N.D. Wilson’s third book in the Ashtown Burials series, Empire of Bones came out last year. The first two The Dragon’s Tooth and The Drowned Vault combine the best of steampunk fiction with an Indiana Jones meets Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).
It is still technically Junior Fiction, but while the hero is a young boy and his sister, there are numerous other characters that span the age range cousins, cooks, other explorers(including Gilgamesh and Vlad Tepes aka immortals who act badly ) Well, Mr. Wilson threads just about every myth and concept together into a brilliant coming of age story. There are moments of hilarity and some good guys turn out to be bad, and some bad guys turn out to be grey, and no one ends up the same. It is this quote from an Irish mowhawked monk that sums it up for me ~”Cowards live for the sake of living, but for heroes, life is a weapon, a thing to be spent, a gift to be given to the weak and the lost and the weary,…”
So the publisher says this is a book for 8-12 year olds. And I do agree with that. But while stories like this remind me of why I love epic fantasy adventure, it is not a warm and fuzzy novel. The first book “Tooth” in the series has our heroes (Cyrus and Antigone) living in a rundown motel living off waffles when a stranger on a bike arrives and hands Cyrus an object that could end the world, and oh by the way tells them they are descendants of legendary Order of the Brendan explorers (think archaeologists who can use magical objects) get shipped off to a boarding school, but have to live in the basement with a boy and deadly spiders. In the second book “Vault” our two siblings are on the run from everyone including the head of the Order of the Dragon (Tepes, not the vampire, the historical baddie who killed thousands) and a Dr. Frankenstein character (the Phoenix)who likes to genetically modify people and can make them living zombies… you get the idea. The series starts off slow, but by book three we are running full speed with War (with a side of apocalypse) on the horizon.
I just finished three books and two were good, but one was fantastic. Lets start with my favorite.
Brian Selznick The Boy of a Thousand Faces was originally published in 2000. It is a very short story (40 pages) about a boy who loves monsters, and old monster movies. Mr. Selznick came to a broader audience with his wonderfully written and illustrated book The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Jan 30, 2007) but he has been writing and illustrating books for many years. Just like in Hugo, the history of films (in this case monster movies) is a central part of “Thousand Faces”. Just like in Hugo our main character is a young boy, (Alonzo King, born on Halloween), and also like in Hugo, Alonzo’s interaction with a man who tried to forget his past is what makes this book more than a simple story. Mr. Selznick intersperses hand illustrations with photos, and beautifully written text. Good for younger grades. It is in the Winston Library: JF SEL
Ok, the next book is by George Korman a children’s book writer who’s wildly popular “39 clues” books and his other series about a Doberman “Swindle” have been published all over the world. This newest book is about a 12 year old boy Jax and his ability to persuade (aka hypnotize) people. The story is well written, and focuses on the idea of “If you can do something, should you? And what are the consequences beyond yourself.” Which for a tween book is refreshing. Our hero can come off a little above his 12 year old age, and I am not that sure the set up needs to be quite as long (how often do you need an out of body experience where people do whatever you ask them to before you go hmmmm might be a connection) However, it is a fantasy aimed at 8-12 year olds so the story needs to lead a little and it is not heavy handed. Like any good fantasy you need a big bad guy, and this one has a philanthropist with a “center” who controls most of the world’s leading figures and is setting out to rig the elections in the US. You also need a sidekick, which is found in the charming Tommy, colorblind and immune to Jax’s early powers. Good read, no real violence to speak of, and the story poses some interesting questions about free will. I have read four books similar to this one recently and the “ordinary extraordinary” kid heroes seem to be a theme right now. They do one thing, really well, and a government or institution is out to exploit their abilities for nefarious purposes. (Yes I used Nefarious in a sentence.) Winston Library: JF KOR
The last book is Charles Dickens: Scenes from an Extraordinary Life by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom.
This book is an illustrated biography that uses abridged or adapted letters written by or about Dickens to tell about a time in his life with story board summaries of his books written that year in the margin. I am not a great fan of this type of book because it is not a real story, it is more a timeline with some text thrown in. However, if you are trying to get a kid interested in “Oliver Twist” and don’t want to use a Disney Musical to do it, then this is a painless way to show how interesting his stories were and it does do a good job of summarizing them. It gives a complete history of Dickens’ life and drops bits of local and world events here and there. The illustrations are charming, but the hand written call outs are distracting. Winston Library: BIO DIC