Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Butcher, Shan, Shüsterman

Turn Coat
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

The eleventh book of The Dresden Files begins to shake up some of the comfortable formula, if a series of thrillers pitting one smart-aleck wizard detective against a Chicago-load of vampires, zombies, demons, homicidal fairies, and hell-bent necromancers, can be said to fall into a "comfortable formula." In this installment, wizard Donald Morgan—the sword-wielding wizard cop who has had it in for Dresden since the start—shows up on his younger nemesis's doorstep, asking for help.

Morgan is on the run after being caught standing over the dead body of a member of the Senior Council, but he swears he has been framed. Dresden agrees to help, figuring no one will expect him to shelter the wizard who has been looking for an excuse to cut his head off since he was sixteen years old. Plus, solving this latest crime may mean exposing the "Black Council" that has been thwarting the aims of the wizardly White Council. Clearly there is a traitor at Wizard Central in Edinburgh, but before Harry can finger him (or her), he has a lot of things to do. Things like saving his mostly-reformed vampire half-brother from an evil being so powerful that the mere sight of it nearly drives Harry insane. Things like finding out who paid another vampire and an otherworldly-thug summoner to mess with him. Things that will involve his cop friend Murphy, his apprentice Molly, and his Warden Captain girlfriend in ways that take him far beyond the comfort zone.

Some of the threats Dresden faces in this book seem as scary and unbeatable as anything he has crossed wands with before. And some of the tactics he takes to survive them push the limits of what he can do without losing himself. At one point, Dresden lures multiple groups of dangerous customers to the same spooky island and then, while they fight amongst themselves, plugs himself into a vast malevolent power, which he then uses to even the odds against the Shagnasty that has Thomas. And when the dust settles, the whole dust-up turns out to have been a diversion from his real plan. Even then, the danger is far from over.

Turn Coat shows us a Harry Dresden whose youthful brashness is backed up by the wisdom of experience and a wider repertoire of survival skills in a magical world that just keeps getting more dangerous. Call it acquiring more powers; or call it having more friends to back him up. Some of those friends, however, will be lost or out of commission by the end of this book. Harry will pay a big price in heartache. That's the cost of standing up for good in a world full of supernatural crooks and monsters—to say nothing of pragmatic wizards who value the appearance of power more than truth and justice.

Author Butcher knows how to keep you on the hero's side, even when he does not seem awfully heroic. Blending arcane knowledge with pop-culture savvy, the never-say-die soul of a fighter with the wit of a ne'er-do-well, exceptional (though somewhat unfocused) power with the vulnerability of an innocent, Harry Dresden is a hero who makes it easy for the reader to share his loves and hates, joys and aches, dread and terror. His adventures have plenty of action, but the fight scenes are held together by the complex interaction of the plans, rash acts, loves, and hates of many groups, people, and creatures he is involved with. And though the answer to the question "Who done it" may not come as a big surprise, neither will you be surprised when you close the book wanting more. The spell for that is book 12: Changes.

The Vampire's Assistant
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

In Book 2 of Cirque du Freak, newly-minted half-vampire Darren Shan becomes so lonely that his vampire master takes pity on him. Instead of keeping his 14-year-old, unwilling apprentice to himself, Mr. Crepsley takes him back to the traveling freak show where it all started. There Darren becomes intimately acquainted with such remarkable people as Mr. Tall, the boss of the show, who can disappear from one place and reappear instantly somewhere else; Mr. Limbs, who can cut off any part of his body and grow it back again within minutes; and Mr. Tiny, a terrifying man who manages the mysterious, blue-cloaked, and ravenous Little People.

Darren goes to work feeding the wolf man, hunting small game for the Little People, doing odd jobs around the camp, and assisting Mr. Crepsley in his performances with Madam Octa the trained spider. He and Evra Von the snake boy become fast friends. And the two of them also befriend a local boy named Sam, whose gruesome fate is tied to that of an environmental protester who lives in a neighboring camp. What happens one night when the plans of these two outsiders collide outside the wolf man's cage is best learned by reading this book—so long as you don't eat a big meal before reading it.

In the four trilogies of the Cirque du Freak cycle, Irish author Darren Shan seems to be telling the kind of story that would have captivated him when he was a boy who loved vampire movies and spooky comics. Though these books are not illustrated, they are told in such simple and direct language that your mental imagery may seem as vivid as any graphic novel. The narrator's routine illiteracies, such as using the phrase "Evra and me" as the subject of a sentence, might be forgiven as they seem so genuinely "in character" for a fourteen-year-old half-vampire. And Shan really knows how to tell a page-turningly intense, macabre story. He is especially skilled at teasing the nastiness to come, and so keeping the reader in a constant state of dread. With another ten books to go, this series promises plenty of unrelieved dread and macabre twists.

