Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mebus Pratchett Shan

Spirits in the Park
by Scott Mebus
Recommended Ages: 12+

In Book 2 of the trilogy titled "Gods of Manhattan"—which started with the book by the same name—young Rory Hennessy takes big strides toward fulfilling his destiny as the last surviving Light in the city, county, and state of New York. This sentence immediately confronts me with the problem that there is so much to explain, just so you can understand what I'm talking about as I try to describe this book, that I could very well say, "Read no further until you have read Gods of Manhattan." There's a lot to be said for doing so. This trilogy is really a most unique fantasy concept, and its complex layering of magical problems and solutions bears witness to a lot of intricate planning on its author's part. I'm not sure I can do it justice in a paragraph or less. But I'm going to give it my best effort anyway. Brace yourself.

The fundamental idea of "Gods of Manhattan" is that people who have left a strong impression on the memory of the generations after them, live on as "gods" in a reality alongside our visible world. This reality crams together people and institutions that existed in all the different eras of history into a sort of augmented space that fits into regular space. So, for example, there is room for the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel on the same site as the Empire State Building that replaced it. And on the island of Manhattan, tied to that borough of New York City by a magical force called "blood," are millions of spirits covering all periods of New York history, from the 1800s corrupt politician Boss Tweed (god of Rabble Politics), to colonial-era leaders such as Alexander Hamilton (the Mayor of the spirit-side of Manhattan), all the way back to the New Amsterdam period and beyond. Some of these "gods" lend their magic touch to areas they came to symbolize, such as the Korean shopkeeper whose talent for thwarting shoplifters led him to become the god of Put That Back. Many of these lingering spirits begot new families after their death—immortals, such as the young members of the Rattle Watch, who can never be gods because they never lived in the mortal world. And some of the gods have fallen, or continued the evil ways they followed during their mortal lives. This is why there is danger and conflict in this layer of reality where phases of history overlap each other—where the spirits of the Munsee Indians (who lived on Manhattan before the Europeans came) are magically trapped in Central Park—where power-hungry villains and their insane minions will use every means, from propaganda to murder, to thwart or destroy the only mortal who can see their world or help others to see it. Such a mortal is known as a Light. And that's why Rory, being a Light, is lucky to have lived as long as he has.

All right, that was a long paragraph. But it covered most of the background. It left out a few things. You'll have to find out at your own hazard why there are little men dressed in cockroach armor, some of them riding rats. And how Rory's spunky little sister Bridget came by the papier-mâché body she sometimes uses instead of her own—a superhero gadget that has some amazing advantages, but also horrifying drawbacks. All these concepts are but a few of the ingredients swimming in the chowder of chilling danger, thrilling adventure, magic, action, romance, mystery, heartbreak, and nuggets of historical trivia that this book cooks up. Some of it is rather chewy. But, if I may murder this metaphor to death, it will also warm your insides, nourish your mind, and energize you. As Rory searches for his long-lost father in the mists at the edge of the world, Bridget has her own adventure in a super-sized, perilous park (Central Park, that is) haunted by resentful Indians, man-eating squirrels, traitors, friends, a rival for the heart of Rory's almost-girlfriend, and clues to the disappearance of a girl who could heal the conflict between the trapped Munsees and the gods who betrayed them.

One thing is clear, however. The Trap must come down, or Manhattan will tear itself apart with earthquakes, storms, and whatnot. But when the Trap frees the Munsees from their 150-year captivity in Central Park, will there be war? Somehow Rory, Bridget, and their friends hold the key to the fate of all the gods of Manhattan and the spirits in the park. And even in this book's climactic conclusion, there is clearly much more danger to be faced, and many questions still to be answered. To find out how it all turns out, look to the third book of the trilogy: The Sorcerer's Secret.

