Review of the Day: Archer's Quest
I just cannot for the life of me figure out what to do with Linda Sue Park. Some authors write books that are spot-on gold all the time. Others can't churn out a decent title no matter how hard they try. Then there's Linda Sue Park. Garnering a coveted Newbery award early in her career, Park has had the unenviable job of showing the world that she remains worthy of that honor with every subsequent book she writes. I liked "A Single Shard", but somewhere in the back of my brain was the niggling suspicion that since I'm twenty-seven-years-old my response probably would have been different had I been a ten-year-old who had to read it in school. Ditto my response to "The Mulberry Project", in which silkworms, rather than pottery, were the name of the game. As if hearing my silent plea, Park has now come out with the far more kid friendly (but still darned informative) "Archer's Quest". The set-up is good, the story interesting, and the book a short sweet ride. You'd think I'd be in seventh heaven. Instead, I'm torn. On the one hand, it's difficult to criticize an author who takes as much time and attention as Ms. Park does with her work. On the other hand, something about "Archer's Quest" failed to grab me right from the get-go. Maybe it's the fact that Park has written a story found in so many other children's books. Maybe it's the low-key action. Whatever the case, "Archer's Quest" makes for a mighty fine read. It just didn't have that extra little oomph it needed to make it beloved.
You think your day's been crummy? You've got nothing on Kevin. Sure, today was a half-day at school, but is he able to appreciate it? Not a chance. The year is 1999 and Kevin is bored out of his skull with only a bouncy ball to keep him company. Next thing you know Kevin's cap is hanging from an arrow sticking straight out of the wall. The arrow, in turn, belongs to a very oddly dressed man who is eyeing Kevin suspiciously and has his next arrow aimed at the boy in question. Turns out that the man is the great Korean historical figure Koh Chu-mong. Part Robin Hood part King Arthur, Chu-mong has somehow landed smack dab in Archie's bedroom some 2,054 years into the future. Kevin, may be of Korean descent, but he doesn't sufficiently know his Korean history to know enough about Chu-mong (who requests that he be called Archer, shortened by Kevin to "Archie") to help him back to his own time. Together the two must discover everything they can about Korean history, magic, the Chinese Zodiac, and some basic math before the year of the Tiger is up. And the year ends that very night!
In a way, "Archer's Quest" is a historical novel. Sure it takes place in 1999, but that still places it firmly in the past. Park starts with a particularly interesting situation. You're in your bedroom, bored, and suddenly a hero from the past is looking to put an arrow in your heart. A great start, but a difficult one. Since the story must take place in the course of a single day, and since Kevin is such a realistic character that Park's afraid to ever put him into too much trouble, the story's action is downplayed. The most we get is an encounter with a real tiger, a race from a negligible enemy, and a run across a highway when the traffic has already been stopped. Her "villain" isn't even that villainous. Just misguided. Of course, limiting the action is Park's style. Therefore, if you've a kid who really got into "A Single Shard" or (more logically) "Project Mulberry", they are bound to enjoy this story just as much, if not more.
The concept of a historical or fictional figure bumming around the present isn't new, of course. Everything from "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" to "Inkheart" has used it to their advantage. Where Park diverges from the ordinary is in making her hero a Korean folk-hero. Kids who've never had the opportunity to learn of the adventures of Chu-mong will find much to learn about here. In this way, the book pairs nicely with another recent historical-man-to-whom-folk-tales-have-been-attached character, Dick Whittington, in Alan Armstrong's, "Whittington".
Ever attentive to supporting her stories with fact, Park includes a section on math in this story, while another attends to details involving Chu-mong, tigers, and RIT, and a bit on the zodiac. A Chinese Zodiac is located at the end of the book, and here I had a real problem with the book. Some children's books that discuss the Zodiac do what "Archer's Quest" did here and include each year with the dates ascribed to that year. For example, "The Rooster's Antlers: A Story of the Chinese Zodiac" by Eric A. Kimmel, includes a bunch of dates that fall within different animal years. The book is useful because these dates go a decade or two into the future. "Archer's Quest" on the other hand, stops at February 4, 2000. That's all well and good if the kiddies want to know what animal is ascribed to the year of their birth, but does absolutely no good if they want to know what the current year in the zodiac is. Obviously it stops around 1999 because that's when the story takes place. However, it would be heads and tales more interesting if it bothered to go a little bit into the future. Even if it were just a decade.
None of this is to say that the book doesn't make for a good read. Linda Sue Park is first and foremost a premier children's book author and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I just wish that this book had gotten a little more work done on it. It reads beautifully and will give a lot of enjoyment to some kids with the whole time-travel aspect. For others it will start out well, then peter off into the dull. A nice title but not my favorite Park accomplishment.