Elatsoe (2020), by Darcie Little Badger

Misinterpreting a comment in her introduction, I at first thought that Elatsoe (eh-lat-so-ay) was Darcie Little Badger’s first book, but it turns out that she is quite prolific. More books to add to my “want to read” pile, I guess.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it.

Elatsoe is full of magic realism that blends seamlessly with the imagination of youth and the stories of the Lipan Apache Nation. This seamlessness was actually a problem for me, as I am almost totally unversed in the Apache culture. At one point, Ellie tells her father, “Dad. We’re Apache. Wendigo is a monster for the northerners” (chapter 7). You can hear the eye-roll. Wendigo, however, is a creature I recognize; “northerners” includes Canadian Indigenous cultures… So while it was a learning experience, but my lack of knowledge rendered me unable to tell where magic realism and imagination bordered on—or overlapped—Indigenous story.

That aside, the combination was, well—magical. We have zombies and vampires and spiritualists and wizards all practicing under the auspices and control of governmental agencies. Ellie herself is intending to go into training as a paranormal investigator: “Her second goal was paleontologist, since she could always double-check her reconstructions with careful use of ghost dinosaurs” (chapter 4). Which brings us to what makes Ellie such an interesting protagonist.

So. Backing up to the opening pages of the book, then. I admit to being a bit flummoxed, but both the initial intrigue and its resolution spurred my interest and anticipation in reading on.

Ellie bought the life-sized plastic skull at a garage sale (the goth neighbors were moving to Salem, and they could not fit an entire Halloween warehouse into their black van). After bringing the purchase home, she dug through her box of craft supplies and glued a pair of googly eyes in its shallow sockets. [So far, so normal…]

“I got you a new friend, Kirby!” Ellie said. “Here, boy! C’mon” Kirby already fetched tennis balls and puppy toys. Sure, anything looked astonishing when it zipped across the room in the mouth of an invisible dog, but a floating googly skull would be extra special. [At this point I thought: “Imaginary friend? How old is our protagonist?”]

Unfortunately, the skull terrified Kirby. He wouldn’t get near it, much less touch it. Maybe it was possessed by a demonic vacuum cleaner. More likely, the skull just smelled weird. …

“Look, a treat!” Ellie put a cheese cube in the skull’s mouth. Although ghosts didn’t eat, Kirby enjoyed sniffing his old favorites: chicken kibble, peanut butter, and cheddar. …

The world Ellie lives in only gets better. Ellie has inherited the natural abilities of “Six-Great,” her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, also Elatsoe, a legendary and “formidable warrior” who had learned how to raise the dead. The dead can also come to Ellie in her dreams, and when her cousin Trevor visits her one night to tell her his death was not accidental, asking her to discover the truth, her father believes her: “We will honor your cousin’s last wishes, ” he said. “Together. As a family.”

Here, Elatsoe veers off the path of expectation. Tradition—in late twentieth-century Western children’s literature at least—is for the parents to be either absent or problematic for the youthful protagonist developing a sense of self. I admit that this has changed in the last couple of decades, but it still seems true that Western youth approach adulthood through a sense of separation; in Elatsoe, maturity is acknowledged as an acceptance of and engagement in the power of family and community. I am sure that children’s literature critics have addressed the coming-of-age trope in Indigenous versus Western cultures; if not, here is fodder.

The investigations of Ellie and her friend Jay—himself part fairy—lead them to crash a charity ball held by a prominent doctor in a nearby community. Not only Ellie and Jay, but Ellie’s mother and aunt, and Jay’s sister, her basketball friends, and her vampire fiancé (and of course Ellie’s grandmother’s ghost mammoth—but you’ll have to read the book) all join in to prevent a paranormal catastrophe. They work together. And succeed. As a family.

The Druid and the Dragon (2020), by Kristin Butcher

I really enjoyed Kristin Butcher’s newest novel, The Druid and the Dragon. Not surprisingly, because ever since reading Return to Bone Tree Hill (2007) almost 10 years ago, I have enjoyed every book of hers I have read. But it’s been a while.