Unseen Academicals
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 12+

When you're following as many series of books as I am (which is currently a three-digit number), you're bound to get a little behind on some of them—especially when their author is as prolific as Terry Pratchett. This book, for example, is the 37th novel of Discworld out of (at this writing) a total of 39. That's not too bad. I'll probably get caught up soon... just in time for another book to come out! If I were thinking about just starting to read this series (say, with The Colour of Magic), I might be a bit intimidated. But reading the next new Discworld book will always be a high priority for anyone who has ever read one, or 10, or 36 of them. Once you get started, you won't feel so much intimidated as thrilled to anticipate so many weird, funny, and exciting books. Their entertainment value is hard to beat, especially if you're reasonably bright reader with an off-center sense of humor. And even more encouragingly, they maintain a consistent high level of quality, unlike many other long-running series. Always exploring new territory, even within well-loved areas you have visited before, the Discworld novels offer to be the cornerstone of a huge library of comic fantasy, especially appealing to young wizard fans who have grown tired of waiting for their letter of admission to Hogwarts.

And behold, this book focuses on a school for wizards. By now Unseen University will be well known to followers of this series. It is the alma mater of the nebbishy wizard Rincewind, whose adventures were heavily featured in the earlier books of this series. Its Librarian is an orangutan who can give the word "Ook" a wide spectrum of meanings. Its Archchancellor is a rugged, bullmoose type named Mustrum Ridcully. It has a chair of post-mortem communications, a branch of magic otherwise known as "the dark arts." It has a super-computer powered by an ant farm. And it has a complex body of traditions that, somehow or other, keep the sun in the sky and U.U.'s walls covered with ivy. One such tradition, which has lain neglected almost to the point of disaster, is that the wizards must occasionally field a football team (that's soccer, for U.S. readers). If they fail to do so every twenty years or so, the endowment fund that puts food on the wizards' table could go away. Which, given the wizards' fondness for pickles and cheese, is a pretty persuasive argument in favor of putting a side together.

There are, however, arguments against it. Lord Vetinari, the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, frowns on the game. The way it is played in the street is a danger to life and limb, with the ball being made out of wood wrapped in rags, the concession stands touting frankly toxic pies, and the brutal "shove" of well-armed spectators often proving to be more action-packed than the main event. But the times, they are a-changin'. Or, to borrow a favorite phrase of Pratchettese that crops up many times in this book: "The leopard may change his shorts."

For one thing, archaeologists have discovered a naughtily illustrated urn from deep in the muck of Morporkian antiquity, revealing the original rules when the football was a religious ritual honoring the goddess Pedestria. Then there's the matter of the ball, designed by the University's all-knowing, multi-dimensional computer, which makes a lovely "gloing" sound when it bounces. Perhaps the biggest revolution in the game is the tactical genius furnished by one of the drudges in the university's candle-dribbling vats—a suspected goblin named Nutt.

Nutt's history is actually even more strange and ominous than you would guess from the above description. There is something exceedingly original about the young fellow. He devours books (not literally, but you know). He talks posh. He understands heady ideas by sheer instinct. And he has a thing for a plump, plain, motherly young woman who cooks pies in the university's night kitchen. Glenda takes Nutt under her wing, along with a kitchen maid named Juliet who is destined to become Ankh-Morpork's first supermodel, and the dreamy Trevor Likely, whose destiny is decidedly football-shaped. Together with a fashionista dwarf, an overworked wizard who carries the weight of the university on his shoulders (because he is the only known wizard with any common sense), and a cross-section of the city's melting-pot of trolls, vampires, werewolves, and zombies, these four young below-stairs dwellers ride the crest of the latest wave in the Discworld's ongoing industrial revolution.

Feats of body, mind, and magic meld with high fashion, low society, and mass hysteria to add yet another dimension of real-worldliness to the whimsical, woolly world of Terry Pratchett. Reinventing the football won't be easy. There may even be blood. The future welfare of the entire city may be at stake. And both Nutt and Trev—to say nothing of their lady friends—will have to face tough truths within themselves. You, meanwhile, will face truths about the football (and other areas of modern life) that you may never have thought about, in a way that will make you laugh often and sigh occasionally while you grow, perhaps, a little wiser. Not a bad deal for Book 37 of at least 39!