Tunnels of Blood
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

Once again, Irish author Darren Shan chills, shocks, and teases with suspense in an innovative vampire novel for young adults, featuring a teen half-vampire named after himself. This series, generally known as either "Cirque du Freak" or "the Darren Shan Saga," is safe from the current backlash against teen and tween vampire series such as the Twilight Saga (which, after a series of hit films, is now widely recognized as a hideously banal and unconvincing romance) and the True Blood novels (now a cable-TV series which no one watches except for the sex scenes). Young Darren, by contrast, is just a nice boy who has barely started to notice girls, and who realizes that his status as a half-vampire assistant to the full vampire Larten Crepsley pretty much kills any chance of his having a long-term girlfriend. Though he does, in this book, pick up his first short-term girlfriend, the innocence of their relationship and the danger it puts her in guarantees two things: first, that the supernatural horror side of this vampire tale will never take a backseat to romantic ickiness; and second, after the lesson Darren learns in this installment, he will not be in a hurry to play the relationship game again. And so, teen vampire fans who are a little disillusioned with series that turned out to be mostly romance novels, can safely navigate this series without discomfort.

Assuming, of course, that they don't have a problem with exploring "tunnels of blood" beneath an unnamed city, where dwells a species of blood-sucking monster related to, but distinct from, vampires. Here Darren learns about the vampaneze—creatures of the night who drain their victims dry, rather than (like vampires) drinking only enough blood to wet their whistle. It's the difference between beings who eat to live and those who kill to eat. Not realizing that one such vampaneze is the killer Mr. Crepsley is after, Darren almost kills his own master. But the danger gets worse when the vampaneze gets away, abducts Darren's friend Evra the snake boy, and threatens to murder the girlfriend and her parents.

Anyone following this series will have learned by now that author Shan is a master of inventing bizarre character names, reinventing vampire mythology with surprising new details, and keeping readers on the hook by teasing plot twists ahead of time. All these specialties are strongly evident in this book. This adds up to a story well-stocked with creepy suspense, shocking goriness, and a surprisingly winsome humanity, for all that it is told in the grammatically imprecise plainness of speech of a narrator whose education, after age 14, was limited to work experience as a freak-show crew member and a vampire's assistant.

This book concludes the "Vampire Blood Trilogy," which began with Cirque du Freak. If you feel unready to depart from Darren Shan's dark world of bad, worse, and unimaginably awful vampires, that's all right. There are three more trilogies in the series after this, and the next trilogy starts with Vampire Mountain.

Antsy Does Time
by Neal Shüsterman
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this sequel to The Schwa Was Here, Anthony "Antsy" Bonano—a ninth-grade trouble magnet from Brooklyn, New York—decides to do something special for a terminally ill classmate. Typing it up to look official and legal, Antsy hands Gunnar Ümlaut a month of his life, signed and witnessed. This idea comes to our impulsive narrator after a tragicomic incident at a Thanksgiving Parade leads Gunnar to confide that he has six months to live. What started as a symbolic gesture of friendship, however, soon turns into a schoolwide craze as weeks, months, and even years off the end of people's lives are traded like stocks, used as hard currency, and exchanged as gifts between sweethearts.

Meanwhile, as Ansty grows closer to both Gunnar and his beautiful, eleventh-grade sister Kjersten, things start to unravel around the edges of his plan. Something is just a little off about Kjersten's romantic interest in Antsy. Something is more than a little off about Gunnar's parents, who seem to have problems bigger than their son's fatal disease. Meanwhile, Antsy's blind friend (and ex-girlfriend) Lexie is acting jealous, and the feeling is mutual. After a disastrous double-date, a regularly scheduled kidnapping of Lexie's curmudgeonly grandfather, and an incident at his father's restaurant that brings Antsy citywide notoriety, he is no closer to understanding what is going on with the Ümlauts. When it finally comes to him that Gunnar isn't really dying, it's too late: Antsy is already backed into a corner, with notes for his speech at a school rally crumpled in his sweaty fist. And that, naturally, is the moment when something truly awful happens.

Like his first adventure, Antsy's second captures an elusive blend of laugh-out-loud comedy and heart-moving humanity. The laugh I got out of Antsy's description of his first kiss with Kjersten, early in the book, was so satisfying that I had to call my mother afterward and share it with her. Towards the end, I do not lie, my throat was choked up and my cheeks were moist. You have to respect a storyteller who can lead you through that range of emotions. And you have to love a character like Antsy: a boy both keen-witted and naïve, humble and cocky, honest and kind, whose judgment is frequently off but whose heart is in the right place. I look forward to meeting him again.

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