by Michael Lawrence
Recommended Age: 14+
This first book in the “Withern Rise Trilogy” had me completely hooked after one paragraph. Let me quote:
At sixteen, Alaric and Naia were as alike as any two people of opposite sexes could be. They had the same dark eyes and hair, same long straight nose, wide mouth—even the same slightly crooked front tooth. But it wasn’t looks alone. Far from it. They shared a history, a lineage, memories, and had lived all their lives in the same house, Withern Rise, where they had occupied the same room, done the same things, more often than not had the same thoughts at the very same instant. And yet...Whoa. That’s a strong opener as ever there was. Don’t you just want to find out what in the world that could mean? I did. And I enjoyed finding out too.
They had never met.
Alaric and Naia Underwood could be twins, but they aren’t. They live their lives in different versions of the same reality. A quirk of chance determined that one would be a boy, the other a girl. A similar quirk of “fifty-fifty” chance meant that Naia’s mother survived a terrible accident two years ago...but Alaric’s did not. From that point onward, their life stories diverged. Now Alaric and his father live in sullen silence in a dilapidated, neglected house called Withern Rise, while at the same time in an alternate history, Naia lives with both parents in a bright, happy, newly redecorated Withern Rise.
Their strangely alike-yet-different stories begin to criss-cross when Alaric accidently discovers a way into Naia’s world. Naia, similarly, finds her way into Alaric’s version of Withern Rise. He envies her; she pities him. But neither of them are prepared for the change in store for both of them as the pathway between their worlds becomes increasingly, and dangerously, unstable.
In fact, Alaric witnesses more than just Naia’s alternate version of life at Withern Rise. He has encounters with two or three, or possibly four, additional alternatives, some of them quite alarming. And even more spooky is the presence of an old-yet-young stranger who seems to have traveled through the mysterious pathways whose origins are part of the mystery of the founding of Withern Rise.
While I enjoyed this book, its ending left me with feeling as if the story wasn’t finished. One might put such a feeling down to the fact that the book is the start of a trilogy, but I’m not sure that’s the right answer. Perhaps it was more of a feeling that the story was headed in one direction, until it suddenly swerved in another direction and came to a too-abrupt end. Nevertheless I enjoyed this weird, stay-at-home yet cosmic adventure while it lasted, so I plan to read at least the next book in the trilogy: Small Eternities.
by Michael Lawrence
Recommended Age: 14+
When I reviewed A Crack in the Line (the first book in the “Withern Rise Trilogy”), I mentioned that it seemed to end abruptly, as if the story was incomplete. My first guess as to the reason was correct. The reason was obvious: the story was incomplete. Book 2 of the trilogy, Small Eternities, combines with A Crack in the Line to form a single, tightly plotted, and virtually perfect tragedy.
It is a tragedy with a fantasy-sci fi twist: parallel realities branch out from events which could have come out one way or the other. And under a certain oak tree in the garden of a riverfront mansion called Withern Rise, the boundaries between these realities have become thin. Already in A Crack in the Line we have met a boy named Alaric Underwood and a girl named Naia Underwood who could be twins, but who are in fact the same person from two of these realities. And we have seen disturbing glimpses of at least two other realities as well.
In the version of the world Alaric came from, his mother Alex was killed in a train crash two years ago. In Naia’s native reality, the crash happened but Alex Underwood survived; plus, Alex’s older sister, Alaric’s aunt Linie, doesn’t exist. Now the two teens have unintentionally swapped lives, and no one knows the difference except themselves.
As Small Eternities begins, Naia is struggling to endure the constant strain of pretending to belong in Alaric’s reality, where the mother she knows isn’t hers is dead, and the rundown house is just beginning to rebound from two years of grief and apathy, aided by the new woman in Ivan’s (the father’s) life. She wants to go back to where she belongs and set things straight. But Alaric has never been happier than he is now, usurping Naia’s place in a house more beautiful than ever because of the uninterrupted, radiant presence of Alex. It isn’t a pretty side of Alaric’s character, but losing his mother is one of the reasons he became that way. He isn’t going to let her go again without a fight.
Which brings me back to the subject of tragedy. Small Eternities is a tragedy; or rather, it is half of a tragedy that began with the previous book. What seemed like loose threads when you finished A Crack in the Line are now realized as grim foreshadowings. What seemed like isolated moments become the beginning of cataclysmic chains of events. And what seemed a chance for Alaric to reclaim what he has lost leads, in fact, to yet another loss that nothing in time will heal. Though, to judge by the number of “loose threads” remaining at the end of this book, there may be something in another timeline that may help—ample reason to look forward to the third book in the trilogy, The Underwood See, when you come to the heartbreaking end of this novel.
I’ve been purposely vague about exactly what happens in Small Eternities. But I can tell you a few things. Alaric and Naia find they can travel not only between realities, but back in time as well. Somehow their time travel is limited to a year when, at the same season, the whole area was covered by a flood, just as in the present. Unfortunately, their appearance at a Withern Rise of the past has devastating effects on history, events connected with a homeless tramp’s gradually recovered memories and a shattering loss in another generation of Underwoods.
Let me be frank. This is a fascinating book, but you should only read it if you are prepared to bear witness to deep and abiding grief, shocking deaths, the elegiac beauty of a flooded paradise, and the soft but ominous tread of unavoidably approaching tragedy. And you should also be aware that at the time of this writing, there is no relief for the tragic atmosphere in which this book ends. The Underwood See is due to be released in March 2007. [UPDATE: I'm waiting for the paperback.]