Fuse #8

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Review of the Day: Corydon and the Island of Monsters

I had a large class of children that were doing a project on Greek myths flood my children's room the other day. I only wish the kids had been a little older or this book written for people a little younger so that I could have deftly thrust it into their arms. Unfortunately, it's so new it isn't even in the system yet. Oogie.

When I am handed a brand new bright and beautiful book for children or teens for me to review, I shut myself into a personal sensory deprivation tank (of sorts). I refuse to read reviews of the book, hear opinions from other people, or even scan the bookflap attached to the novel. I want to walk into a book knowing absolutely nothing about it except the name of the author (and if I could get away from that detail you can bet I would). Often this method of denying myself extraneous info is silly and wouldn't affect my opinion of the novel one way or another. In the case of "Corydon and the Island of the Monsters", however, it was a godsend. Had I read the Author Note at the beginning of the book, my read would have been tainted by two items. Item Number One: The fact that the book was written by a mother/son team. Item Number Two: It is the first in a trilogy. If I had known about the whole mother/son mutual writing experience you could not have peeled the sneer off of my face with all the battery acid in the world. If I had known it was the first in a trilogy I would have read it with an additional moue of distaste that comes with finding yet ANOTHER first book in a series (are there no single volumes of books anymore?). Instead, I came into "Corydon" without any taint of expectation and found it to be a delightful and truly engrossing read. It's been a while since I've read a child or teen novel that made me so simultaneously fearful and enraptured by a tale's plot. This is a book with a steady and satisfying emotional core, not to mention a great grasp on mythology to boot.

Corydon lives alone as a shepherd on a hillside far from his island's villages. Years ago the boy was driven from his home by a crowd of angry villagers simply because he was cursed with the leg of a goat. At the time he was rescued from death by two powerful Gorgons that he never saw again. He often wonders what became of them, but that question is answered soon enough when Corydon is taken prisoner by a group of pirates and their traveling freak show. While there the boy makes the acquaintance of a very pregnant Medusa and together the two escape, free their fellow monsters, and find the Gorgons' home. All might have been fine too, had one of the pirates not gone to King Polydectes and told tales of a isle of monsters. The next thing you know that pompous hero Perseus has organized a huge army of men intent on the monsters' destruction. It all falls to Corydon to discover how best to defeat the men and save the monsters that have become his family. It is a journey that will take him to the halls of Time and the depths of Hades and back.

I didn't mean to fall in love with the characters in this book. Honestly, I didn't! But if ever a talented mother/son team there was, Diane Purkiss and Michael Downing are they. There's no silly Zizou Corder nonsense going on here. No, sir. The writing is so entrancing that when Perseus shows up on the island's shores you feel deeply worried for Medusa, her new baby, the Gorgons, and all the other monsters on the sunny isle. It doesn't help any that Corydon has found comfort in knowing that his new Gorgon mothers will never abandon him like his maternal one did. It helps even less that "Druitt" knows Greek myths and knows them rather well. About the time Medusa challenged Perseus to a duel I was gnawing my fingernails to the nub and ignoring every doorbell, phone ring, and spouse in the room. I had to know what was going to happen. It's the emotional tug of this book that really helps to ratchet up suspense. If you can read through this tale and NOT find yourself having trouble sleeping because you're worried about what's going to happen to the minotaur... well, my friend, you have no soul.

I don't know how intentional this was, but the scenes in which Perseus comes up with different methods by which to recruit men into his misbegotten war... well they all strike the reader as a touch (how shall I say?) familiar. Perseus is able to make the idea of an attack on the monsters into the stuff of patriotism. Two of the characters in this book, faced with hard times, go off to fight because their sister has shamed them into action. When the war doesn't go particularly well Perseus always has a new lie or stretched truth to goad his men onward. Whether or not "Druitt" is making an intentional parallel with a somewhat similar situation today, I don't know. But it isn't hard to make that tiny leap in logic from one poorly thought out war to another. Just a thought.

Myths are hot stuff these days. Walk into a bookstore now and you'll see everything from last year's "Lightning Thief" by Rick Riordan to that silly book series who's name escapes me where each mythological hero or monster is given a humorous tale of their own. The authors of "Corydon" did have their own tendencies towards silliness in this book, of course. At one point the men are offered a six free "limited edition... individually crafted clay statues of monsters and heroes" when they enlist. The modern Happy Meal-type giveaways are funny but the humor actually runs a little counter to the tone of most of the book. But such problems are small potatoes. When you consider that this book was somehow made as a collaboration between a mother and a son and features some of the tenderest scenes between a boy who needs a mother and mothers who need a son... well it just defies any kind of logic. As I said before, I'm happy my method of utter and complete ignorance allowed me to enjoy this book fully. Now I can only hope that the other two books in the series live up to their predecessor.

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