a young child afraid to go down into the basement: not an unusual childhood fear. Chloe, though, is afraid because there really are ghosts, and they speak to her. Sometimes they are benign, but sometimes they are evil and malicious. Her trauma causes her parents to move, and she settles into a normal life. We meet her again as a teen on the cusp of adolescence. Her repressed memories come back as she crosses over that cusp (gets her period) and the ghost of a dead custodian at her school reaches out to her. Things go downhill from there, and Chloe ends up in a group home for a two-week diagnostic and therapeutic visit. She finds herself in a classic situation of emotional and psychological tension: is she crazy, schizophrenic, as she is told? Are the other teens crazy? Why are they here, and is she in danger from them? Who can she trust? By the end of the book, she still hasn’t answered that last question, although the answers to the first two have become clearer. She is not crazy: she is a necromancer; the ghosts cannot actually hurt her, despite her fear. This is a powerful realization, but not sufficient to keep her safe. She learns the stories of some of the other teens, but not all. And she really doesn’t know who to trust. And she gets it wrong.

Cue the end of the book.

This would be troubling if the second novel in the series (yes, thankfully, series, not trilogy, as stated on the cover of The Reckoning) were not available, but at this point, one can just read on (if Book #2, The Awakening (2010), weren’t out of the library as usual even now). And this time around, I will be able to carry on immediately reading the second series, Darkness Rising: The Gathering (2012), The Calling (2013), and The Rising (2014). In rereading my own earlier review I note that The Reckoning leaves the teens set up to take on the world as they know it. I can’t wait to see how that goes for them.

Walking Home (2014), by Eric Walters

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.2.

Walters - WalkinghomecoverWhen I first picked up Walking Home to review it, I was concerned. What do I know about Kenya? How could I possibly determine the authenticity of the social and cultural space Eric Walters is describing? Fortunately, Walters includes an “Author’s Note” at the back (should this be at the front?) which tells us about the Creation of Hope Orphanage he founded in Kenya after a 2007 visit to a friend there. “Accompanied by four children from the Creation of Hope Orphanage, four young Canadians and my good friend Henry Kyatha,” Walters tells us in his “Note,” “we walked the route traveled by my characters. … Over six days, we walked more than 150 kilometers so I could know Muchoki.” With such assurance about the author’s personal investment—material and emotional—in his subject, my own approach to the novel changed: what I was about to read was fiction, certainly, but with an underlying truth that elevates the novel from interesting fiction to a reflection of reality that cannot be ignored.

Muchoki, his mother, and his little sister Jata have lost everything. On January 1st, 2008, armed assailants attacked a church in Eloret, over 300 kilometres north west of Nairobi, and burnt it—and all inside—to ashes. Walter’s fictional characters escaped this massacre. When the story opens, they are living in a refugee camp near Nairobi. When his mother dies in the refugee camp, Muchoki makes the decision to escape with Jata rather than face separation. In far away Kikima, his mother’s people live. His only choice, then, is to take Jata and face the long walk through the dangers of war-torn Nairobi, and out the other side, south towards Machakos. From there, they would ask directions to Kikima, where they hope that the family who do not know of their existence will welcome them. Strong for his sister in this and many ways, Muchoki weaves a narrative of hope for Jata: their mother’s people are Kamba, “people of the string,” so they will follow the string of the legend that will lead them unerringly to their family.

Walking Home is more than the story of Muchoki and Jata’s journey. In keeping with this sort of survival story, it is about what Muchoki learns, how he grows, as they travel towards their destination. Before he leaves the refugee camp, a friendly sergeant tells him that Kalenjin or Kamba or Kikuyu, Luo or Maasi, they are all Kenyans: together they must build a stable country. The bitter hatred Muchoki feels for those who killed his father cannot be assuaged by words, and certainly not all who the children meet on their journey help to dissipate the anger and distrust. But the balance is in their favour, and aid comes from many hands: the sergeant is Kalenjin; a Maasi father and son watch over them for a span; they aid a Luo merchant passing through Kibera, a dangerous Narobi community; their experience—far more than the sergeants words—teaches them that there is a Kenya, encompassing all tribes.

Muchoki leads Jata along the invisible string of his mother’s Kamba heritage, and—as in the folktale—it leads them home.

Tin Soldier (2014), by Sigmund Brouwer

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.1.

Brouwer - Tin soldierSigmund Brouwer certainly knows how to weave an intriguing mystery, and protagonist Jim Webb’s blend of hard-earned cynicism and innate compassion stand him in good stead as he unravels the secrets of his grandfather’s past. Tin Soldier is part of the second “Seven” series, which takes Webb and his six cousins on further adventures, this time self-imposed, to defend the reputation of the grandfather they all loved.

Spending the week between Christmas and New Years at their grandfather’s cabin, five of the seven cousins discover a World War II pistol, a hidden cache of fake identities and money in the wall of the cabin. The discovery sets wheels in motion, and Jim finds himself in Alabama talking to Ruby Gavin, who he met as part of his first adventure, Devil’s Pass (2012).

Tin Soldier, though, is only superficially about the mystery Webb solves; its most poignant impact comes from the lessons Webb learns. This may sound trite and clichéd, but Bouwer’s message of tolerance is not only apropos to our current sociopolitical situation, but a truth that each generation needs to learn for itself. Webb is introduced by Ruby to Vietnam War veteran Lee Knox who, she says, will be able to help determine why Webb’s grandfather had hidden two veterans’ ID cards; or, rather, two veteran’s ID cards, for while the names are different, the pictures are the same. Lee’s questions, weaving upwards through his personal contacts from the war, soon result in drastic consequences, and the two unlikely associates set out to find answers.