Vampire Mountain
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

First, let's get the confusing part out of the way. This is Book 4 of "The Saga of Darren Shan," also known (at least in the U.S.) as "Cirque du Freak"—which happens to be the title of Book 1. Darren Shan is both the name of the narrator and main character in this 12-book series, and the pen-name of Anglo-Irish author Darren O'Shaughnessy, who in real life most likely isn't a half-vampire like his in-book namesake. Since the 12 books in this saga are also divided into four trilogies, this book is also Book 1 of the second trilogy, titled Vampire Rites. I put this in italics, rather than in quotation marks, because (in my opinion) a single-volume edition of this trilogy would be less an omnibus than a single, complete novel. Of course, I base this only on my impression of reading Vampire Mountain. As I write this, I am getting ready to run down to the public library to pick up books 2 and 3 of the trilogy (or books 5 and 6 of the overall series), which I requested immediately after finishing this book.

I'm miffed, mostly at myself for not having the entire trilogy ready at hand before I started it, but also partly at the publishing genius which chopped Vampire Rites into three books. So my first critical note, I'm afraid, is going to be a complaint: This book simply is not a complete story, even at the level of "Book 1 of a trilogy." The whole book does little more than build up to whatever happens in Book 2. Apart from a scary encounter with a mad bear in the middle, a sparring session in a vampire gym further on, and a not-very-climactic sort of trial at the end, this book in itself delivers little of the conflict and none of the dramatic shape (you know, like with a climax) one expects from a complete novel. It has an arduous journey in it; it introduces several characters who promise to do interesting things later; it sets the remarkable scene of the labyrinth of mountain caves where the vampires hold court, of the history and nature of vampire culture; and it foreshadows troubles and conflicts to come. But while it excels in the "beginning" part of a story, it stops short of having a middle or an end. For that you will have to read the next two installments, Trials of Death and The Vampire Prince.

My intuition tells me that even combined into one volume, Vampire Rites would not be a very thick book. Judging by its first part, it would be a fast-paced page-turner. I suppose it may be nothing but my own grouchiness that causes me to object to seeing it split up into three volumes—novelists have been stringing readers along like this since Victorian times, if not longer. Perhaps a better construction on it would be to view this as a serial. For it is true that the ending leaves you hanging, anxious to find out what happens next. Not very long story short: Young Darren, half-vampire assistant to Larten Crepsley, leaves the Cirque du Freak and follows his master on a gruelling trip through northern wastes to the hollow mountain where the vampire clan meets every twelve years. Though Mr. Crepsley resigned from being a vampire general long ago, he is treated with great respect, even by the princes who rule over the whole clan. But the tidings he brings, in the person of one of the spooky "Little People" who travel with the freak show, could shake the very foundations of vampire society. An enemy clan called the Vampaneze—blood-suckers who kill their human prey, giving all vampires a bad name—seems to threaten the more benign vampires with imminent destruction. And Mr. Crepsley's decision to "blood" Darren at such a young age adds another level of danger. Now Darren must face a trial to prove himself worthy to be a Vampire General—even though he remains only a half-vampire—while ominous signs of conflict and betrayal stir in the shadows.

It is a testimony to Mr. O'Shaughnessy's flair for storytelling that I cannot resist following this series, in spite of my irritation with the way it is split up. Also, as a low-level grammar Nazi, I twitch every time he uses something like "Mr. Crepsley and me" as the subject of a sentence. Surely a professional writer knows the language better than that. I can only guess that he does this (and does it persistently) as a character touch, while narrating the adventure in the first-person voice of young Darren, whose academic achievements ended with his mortal life at age 13. Placing all this alongside the series' unique take on vampire lore and its spooky, action-oriented storytelling appropriate for middle-school readers and up, I find that it is, after all, a series that holds my attention. I can't wait to find out what happens to Darren next, even though I suspect it may be dark, bloody, and violent. Vampire stories wouldn't be so popular if people didn't like them that way. Girls can have the "Twilight," "Vampire Academy," "Vampire Diaries," and "True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse" series. Boys (and some girls), meanwhile, may be looking for some of the same creepiness only without the ooshy-gooshy bits. If that sounds like you, step up and sink your teeth into this series!

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