Saturday, August 6, 2016

What We Found in the Sofa...

What We Found in the Sofa and How It Saved the World
by Henry Clark
Recommended Ages: 12+

Rain, Freak, and Fiona don't just live on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. They live on the wrong side of Hellsboro, the popular local name for the 800-acre underground coal fire that made most of the west side of Cheshire, Pennsylvania uninhabitable. Other than being in the same grade at Cheshire Middle School and getting on the bus at the same stop, they don't have much to build a great friendship on. Freak, a track athlete who worries a lot about his mean drunk of a father, and Rain, a short-for-his-age orphan who limps when he runs and has a fantastic imagination, have little in common other than the fact neither of them owns a cell phone, so they are always the only kids at school who don't join in the occasional city-wide song-and-dance numbers that nobody afterward admits knowing about - in short, flash mobs. Brainy Fiona, who refuses to be seen associating with the boys, pooh-poohs any mention of the flash mobs, but her flamboyant dress sense suggests she isn't as straight-laced as she lets on. Nevertheless, it's a stroke of luck when they all choose to sit down on the sofa that mysteriously appears near their school-bus stop one Tuesday morning. Because of what they find between the sofa cushions, three kids on their way to being best friends also become, all at once, the best hope for mankind.

If you're interested, here's an inventory of what they found in the sofa: a crushed peanut shell; a strange coin with heads on both sides; a wooden, double-six domino; a fish-hook, which snags Rain's finger; and an unused, rare zucchini-colored crayon. They soon list the crayon on eBay and find collectors willing to bid thousands for it; but Rain's sense of honor, and his suspicion the sofa belonged to the seldom-seen owner of the gated mansion across the road, leads them to confide in a truly bizarre man named Alf. Alf claims he wants to use them, and the crayon, as bait to lure an international fugitive to justice - none other than Edward M. Disin, the owner of the chemical plant responsible for starting the coal fire that is now Hellsboro, and for dumping pollutants in the ground that led to tragedies in all three kids' families. Disin is already sending agents, known as Doghats because of the disguises they use to foil satellite surveillance, to menace the children's homes, trying to locate the crayon he covets. The tycoon's ridiculous weakness for collectibles is no accident; he was actually infected with it on purpose (don't ask how; no time to explain). Alf's plan is to set up a live auction for the crayon and scan the guests' DNA to find out which of them is Disin in disguise, then have federal agents arrest him on charges of tax evasion.

Meantime, the sofa (and several other pieces of furniture that form a nearly complete room suite) reveals itself to the kids as a super-advanced computer system, practically an intelligent life form in its own right, based on technology from another world that Rain has already glimpsed in a dream. The children make the awesome discovery that Alf's furniture is acting on its own initiative, behind his back. A machine intelligence identifying itself as Guernica (after a painting by Picasso) informs them there is even more at stake than capturing an environment-polluting tax cheat. Disin, in fact, came to Earth in 1952 through a portal from another dimension, where he had just finished conquering an inside-out planet called Indorsia. Now he intends to re-open that portal and bring after him a huge army that will conquer Earth, enslave its people, and use the planet's resources to build a space fleet before forcing everybody in Indorsia to join him in a conquest of the stars. He has already accomplished half of this mad scheme, using nano-robots embedded in junk food and brainwashing cell-phone signals to turn everybody who has a phone (i.e., everybody but Rain and Freak) into his mind-controlled slaves.

If that isn't enough, Disin also has technology to clone people, to implant the downloaded consciousness of his own dead minions into the clones or other people's bodies, and to erase people's minds - basically murdering them - with a puff of mnemocide gas. I would also mention a concoction called Hista Mime which, if squirted on you out of a toy gun, causes a swift, silent, and horrible death; but I don't want to scare you too much. Rain, Freak, and Fiona are plenty scared for all of us when they have to cross Hellsboro, break into the evil chemical plant, and battle Disin and his henchpeople before he carries out a plot that will destroy not one, but two worlds. And Disin, who once beheaded his own daughter and kept her head on his mantel as a family keepsake, is not someone to trifle with. Just to touch him, the three kids will have to take full advantage of the long-lived Indorsian Royals' habit of underestimating anyone their age. They will have to take huge risks, face their own worst fears, endure extreme physical punishment, and in one kid's case, come back from the dead.

In spite of being set in present-day Pennsylvania, this book is a fabulous feat of world-building, with stunningly original ideas, characters who steal your heart, bizarre situations and goofball humor to keep things lively, a powerful threat that makes the well-timed crescendo of action and suspense pay off with terrific thrills, and sideways references to The Lord of the Rings that are just subtle enough, but not too subtle, to make you feel good about yourself when you spot them. This is one of those wonderful debut novels by an obviously great talent that often leaves me nibbling my fingernails, anxious to find out whether the author will follow it up. I can probably spare myself the taste of keratin in this instance, since Henry Clark has already brought out his second book, The Book That Proves Time Travel Happens.

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