Webb carries serious anti-military baggage from abuse at the hands of his ex-step-father; Lee harbours deep racial anger from his experience as an activist in the Civil Rights movement. Their common purpose only mostly overcomes their seeming antipathy, but they both recognize the similarities that bind them together more than their prejudices hold them apart. Webb’s previous abuse and subsequent life on the streets of Toronto help him to empathize with the trauma Lee has experienced through the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. His growing respect for Lee fosters a belief in Lee’s opinion that Webb’s generation have the power—like Lee’s in their time—to make a positive statement in the world: “Guy like you,” Lee asserted, “maybe you could come up with another song like ‘One Tin Soldier.” Make a difference, not just make money” (109). Brouwer provides a few lines of the song by the Canadian folk group Original Caste for his readers, and I wonder how many will seek out song—will get past the very 1970s folk feel and really listen to the meaningful words. Reading Tin Soldier I was struck with the similar pertinence of “The Fiddle and the Drum,” by a more well-known Canadian artist, Joni Mitchell. “Fiddle and the Drum,” though, is a cappella, and would not lend itself to Webb’s transposing of the song from major to minor key, reinventing it for his own generation. Brouwer takes the issues of Webb’s parents’ generation and builds an analogy that readers will not only understand but feel. Webb—and in a lesser way Lee—learns that self-respect and forgiveness are key to letting go of anger. Racism, tolerance, compassion, self-respect, and the power of song resonate through the novel. In the end, as he performs his adaptation in a small club, we cheer for Webb as much as does his audience.

Bone, Fog, Ash & Star (2014), by Catherine Egan

Once again, I have reviewed this title simultaneously for Resource Links Magazine and this blog. I just didn’t want to wait any longer to have my opinion out there. The final book in such an excellent trilogy deserves better treatment than the length of time I have put this off already…

Egan - BoneI have been really almost frightened to read Bone, Fog, Ash & Star, the last of Catherine Egan’s The Last Days of Tian Di trilogy: what if it didn’t live up to the expectations set by the first two books? What if the author lets me down? What if there are loose ends, or manipulations to tie up those ends, or gratuitous character alterations to accommodate necessary plot developments… what if… what if… The more I like a series (or in this case trilogy), the more invested I am in the author’s narrative success: hence the trauma. I need not have worried.

Egan opens her second book, The Unmaking (2013), with the unlikely (but explicable) scene of ninja-Eliza in total stealth mode. The opening of Bone, Fog, Ash & Star similarly causes the reader pause: Eliza is flying through the air on the back of a great bird: “And then she let go” (1). We hope it is a dream sequence, but after the ninja, we are not so sure… The great bird turns out to be Eliza’s shape-shifting friend, Charlie, in gryphon form; Eliza is trying to see if her dreams are true, and she herself can transform into a raven. And so the reader is brought back, how ever long away, into the world of Tian Di and all that has happened to Eliza, the Shang Sorceress, in the previous few years (and two books). Just as we become comfortably reacquainted with Eliza and her world, inexplicably, Egan kills off one of her central characters: Charlie has become a target of the Thanatosi, a breed of assassin creature who, once commanded, will not rest until their prey is dead. The emotional impact on the reader parallels Eliza’s response (not surprisingly), and we read with bated breath as Eliza travels into Death’s domain and pulls Charlie back into the world of the living.

The social and emotional relationships between the characters lie at the heart of the plot, but are not the plot. The Mancers (in charge of magic in Di Shang) recognize Eliza’s affection for Charlie, but want to marry her to a Mancer, thus not diluting her bloodline further (Eliza herself is of mixed race due to her mother’s headstrong actions in this regard). So to stop the Thanatosi, Eliza must return to the Citadel of the Mancers… which sets the plot in motion.

Ultimately, the only thing that might stop the Thanatosi are the gathering of the four Gehemmis—bone, fog, ash, and star—gifts of the Ancients that are prophesized to bestow ultimate power on the one who rejoins them. So Eliza’s quest begins: she is off after the Gehemmis; Charlie and their friend Nell are taken to the Realm of the Faeries, where he might be safe; Eliza’s only Mancer ally, Foss, is banished with her from the Citadel and is slowly dying, away from the source of his life-energy. The three plots are woven together like a loose but intricately patterned fabric: we are following one narrative thread with great interest when all of a sudden we reach the end of that pattern, and find ourselves at the beginning of another. Egan has honed this technique admirably to leave readers gripped by all three plots at once: regardless of which we are following at the moment, we do not feel abandoned by the author, nor do we lose sight of the other characters’ positions. Tricky narrative weaving, well executed.

Far more than the first two novels of the trilogy, Bone, Fog, Ash & Star alludes subtly to the eschatology of the mythological underworld: in the ferryman who conveys travellers between Di Shang and Tian Xia; in the raging river that forms the barrier between Tian Di and the underworld; in the power relations that develop between the worlds and those who live in them. These power structures feed into the political machinations that Eliza has become increasingly embroiled in as the trilogy progresses; now, in the Last Days of Tian Di, she is forced to make very mature decisions… but she is still only a 17-year-old girl. The conflict between her child-like desired to save those she loves and the more altruistic space she should inhabit as the Shang Sorceress ultimately lies at the heart of the novel. There are intimations of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy in both the imagery and the conclusion to Egan’s trilogy, but without Pullman’s rather negative perspective on belief, free will, and human agency. I wept copiously at the end of Pullman’s trilogy, but I also felt betrayed, as if the author were presenting a vision of humanity that was missing some of what I know to be true. The Last Days if Tian Di is written for a younger audience, but even as an adult reader, I feel that the choices Eliza makes reveal a real human response to her world, at both the individual and the global level. Well done, Ms. Egan. What’s next?

Reviews of the other two books in the series: Shade & Sorceress (2012) and  The Unmaking (2013)