Death Drop (2016), by Melanie Jackson

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 22.2.

Death Drop (2016)

jackson-dropThe Orca Currents series, high-interest books with a simpler reading level aimed at teens, address issues as diverse as geo-caching (Kristin Butcher’s Caching In), archeological mysteries at the Royal Tyrrell Museum (John Wilson’s Bones), and normal teenage antics gone wrong (for example, Deb Loughead’s Caught in the Act). Sometimes, though, we get a seemingly simple mystery, such as Melanie Jackson’s Death Drop. Protagonist Zeke’s legitimate concern about being late to practice, and thus losing a scholarship, is set against his worry about a little girl lost at Playland and his desire to unravel what turns out to be an increasingly interesting mystery. The newest ride at the fair—Death Drop—is based on the myth of Persephone’s time in Hades—including “a famous painting of Persephone, on loan from England” (3). Zeke’s classmate Dieter, the “class bookworm” (7), who is writing a report on the financial situation at the ride, has read classical mythology, and is familiar with the pre-Raphaelite painters, fills Zeke in on the juicier details of the myth and the intrigue surrounding the ride. Readers are thus shown a teen world in which learning plays a positive role in the success of the characters.

Approached by a little blonde girl as he queues for Death Drop, Zeke is stereotypically loath to help her: “I was a boy. Kids with problems needed a nice lady. A middle-aged, motherly type” (4). His attitude softens as she points to his LA Angels t-shirt: “Angels help people.” Faced with the uninterested, disengaged staff at the ride, Zeke takes on the task of finding her aunt and in the process discovers the illegal activities that lie beneath the fun of the fair.

A lost girl, a death-defying thrill ride, financial fraud involving a stolen painting, international intrigue: all bound together in a plot that works. Death Drop does not have Zeke and Dieter learning deep life lessons so much as employing their inherent compassion and generosity to counter the ill effects of adult greed. A short novel, certainly, but containing a fast-paced story centered on protagonists whose integrity and intelligence is essential in a satisfying narrative resolution.

Aesop’s Secret (2012), by Claudia White

white-aesopI’ve just finished Claudia White’s Aesop’s Secret (well, obviously, because here I am reviewing it). They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case I think maybe you can. Larissa Kulik’s drawing of Melissa, one of the two protagonists, is alluring, whimsical yet uncanny, and thus very fitting with the content of the book.

I have to admit it took me a little while to get into the story; the language is not as light and flowing as other books I have read recently. But then it began: I sunk deeper and deeper into the story, completely uncertain where White was taking us. The more I read, the more I honestly didn’t know, couldn’t tell, where we were headed… which of course drew me deeper still.

The concept in Aesop’s Secret is refreshingly original. A race of Others living among us (okay, not so original yet), called Athenites, used to live in harmony with humans but were forced by history to conceal their abilities. This name is purportedly based on the Greek goddess Athena’s ability to transform into other animals. Now, if you think about Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the title is a bit of a give-away), it is not only Athena, amongst the gods, who has this ability. But I’ll give White that one; after all, Athena’s mother Metis was known—more than other mythological characters—as a shape-shifter. Melissa and Felix Hutton’s mother is about to publish a treatise revealing that Athenites are real, not mythological. She seems exactly the right anthropologist to do so, as the Huttons themselves are Athenites. But someone doesn’t want that research published.

Athenites’ abilities manifest as they mature; shape-shifting is genetic and connected in some way to their hemoglobin. This sets up nicely for a plot involving biological manipulation for at least one character’s nefarious purposes. I really don’t want to say more than that; you’ll have to read the book. The originality lies largely in the parts I am not telling you: sorry. While there is some catering to the narrative expectations of child readers—I can tell you that it all works out in the end—there were quite a few “oh—didn’t see that coming” moments to keep readers on their toes.

Aesop’s Secret is the first of a trilogy, all of which are written, published, and available now to be read: the second book is Key to Kashdune (2014) followed by Servalius Window (2015), itself a novel in three parts. White avoids the “well, I might as well write another volume” problems that so much series fiction has these days. At the end of the novel, you can see how the story can go on, but you are still left satisfied. The best place to be: you can read on, but you don’t have to in order to find closure.

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Cursed by a Sea God: Odyssey of a Slave, Book II (2013), by Patrick Bowman

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 18.4.

