Review of the Day: The Dark Hills Divide
It's been a while since I did a good thorough lambasting of a book. Well consider today Lambast-Happy Saturday. Here's a series with a lot of potential and not a whole heckuva lot else.
I was speaking to an editor of a large publishing house the other day, and I asked him whether or not he ever got any series books that weren't labeled "Book One" or "Part One In a Series" or "The First Adventure". He told me, no. There's just too much money in series these days. No one sees any point in writing stand-alone novels. So I wasn't surprised when I picked up "The Dark Hills Divide" and saw that it had the words "Book 1" on its cover. It's just the nature of things. Reading the book through, I found an interesting tale with likable characters and a strong plot. Unfortunately I also found sloppy details, editorial laziness, and a tendency towards not explaining things that needed to be explained. As fantasy series go I can tell you right here and now that "The Land of Elyon" is much better than "Pendragon" or "Eragon" and the like. It's just not the strongest thing out there today. Enjoyable but frustrating.
Every year it's the same. Alexa, the daughter of the mayor of Lathbury, travels with her father to the big city of Bridewell for some time in the summer. Alexa lives in the Land of Elyon where all the major cities have eighteen-foot tall walls around them to keep out unspecified dangers. Her entire life, Alexa has sought to find a way out of the walls. So when a silver key to a hidden door in the town's library falls into her possession, she wastes little time exploring what lies beyond the wall. What she finds is a power that allows her to speak to the animals of the woods and a deadly plot by outsiders to destroy her beloved Bridewell. It will require all her cunning and cleverness to seek out the spy amongst her friends and to figure out who to trust in the end.
The problem is, Carman keeps leaving out key details, or he delays them so long that you never quite figure out what's going on. We know that the walls around these cities were built for some vague unspecified reason. Eventually the reason may be that the guy who built them had his fortune told and the fortune said that monsters would attack the cities. Then the monsters, apparently, are just metaphors for how the walls themselves have created something monstrous in the people. With me so far? Good, because here's where it kind of breaks down. The biggest flaw to the walls, as far as I could see, was that it cut off animals from their family members on one side of the wall or another. Otherwise, the only real problem the people have with the walls is that it blocks their view of the pretty mountains and forests. The oddest thing of all happens at the end of the book. The big city of Bridewell is attacked, wins the battle in the end, and then proceeds to... tear down the wall?!?!? They were just attacked for the very first time! And when people are attacked they do not tear down walls. Now granted Bridewell itself doesn't tear down any walls. Just the walls that connect it to other cities. But why do they do it anyway? No reason is given aside from the idea that "walls are bad". I'm all for that idea. I just wish Carman had taken the time to elaborate on it a little.
Other reviewers have offered criticisms of this book that make some pretty good points. Alexa, some say, does not speak like a twelve-year-old girl but like a mature adult. This is very true. Also, she tends to figure out things far sooner than her readership and without any explanation. At one point she copies down a map that turns out to be a floorplan of her library. From this she some intuits for no particular reason that there must be a secret door in the room. This is not only peculiar, it's completely out of the blue. Just the same, I was happy to see a fantasy book with a narrative from a girl in the first-person. This doesn't happen very often in children's fantasies. Moreover, Carman actually gives his heroine a sense of humor. You may not think that's much to boast of, but name as many books starring funny women written by men that you can think of. Exactly. There are some, but it takes some scrounging of the brain to come up with them, doesn't it? Other criticisms include the big reveal of the villain. Without giving too much away (this is a spoiler warning) the villain is discovered because the clues lead Alexa to finding the name of a Hindu god. Now this book takes place in a mythical land of Elyon. It's a fantasy world with zippo ties to our real one. Yet for some reason Carman ties one of the book's big mysteries to a god that already exists. This is so out of step with the rest of the book, with the rest of Carman's entire WORLD, that you're left wondering why he even went along with it. I, for one, was baffled.
Oh, and let's talk Elyon as well. Talk about not giving your audience much in the way of information! At one point Alexa has a conversation with a bear in the forest and the bear says, completely out of the blue, "Elyon is on the move, his plans are unfolding in this very age, and we shall be witnesses to his triumphant return in the days to come". Who's Elyon? Carman never deigns to tell us. Actually, this is the first mention of "Elyon" in the book. Now can you think of any other fictional work for children where an animal says a mysterious vowel-happy someone is "on the move"? If you said "Aslan" from "The Chronicles of Narnia", you'd be on the right track. So does this mean that this series is a Christian metaphor at its heart? Only time will tell.
And then there's Carman's literary habit of constantly having Alexa follow adorable woodland creatures, ask where's she's going, and be told that she can't have any explanations at that moment. There's no reason for this aside from the fact that Carman likes to draw out his suspense. If anyone said to Alexa, "I can't tell you or you'd be too frightened to follow me" (as Carman eventually does in the second book in this series) that would be another matter altogether. Instead, it's just annoying and rather pointless.
The worst part of all this is that I still really kinda liked the book. I liked Carman's characters (he has a penchant for facial hair) and I liked the settings. I liked the library where Alexa spends much of her time and the cold feeling you get when you realize that your adorable pets are not what they seem. How can I dislike a book that has so much humor in it too? And I didn't find it slow in the least (unlike some people). All in all I found it very enjoyable. Just lazy. So on the one hand it's a great read. On the other hand, Carman just didn't put the work into it that he could have. Here's hoping that the second book in the series does make the same mistakes of its predecessor.