(Published in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, October 4, 2005)
One of the perks of my job is that I can return to the surreptitious pleasure of reading “kid lit” with my halo intact: of course I’m not enjoying reading about dragons and novice girl magicians, this is hard work. (Heh!)
The children’s titles that look promising this season are all variations on the classic quest story. This is probably one of the oldest stories humans told each other, from Beowulf and Jason and the Golden Fleece to the quest for the Holy Grail; you can make the case that the first truly modern novel, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote , had to break new ground for itself by subverting the conventions of the quest. The basic ingredients of the epic haven’t changed for millennia: a hero or a being with heroic powers who must be tested, often through perilous journeys in order to find either an object of power or to unleash the powers within himself, pitted against and often aided by gods and demons.
Children’s books are perhaps the last bastion of the true epic in our time. We’re so steeped in irony, ennui and apathy that an attempt to write a straight epic narrative for adults comes across a bit like Prince Bolo in Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories –it’s dashing, but a little foolish. When you’re writing for children, though, you can play it straight, knowing that your audience hasn’t yet been hardened to wonder, doesn’t yet scoff at magic, and still, despite all that guff about the growing cynicism of youth, cherishes the firm belief that Good will kick the pants off Evil in the end.
One of the most promising new series is Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians . Percy Jackson has ADHD, an absentee father who is one of the gods of Olympus, and is being hunted by Zeus, Hades and a few other immortals you really wouldn’t want to annoy. Since the non-divine part of him is also just a 12-year-old kid who’s stuck with Ugly Gabe as a stepfather, he has pre-teen problems—but his best friends are a satyr and Annabeth, daughter of Athena, so it all balances out. Riordan makes the assumption that his audience knows absolutely nothing about the Greek myths, which is deeply annoying if you had them stuffed down your throat as a child, but otherwise this is a fun debut.
Christopher Paolini’s Eldest , the second in his trilogy starring a dragon warrior, is pretty promising, though absolutely humourless. Paolini is one of the youngest authors to experience overnight fame (in the way of overnight fame, it actually took about six months to happen, but never let the facts spoil a great publicity story), and in volume two, he shows some growth. His dragon hero has won his great battle, but is now in training as the Empire gathers its strength for bout number two. Eragorn and Eldest are classic fantasy novels—perhaps too classic for my taste, given that the pawprints of Lord of the Rings and a dozen other sagas are all over the manuscript—but Paolini does a nice, old-fashioned job of telling his story.
Trudi Canavan’s The Magicians’ Guild is an interesting riff on the usual wizards-in-robes routine. In a city called Imardin, a young urchin accidentally discovers her magical talents. Sonea’s powers almost destroy her, until she reluctantly joins the magicians whom she and the other denizens of the slums of Imardin hate. The Magicians’ Guild is entertaining, but reads as though Canavan is just warming up for book two. (The demise of the three-volume-novel was greatly exaggerated: in today’s publishing world, kid lit sells best in multiple volumes.)
I have to admit to favouritism here, since I’m a diehard Neil Gaiman fan, but Gaiman’s latest, the relatively lighthearted Anansi Boys makes even this bunch of promising debutants look like the talented amateurs they are. Meet Fat Charlie, whose father is the African trickster god Anansi, and whose brother is the equally charming, equally tricky Spider. Then stand back and give thanks for your family: they might drive you up the wall, but they’re not in the same league as trickster gods.
I could go on, but next week is when both the Booker and the Nobel prize winners will be announced. That means having to get back to literary giants—a pity, it’s been really hard work reading kickass sagas and sword-and-sorcery fantasies, but someone has to do it.
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