Cursed by the Sea God

Bowman-Sea GodI have been waiting for the next installment of Patrick Bowman’s Odyssey of a Slave ever since I finished the first book, Torn from Troy (2011). Cursed by a Sea God did not in any way disappoint. Torn from Troy is a retelling of Book 9 of Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus begins to recount the ten years since his departure from Troy after its conquest: he tells of their encounters with the Cicones, the Lotus-eaters, and the Cyclops. In Cursed by the Sea God, the Trojan protagonist, Alexias, commonly known as Alexi, continues his journey as a slave on Odysseus’s boat, the Pelagios. After their dramatic escape from the Cyclops at the end of Torn from Troy, the Greek soldiers and sailors, and their Trojan slaves, find themselves in a land where the king has harnessed the winds—he thinks… but the winds have become powerful, and his erstwhile reasonable punishments have been resulting in his peoples’ deaths. Alexi’s outspoken nature again serves him well; with his help, Odysseus reveals the truth to the King, who grants them the powers of the wind to sail to their home in Ithaca. Bowman’s subtle humour comes into play, when King Aeolus insists that instead of “Your Majesty,” they call him “Your Inclemency.” When the sailors inadvertently release the winds, Alexi is blamed, and it takes all his wit and verbal abilities—as well as most of the novel—to regain Odysseus’s trust.

The story from Homer that readers will most likely recognize is that of Circe, who turns the crew into pigs. Alexi, a pig himself, has not part in this rescue, but learns from Odysseus’s behaviour that all is not black and white. While Circe is a wicked enchantress, she is also the source of information that helps Odysseus and his crew to survive on their journey, which includes a decent into—and return from—Hades. Through it all, we are shown the complex mixture of compassion and ruthlessness that Alexi recognizes—and resents—in Odysseus: he knows that Odysseus treats him well, but knows also that he is still a slave, and a pawn in Odysseus’s clever manipulations of his crew. We are shown the depths of Alexi’s internal turmoil, and care greatly for his success and happiness. Once again, Bowman has created for young readers a faithful representation of Homer’s plot, presented in a narrative that is fantastical, fast-paced, and sure to captivate young readers.

The Last Days of Tian Di: The Unmaking, by Catherine Egan (Book 2, 2013)

Last month I posted a review of Ann Walsh’s Whatever, which I had received for review for Resource Links magazine. Last week I contacted the magazine to ask if I could send them two unsolicited reviews for the first two books of Catherine Egan’s The Last Days of Tian Di trilogy. Like Whatever–but of course in a completely different subgenre–these two books deserve to be widely publicized.

The Last Days of Tian Di: The Unmaking

Egan-UnmakingIn Shade & Sorceress, we are introduced to Eliza Tok: taken from her family and friends, powerless, confused, and yet nominally a sorceress; in The Unmaking, Eliza learns and grows into her powers and truly becomes who she was born to be: the Shang Sorceress.

I struggled with reviewing Shade and Sorceress, as there is so much in it to discuss: elements that continue in The Unmaking. I didn’t mention how engaging the characters are, nor how distinctive Egan has made their voices, their characteristics, their cultures. I didn’t mention the deep complexity of the world Egan has created: I hoped that was inherent in my comments about the confusion Eliza faces—never knowing who to trust, who not to, where to go, what to do. In The Unmaking, the complexities deepen: we are shown more of Eliza’s world and begin to understand—like Eliza—the political machinations that underlie the delicate balance between the two worlds, Tian Xia and Di Shang. The mandate of the Shang Sorceress is to guard the Crossings, to prevent creatures from Tian Xia from crossing into our world and reeking havoc. In the beginning, though, Eliza cannot even command the Boatman, and has to pay—like any other semi-magical creature—to cross into Tian Xia; by the end of the novel,

Eliza commanded the Boatman and he came.
“Lah,’ said Charlie, impressed, ‘How about that!” (262)

The Unmaking opens with the unlikely scene of a ninja-Eliza kidnapping a corrupt official, and handing him over to the Mancers for trial. Readers will wonder where Egan is leading us (and thinking, “astray?”), but the ethos of the story has not really changed: Di Shang is still a world where magic and human knowledge coexist, and Eliza is still a rebellious young girl, not sure where her loyalties truly lie. The choices she makes, though, have become more imperative, for the Xia Sorceress, Nia, has escaped the prison the Mancers had constructed, and is seeking her revenge. Like Shade & Sorceress, The Unmaking defies distillation. Its complexities—narrative and psychological—position it firmly in the realm of fantasy series such as Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle of Stars, or Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising: the powers that Eliza commands are not simple spells and trickery—even in the sophisticated way the Mancers use them—but a deeper magic, rooted in the Earth, that Eliza’s dual ethnicity has access to. As the daughter of her Shang Sorceress mother and her Sorma father, Eliza has more power—and more innate wisdom—than any Shang Sorceress before her. In the Last Days of Tian Di, Eliza is a shining light of humanity melded with power; I can’t wait to see where her strength and compassion lead her. Ms. Egan: please write quickly.