Butcher has written remarkable YA novels (Truths I Learned From Sam remains my favourite of her books), as well as books for younger readers (Isobel’s Stanely Cup is a fabulous historical novel for early readers), and a number of Orca Currents, “short, high-interest novels with contemporary themes written specifically for middle-school students reading below grade level.” The Druid and the Dragon is a departure for her, falling as it does into the fantasy subgenre; yet it is fantasy that middle-school readers, not only older teens, will readily engage with.

To being with, a simple thing: she includes a map! All fantasy novels involving travel need a map. That the map looks much like England is not an oversight, for the enemy invaders against whom King Redmond must defend his kingdom are Norsemen. We find ourselves in an implicit alternate history, where druid is a culture, not just a role, and the palimpsest of reality over earth-magic rings true.

Maeve, our protagonist, is torn, for she was not born a Druid, yet the Druids claim her as one of their own. Her difference in appearance and character to her family sets her apart, and we wonder if perhaps some interesting tale of her birth might be forthcoming. Not in this book, but I hold out hope; Druid is the first in a trilogy.

Disowned by her parents, but angry at the Druids who have lied to her, 13-year-old Maeve is forced to make very difficult decisions regarding her future.

[Bradan] said he wanted to take her on as an apprentice! The prospect sent Maeve into a panic. What if she accepted his offer and it turned out he was wrong …? If the Druids threw her out and her parents disowned her, she would have no one to care for her and nowhere to live.

Then a spark of defiance – something Maeve had felt from time to time in her life but never acted upon – flared inside her. … She wouldn’t stay where she wasn’t wanted; nor would she go where she didn’t belong.

We watch as her youthful anger and obstinacy gives way to adult logic and acceptance, carried through her training by the Druids, who she ultimately sees as the best port in the storm of her life.

While the Druid Bradan recognises a power in her, self-doubt remains her dominant characteristic; she lacks focus and patience, and struggles to learn to interpret her visions and the dreams of others. Her inate ability is ultimately called on before she feels ready, and the fate of their kingdom rests in her ability to convince a doubting King of her truth. Hoping not to give too much away, I will say that Maeve’s decisions at this crucial point in the narrative reveal a maturity – both as a person and as a Druid – that she still denies having.

Oh. And there’s a dragon. Of course. So what about the dragon? Underlying Maeve’s doubts and insecurities is an affinity with the natural world that she does not give much credence to. Readers couched in fantasy tropes will be shouting at her: “That’s a clue, you silly girl! Of course you have power!” And when she finds herself hiding in a cave with the dragon, Riasc Tiarna: “No, silly girl, not everyone can talk to dragons in their minds!” But Maeve’s insecurities are perfectly in keeping with the abused young girl who has been abandoned by her family and has not yet found where she belongs. As the narrative unfolds (with excitement and war and a battle between dragons, but you’ll have to read it yourself for the good bits), Maeve moves towards acceptance of her power and place in the Druid community. After the narrative storm subsides,

Maeve’s heart was so full she was sure it was going to burst. Never had anyone made her feel so special. Suddenly she wasn’t the least bit afraid of what lay ahead. “I want to continue to learn the ways of the Druids, and I want to learn all Bradan can teach me. I think I’m finally beginning to understand who I am – and why I am. … this is the life I was meant for.”

Given that there are two more novels in the trilogy, we can surmise that her lack of fear will be tested. She may not be afraid of what lies ahead, but readers will anticipate future hardships, and be anxious to see how she moves through them.

Butcher is not only an author, but an artist as well, and her Facebook followers have been enjoying teasers in the form of sketches of characters and scenes from the book leading up to its release last week. I’ve included a couple of my favourites, but the full gallery can be found on her website, where you can also read more about the trilogy and her other works.

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

11 April 2019

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

4 April 2019

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.