Friday, April 11, 2008

Roderick Townley

The Great Good Thing
by Roderick Townley
Recommended Age: 12+

Sylvie is a plucky, pretty princess who has all kinds of interesting adventures... but only when someone reads her book. No one has done that for a long time. Just as she is desperately wishing for something to change, a new reader arrives and Sylvie dares something book characters are always told not to do: she looks up at the reader.

The resulting blunder turns out to be the saving grace for Sylvie and her entire kingdom of characters. A new young reader, tormented by an obnoxious brother, spills her tears on the book and escapes so often into its pages that she soon knows it by heart. And so, when the brother’s evil prank causes Sylvie’s book to go up in smoke, the characters manage to live on... in the reader’s memory.

If the adventures of characters who live between the pages of a book were interesting, just wait until they start acting out roles in a young woman’s dreams. Or try to imagine what happens when the survivors from Sylvie’s book move out into the deserted countryside of their last reader’s subconscious. Trapped in the “inner space” of a single mind, Sylvie’s friends and family face tremendous challenges to their survival. And nothing can save them but a fictional princess with the courage to undertake strange and perilous adventures.

This is the cleverest, funniest fantasy spin on the fairy-tale genre that I have read in some time. It is also deeply touching and thought-provoking, with more than one moment when you will hold your breath in suspense. Fans of The Neverending Story, the Thursday Next chronicles and the Inkheart series will fall right in love with this new series, which continues with Into the Labyrinth and The Constellation of Sylvie.

Into the Labyrinth
by Roderick Townley
Recommended Age: 12+

In this second book of the Sylvie Cycle, which began with The Great Good Thing and continues in The Constellation of Sylvie, the characters in Sylvie’s fairy-tale book should be happy to be back in print and living their story oftener than ever, thanks to their story’s unheard-of popularity. But they are not content, after all. The increased demands on their performance results in higher levels of stress. So Sylvie uses her connections with the writer’s subconscious to finagle a few minor rewrites... such as the addition of a shepherd girl who moonlights as a yoga instructor.

Each minor change to the original book creates additional problems. But nothing can prepare the characters in Sylvie’s book for the grandmother of all changes: being uploaded to the internet. Even the “inner space” of the writer’s subconscious was not as weird or as dangerous as cyberspace, especially when a computer virus begins eating away at the fabric of Sylvie’s world.

Both your imagination and your funny-bone will be tickled as this book explores the weird things that can happen to people who really “live and die by the written word,” when words start getting changed around...misspelled...and deleted altogether! But be prepared also for a throat-tightening fast ride through a strange world of cookies, hyperlinks, binary pathways and the monsters that dwell in them. The survival of Sylvie and all that she loves will depend on the willpower of a handful of fictional characters, and on a theory developed by a math teacher after his death.

This book has a unique way of making you care about its characters. It makes you think about what happens to all the good people in the books no one reads anymore. And it also puts a new face on the idea of the dearly departed living on in the memories of those who survive them. Writers have responsibility to their characters; and readers do too. I can think of no way to learn these things more interesting and enjoyable than this series whose Kansas-based author started it when his wife asked him to tell her a bedtime story, then made him write it down.

EDIT: I still haven't run across a copy of The Constellation of Sylvie. If you see it before I do, remember: my birthday is in 5 months!

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