Review of the Day: The Shadow Thieves
I currently have 20 new thick books in my to-be-read pile. So what do I read next? Howzabout the thickest of the lot? Fortunately, this wasn't a 400-some page read that turned out to be bad. It was a 400-some page read that turned out to be actually good. My relief, it contains multitudes.
Anne Ursu has penned two adult novels as of this review. With the understanding that adult authors are often completely incapable of writing children's books (to say nothing of children's fantasy novels) I approached, "The Shadow Thieves" with the greatest of trepidation. The first in a series called, "The Cronus Chronicles" (a particularly interesting name when you consider that Cronus never makes an appearance), the book yet another addition in the Greek mythology trend sweeping libraries and bookshelves nationwide. "The Lightening Thief" and "Corydon" were just some of the first of these. What sets "The Shadow Thieves" apart is that we're looking at a whole new setting. It's Hades, ladies and gents! And Ursu, for the record, is doing a fabulous job of bringing its various charms to our attention.
Two kids. Two stories. On the one hand you have Charlotte. She's been having kind of a crappy time of it at school. She's not popular, she doesn't like her new English teacher, and she didn't get into the school play. So when she finds a new kitten, she feels a little better. And when her cousin Zee comes to live with her family (and he's cool) things seem okay. Of course there's that thing where all the kids in school have started getting some bizarre wasting disease. Add onto that Zee's story, and suddenly things don't seem so hunky-dory after all. Apparently Zee has provided a supervillain by the name of Philonecron (call him Phil) with the means of raising the ultimate army. The army is made out of the shadows of children and with it he means to conquer Hades. Yup, you heard me. Hades is real. The Greek gods are real. And it's basically up to two kids to save humanity from a fate worse than death.
I got one word for you: compelling. Ursu knows how to set up suspense, drama, and a great deal of fear. Her bad guy is bad. Her good guys are conflicted. And most importantly? The entire endeavor is shot through with a healthy dose of humor. Sometimes this can be a little much. The narration is fond of putting in a word or a joke where words and jokes are not necessarily needed. But by and large I was relieved to find myself enjoying the story thoroughly. Standing at a healthy 424 pages, the book is actually quite a quick read. The illustrations at the beginning of the chapters don't hurt a bit either.
One of the nicest things about, "The Shadow Thieves" is the fact that while you can see a sequel as coming, the first book doesn't leave you hanging. Some fantasy series ("Door of Time" I'm looking at YOU) use their first book merely as a set-up for future titles. Ursu doesn't do that. Honestly, "The Shadow Thieves" could be a stand alone novel and it wouldn't be any the worse for it. Maybe a little depressing, considering what happens to us all when we die (think harpies), but no more so than the existence meted out in Philip Pullman's, "The Amber Spyglass". Ursu writes at a steady clip without sacrificing character or emotional resonance to plot.
Being a former resident of Minnesota I was pleased as punch to see that wonderful area of the country finally given a little attention kiddie lit-wise. And what better place to put the door to the underworld than in The Mall of America? Oddly, Ursu never calls it "The Mall of America" in so many words. It's just "The Mall" (which makes me wonder if legal issues came up in some way). Not that it's hard to recognize. Legoland and the late-lamented (but now glorified forever thanks to this book) Cereal playground. The amusement park, the movie theater, and the fact that The Mall is located near the airport? It could only be one place and that place could only contain the door to the Underworld itself.
2006 seems to be the year of the shadow thefts. You have it in "The Shadow Thieves", Dave Barry's lamentable, "Peter and the Shadow Thieves", and Larry DiFiori's amusing picture book, "Jackie and the Shadow Snatcher". It never rains but it pours. Now far be it from me to point out some of the more familiar aspects in this tale, but bear with me. In this book the villain Philonecron has multiple deadly servants. They are tall with bald heads and they wear superb tuxes. They also go around stealing shadows from children, sometimes by reaching into those kids' very chests. Oh, and by and large they do not speak. Now anybody who's ever seen the best-known "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episode entitled, "Hush", will realize that I'm describing The Gentlemen. I don't think Ursu actually ripped off "Buffy", but the similarities are striking. Add onto that the fact that Phil likes to call Zee "Zero". Zero is a black character in "Holes" of African-American descent. Zee too is black. And then there's the whole shadow stealing business. That in particular seems similar to the work done in "His Dark Materials" by the Oblation Board. But again, these are just some tropes of the genre. Ursu has a highly original head on her shoulders. Just don't get too surprised if something becomes familiar here or there.
So how old a readership are we talking here? Well, this puppy fall squarely into the middle readership category. Which is to say, kids anywhere from eight to eighteen might get a kick out of it. There's a kind of gruesome sequence involving someone getting Prometheus's fate (though you never actually SEE his liver get gnawed on) and some threats lobbed by the bad guy, but all in all this puppy's fairly gore-free. Definitely a good title for those kids suffering Percy Jackson withdrawl. Fun book. Fun new author. Fun time.