Review of the Day: Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos
Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos by R.L. LaFevers. Illustrations by Yoko Tanaka. Houghton Mifflin Company. $16.00.
It took me a little while to review this one, but better late than never.
Things That Are Difficult To Do:
1. Eating broken glass
2. Changing a baby’s diaper for the first time.
3. Digesting aforementioned broken glass.
4. Selling a boy on a great adventuresome novel with a female heroine.
It’s a bit of a stereotype but one with at least a grain of truth to it. Certain boys of a particular literary persuasion will offer an unpleasant amount of resistance to reading a book when its protagonist is of the feminine variety. This is understood. Few quibble the point. As a result, nine times out of ten a hero who discovers a fantastical world in a fantasy novel will sport a name like Harry or Percy or Sebastian (no one said they had to be manly names). This can make it difficult for girls heroes. Either they have to share the spotlight with a boy (and is pictured on the cover with him if the publisher has their way) or their heroine already exists in a world of her own when the action begins. The latter is the case with one Theodosia Throckmorton. If you called her “spunky” to her face she’d probably grind your foot beneath her boot heel. Theodosia isn’t cute or plucky or wide-eyed. She’s sly and clever with just half a sandwich more intelligence than her fellow man. "Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos" is not a perfect creation, but it has enough originality and sheer verve to make up for those imperfections a reader might find.
When you’re living in Edwardian England as the child of easily distracted museum curators, you have to do a lot of growing up on your own. Theodosia Throckmorton, for her part, has done her fair share. While her mother has been scouring Egypt for artifacts to send to the family’s Museum of Legends and Antiquities, Theodosia lives in London at the museum in question with her father and cat. What’s more, she has a purpose in life. Unlike anyone else she knows, Theodosia can physically sense the horrid curses and black magic seeping from the artifacts on display. Her job? Remove the magic and keep away from her father’s meddling curator Clive Fagenbush. And everything would have been perfectly fine had her mother not brought home that wretched Heart of Egypt. Legend says that should this amulet ever leave its native soil it will curse the country that takes it in and topple the kingdom itself. Now WWI is looming, evil forces are conspiring to steal the amulet for their own means, and it’s up to Theodosia to foil the bad guys, find herself some allies, and return the Heart of Egypt to its rightful home.
The book lends itself to love. First off, there’s the fact that LaFevers has such a flair for names. It’s just a pleasure to read someone who can create her own unique characters without sounding like a slightly sickened Dickens novel. So it was that I found myself chortling over monikers like Sticky Will, Dolge, Sweeny, and Wigmere. The very voice of the book was also a pleasure. I’m rather taken with any heroine who mentally labels her brother a “cad” when he threatens her with imminent education. And I liked the shout-outs to other works of children’s fiction. E. Nesbit’s, “The Treasure Seekers” gets a mention, which pleased me to no end. A pity the author is never named.
Best of all, “Theodosia” works on more than one level. It is my personal belief that LaFevers is making a rather slick anti-colonialism statement couched in an otherwise innocuous fantasy. Theodosia’s parents are stealing a country’s treasures without so much as a drop of guilt. Heck, her mother even alludes to a possible bribery of “local officials” so as to remove the artifacts from the country. And while you’d never accuse Theodosia of being anything other than a patriot (she even goes so far as to say that she would never “betray” her country) that doesn’t mean she can’t be at odds with what the nation, as well as her very own parents, does.Less effective perhaps is the tie made between pre-war Germany and this “curse” upon England. Says Theodosia, “ Germany was using the power of Ancient Egyptian magic to topple its adversaries. Just like Thutmose III and Amenemhab had.” Anti-colonialism I’m willing to buy. The Kaiser using magic? I guess it works in the same way that the Nazis in the Indiana Jones films work. It just seems a little clunky for an otherwise nice book.
There are problems here and there. There are no surprises regarding the true villain of the book. You probably won’t mind, but LaFevers makes it fairly evident. Another complaint I’ve heard lodged against this title is that it doesn’t effectively take you into Edwardian England. The smells and tastes and sensations aren’t there. You can appreciate the plot and pacing, but it’s not an evocative novel. I agree with this to some extent. Obviously that wasn’t what LaFevers was going for. For the kind of book that it is, you can enjoy the story without feeling you have to have traveled back in time with the author. For all that the author doesn’t try to conjure up distinct sensations, she’s thought through numerous tricky details. I loved the idea of long-term exposure to curses seeping into a person’s soul like radiation into cells. Plus the illustrations by Yoko Tanaka are used sparingly enough to give the book just enough oomph without detracting.
I’m trying to gauge the level of innate kid-appeal in this book, and I’m having a difficult time coming up with anything. What it really feels like is a child-version of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody novels like “Crocodile On the Sandbank”. Same level-headed heroine. Same magic and vibe. Same exciting Egypt-based fight/flight sequences. You can hardly recommend a book to a kid on the basis of the adult novel it reminded you of. In the end, I’m just going to wait for the child who comes up to me and wants a good adventure story with a bit of fantasy for flair. It won’t be a book for every kid out there, true. But when paired with titles like the “Enola Holmes” books by Nancy Springer, “Theodosia” should prove popular with any kid attracting to the intelligent and the arcane.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Cover: Houghton Mifflin is apparently unafraid to make it clear to the world that this book is a historical fantasy. I know that amongst some there is a belief that if kids see anything even faintly antiquated on a book cover that they avoid it like the plague. It's nice to see a book reveling in an original look. The colors are one-of-a-kind, the image of Theodosia more than a photographed and dismembered head or torso, and the font pleasant. Altogether, this is a cover that makes children and adults want to pick it up. Well played.
First Line: "I don’t trust Clive Fagenbush."
Other Blog Reviews: Jen Robinson's Book Page, bookshelves of doom, lindajsingleton, nichtszusagen, Dee and dee Dish, Menageriemom's Musings, corrinalaw,
Futher Info: The Theodosia Throckmorton Homepage and Theodosia's Journal (blog)