The Awakening: The Darkest Powers #2 (2010), by Kelley Armstrong

I’ve just finished re-reading The Awakening as part of my friend’s research project, and have to admit that with my review of The Reckoning when it was first published (2010), and my recent review of The Summoning (2010), I haven’t really a lot to say. Still, I thought I would share my few thoughts. They relate, not too surprisingly, to my perhaps overly strong opinions about trilogies and series fiction, expressed elsewhere.

The Darkest Powers is unequivocally a trilogy not a series, which is not an issue. The problem I have is that the author wrote the beginning chapters of the second book, The Awakening, as if it were a stand-alone part of a series and the reader would not have read The Summoning. Even with the not-so-subtle reminders of the plot and characters, The Awakening cannot stand alone. As you know, I am totally fine with that, but authors need to know what it is they are writing. It seems to me that Kelley Armstrong did know, and yet was convinced (by self or others) to cater to the still-current trend in teen fiction of needing a series to be open-ended, permitting publishers to continue (should they so desire) with a solid franchise (should the story turn out to be one). The existence of the three books in Darkness Rising and a number of intermediary stories and prequels that form the series, suggest that Armstrong had an intended, overarching narrative that has been hijacked by financial or other expediencies. I have absolutely no basis for my opinion, of course, except my discomfort with the texts as a set. I have yet to read Darkness Rising; that trilogy is next on my list, and I will let you know then whether my perception changes.

Aside from my concerns about genre, The Awakening is a strong continuation of Chloe and her friends’ story. Armstrong leads her characters through a maze (or three) of doubts about who to trust, what to do, where their strengths lie, how to navigate a world that they don’t understand. As they slowly learn about themselves and their beginnings as part of a paranormal experiment, the reader is left—as are they—with a sense of confusion and tension that is still strong at the conclusion. At the end of The Summoning, Chloe and Rae are captured; at the end of The Awakening, the players on Chloe’s team have changed; allies have been killed or turned; and we watch them surrender themselves to the care an adult who may or many not be safe to trust. Like the teens, we really hope that after all the betrayal and emotional pain they have suffered they are finally heading to a safe space. That hope is mitigated, though, by the knowledge that there is still one more book…

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.

The Little Broomstick (1971), by Mary Stewart

In anticipation of Studio Ponoc’s upcoming release of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, I thought I would read Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, upon which the movie is based. Mary Stewart is, after all, one of my favourite adult authors. It turns out that The Little Broomstick is not all that easy to find, but yesterday my copy came in the post, shipped all the way from the wilds of North Yorkshire.

Mary Stewart is a mistress of descriptive writing, as much in The Little Broomstick as in her novels for adults, but this is not perhaps a strength: the child reader will likely not want to savour the lengthy, intimate description of Great-Aunt Charlotte’s gardener, or even the garden he inhabits, with its “sad, beautiful smell of autumn” (13). But maybe I am unfairly imposing the sensibilities of a modern child reader on a book written in 1971; for me, timeless classics such as Black Beauty (1877) and Swallows and Amazons (1930) fail in this regard just as strongly. The intelligence and sophistication with language that are a trademark of Stewart’s writing are similarly weakened when aimed at a younger readership. Again, though, modern sensibilities may be at fault in my evaluation, for her narrative style does effectively meld childish linguistic simplicity with a hint of fairy tale rhetoric. There is something almost Diana-Wynne-Jonesian about her narrative voice, which can only be a good thing in a story about witches.

The story begins in a rather recognizable way, with a young girl sent off to live with an aged relative (à la The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 1950). Lonely, she wanders into the autumn-dying garden, and encounters the taciturn gardener and a robin flitting about “as if it were his familiar” (à la The Secret Garden, 1911). The discovery of a magical flower (the “witch’s flower” of the anime) and its animation of a little broomstick Mary finds, lead her to Endor College for witches. I am certain that J.K. Rowling has read this book. From here, though, The Little Broomstick branches out on its own, refusing to conform to the trope of schools for good witches and wizards such as Hogwarts, Larwood House, or Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. The students at Endor College are learning “spells of the simpler kind. Turning milk sour, blighting turnips, making the cows go dry” (51), and chanting distorted versions of children’s verse (à la Alice in Wonderland (1865), but lacking any levity) that are unquestionably intended to harm. Mary is quite sure that, despite the cat Tib and the Little Broomstick having brought her here, this is not a school she wishes to attend.

Again disrupting current narrative tropes, Mary’s magic does not come from any hereditary propensity to witchcraft, but rather from her finding the witch’s flower and rubbing its pollen on the broomstick handle. Or so one could choose to believe, if one did not want to consider Mary in any way connected with the evil that is Endor College. And Mary does distance herself irrevocably from the institution, actually effecting its demise. But the question still remains: why, on her first foray into the woods, did Mary find the magical flower that blooms only once every seven years? And why did she find the Little Broomstick hidden in a corner that replaced the unwieldy besom the gardener hands her to use? And why does the invisibility spell work so well on a neophyte, unless she possesses some latent magic of her own? These questions remain unanswered in the light of the logical, “daylight world” dénouement provided, but readers are allowed still to wonder…

So despite my initial reservations, coming from a strong habit of reading Mary Stewart’s writing from adults, I have to say that The Little Broomstick satisfies in every way: it refused to present a warm-cuddly version of witchcraft and magic; it has a simple yet exciting plot that takes place in a number of days rather than weeks or months (more satisfying for younger readers); and it leaves readers with something to wonder about, even while it presents an easily accepted narrative path for Mary’s future. I can imagine reading this to a young child over the space of a week, but perhaps not at bedtime. I wish I had found a copy ten or twelve years ago, and read it to my own children.

The Merlin Conspiracy (2003), by Diana Wynne Jones

Like her Tam Lin retelling, Fire and Hemlock (1985), this tale does not rise to the level of effectiveness that the Chrestomanci series or Howl’s Moving Castle (1996) does. The characters are all interesting, and the plot cleverly arranged and effectively sustained, but there are… it is hard to describe… just too many words. The narrative, like Fire and Hemlock, would have been more effective if reduced about 30% in length. While Diana Wynne Jones’s concept of multiple parallel universes is fascinating, this is not the best example of her use of that narrative paradigm. Sacrilege thought it may be in the world of children’s literature to suggest such a thing, I would love to have seen these of Jones’s concepts in the hands of a more adept author.