Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Story Thieves

The Story Thieves
by James Riley
Recommended Ages: 10+

Owen Conners is a big fan of the Kiel Gnomenfoot series, a Harry Potter knockoff featuring an apprentice magician who is searching for seven keys to help his teacher, the Magister, defeat the evil Dr. Verity and his horde of science robots. He can't wait for the seventh book to come out, especially since that book's ending leaves it unclear whether or not Verity has killed the Magister. When Owen realizes his classmate Bethany has the power to jump in and out of books, he lays a devious plan to get into the Magister's study just before the cliff-hanger ending and save the beloved character's life.

Bethany, meanwhile, has been hiding her secret power all her life, ever since her fifth birthday party, when she led all her little friends on a terrifying tour of a fairy-tale world. But that hasn't stopped her sneaking off into Narnia, or Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, or other fictional worlds whenever she can. Why? Because the one person who never came back after that fateful fete was her father, a fictional character who (don't ask how) fell in love with her real-world mother and made little baby, half-fictional Bethany. She won't rest until she finds her dad again.

The poor girl doesn't realize how Owen has used her until it's too late. Things get out of control, and both the Magister and Kiel follow Bethany back to the real world, leaving Owen stranded in Kiel Gnomenfoot's world. Transformed to look like his boy hero thanks to another "don't ask how" situation, Owen has to pretend to be his favorite book character in order to keep the story going - in spite of the terrifying danger involved. So, Owen faces the suspicion of a cute half-robot girl, the resentment of a vicious spellbook, the dangers of a space battle, heart and brain surgery, computer viruses, zombies, robots, virus robots, and robot zombies (but, thank goodness, no zombie viruses).

Meantime, Bethany joins forces with Kiel and an author who is terrified to meet his characters in real life to try to stop the Magister, who - surprise! - isn't such a warm cuddly type, at least when the meaningfulness of his existence is threatened. The Magister wants to unleash a horde of fictional characters on the world, and banish all the real people into works of fiction. Even to begin to combat his fiendish power, Bethany must listen to a fictional boy wizard offering such advice as "Be more fictional!"

This is a funny, exciting, scary, mind-teasing yarn, exploring in a kid-friendly way what might happen when fictional characters become aware of their fictionalness. It also abounds in rib-tickling irony, such as when the fictional Magister asks Bethany (who, you have to admit, is also a character in a book) how she would like to find out her entire world was made up from an author's imagination (which, in fact, it was). Still, this is the kind of thing that can only happen in books or movies, so you just have to buy into it - sort of like when movie characters jump off the screen into the "reel" world in The Last Action Hero. Kids who are interested in exploring concepts like this may also like Ian Beck's "Tom Trueheart" series, Chris Colfer's "Land of Stories," Kristin Kladstrup's The Book of Story Beginnings, Pamela Dean's "Secret Country" trilogy, Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, Marisa Burt's "Storybound" series, or, when they're a little older, Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" and "Nursery Crime" series.

Or, you could continue reading the series that begins with this book. Its sequels include The Stolen Chapters, Secret Origins, and the just-released Pick the Plot, and further adventures are expected. James Riley is the Los Angeles-based author of the real-world/fairy-tale-world crossover trilogy Half Upon a Time, Twice Upon a Time, and Once Upon the End.

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