Fuse #8

Monday, August 28, 2006

Review of the Day: Alphabet of Dreams

Blurbs and book descriptions can be great. If you see, for example, an enticing cover in the bookstore, blurbs have the power to make or break your potential purchase. If the description sounds remarkable, the blurb is the book’s friend. If the description sounds deathly deadly dull, the blurb and book are foes. But you see, I don’t read blurbs. I like books to surprise me. To have stories and plots that jump out of nowhere and throttle my attention soundly. In short, I like to know as little about a book as possible before I read it. And since my focus in life is to concentrate wholeheartedly on children’s books, blurbs are avoided at all times at all costs. Good thing too. Had I known the plot of “Alphabet of Dreams” beyond the initial premise I might have labeled this book too soon. As it was, my slow realization of what this story was about liberated me to feel especially proud of myself and proud of author Susan Fletcher for so skillfully drawing out the story’s elegant elements. If you’re anything like me and you’d like to unravel the mystery behind “Alphabet of Dreams” on your own, stop reading this review and know only this: Excellent book. Excellent plot. Excellent characters. A classy affair through and through. Nuff said.

First sentence: “When we lived in the City of the Dead, my brother dreamed mostly of food”. Little wonder. Mitra and her little brother Babak are displaced members of a Persian royal family. Due to their father’s failed plot to overthrow King Phraates, the two have been separated from the rest of their family and live as beggers in the city of Rhagae. That is, until fourteen-year-old Mitra (dressed as a boy and going by the name of Ramin) discovers that Babak has a dangerous gift. Simply place an article of clothing under his sleeping head and in the morning he’ll dream a portentous dream for the owner of that material. Always on the lookout for a way to return to the life she once knew, Mitra uses Babak’s power to restore them to the city of Palmyra, where she hopes to find their kin. Unfortunately, knowledge of this dreamer reaches the ears of the powerful everywhere. Now Babak and Mitra are in the possession of a magus with dreams of power. And as the boy’s dreams concern a birth, stars, and a king, it becomes clear that there is something at work far greater than either child could fathom. Something so great that it may kill Babak to dream of it.

At what point did my slow moving brain realize that this story was concerned with the three Magi? You see, that’s the caravan that Mitra and Babak eventually end up with. Somehow I could have caught on right from the start if I’d looked more closely at the map at the beginning of the book. Yup. There’s Bethlehem clear as clear can be. But somehow I missed both that clue and the moment when the first Magus (clue #2, I suppose) was introduced as Melchior. It really wasn’t until Babak had a dream about a Jewish king with sores that I began to get clued in. Then when they met up with a second Magus named Gasper… well you can imagine how pleased I felt with myself. Kids who haven’t been immersed in “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, however, may not get what’s going on until the crew meets up with King Herod or enters Bethlehem proper.

By and large Fletcher is just an out-and-out good writer. At one point the story’s heroes are hiding under some blankets on a camel to avoid detection from their enemies. As they sit there they hear a sound like “Pok!”. It becomes clear to Mitra that this is the sound of someone sticking a dagger through the blankets. “I held my breath. Pok! Pok! To my left. Pok! Pok! Somewhere in front of me”. Delicious stuff. Then there are the characters themselves. Mitra, our heroine, is not likable in the least at the story’s start. She works for her own gain, fooling herself into believing that using her little brother is for his own good as well. She’s obsessed with royal blood, to the point where she’ll sacrifice everything to return to her station in life. And like the rat Roscuro in Kate DiCamillo’s, “The Tale of Despereaux”, Mitra craves light at all times. I liked that Fletcher covered her bases. Whenever a character in a book disguises herself as a boy, some inevitable questions come up. How does Mitra pee? What about her period? What happens when she gets that? And her breasts? What about those? Fletcher handles each question in a manner befitting of Tamora Pierce’s, “Alanna”.

Not that the book doesn’t have any flaws, of course. There’s a whole subplot involving Mitra’s attraction to a boy named “Pacorus” that is supposed to help show how she’s evolving into a young woman. Unfortunately it comes across as more of a distraction than anything else. About the time Mitra says, “And Pacorus. What did I want from him?”, you, the reader, don’t really care all that much. Besides, Pacorus seems like a nice enough fellow, but he’s not fleshed out enough to care for. Ah well. Other readers I've discussed this book with have also found it a little slow moving. I, personally, felt the pace suited the style of the book, but I agree that I wouldn't hand, "Alphabet of Dreams" to a reluctant reader. As long as you can get through Mitra's constant yearning for Palmyra (which does get a little old after a while) you'll be okay.

Ms. Fletcher isn’t the first children/teen author to tackle a Biblical story from an alternate point of view. Anne Provoost's, “In the Shadow of the Ark”, for example, took on Noah’s Ark, to say nothing of Madeline L’Engle’s, “Many Waters”, and the too little lauded “The Garden” by Elsie V. Aidinoff. These were all based on Old Testament stories, however, and think as I might, I couldn’t come up with a single children/teen title that used The Nativity as its focus. Plus one of the nice things about this book is that it doesn’t foist any particular religion on the reader. Yes, it’s about The Nativity. But for those who see divinity in the story, that element is there for them. For those who just want a good story without a overt Christian theme, that’s there too. This book has something for everyone. It balances out its storyline with its subject matter delicately. Hats off to Ms. Fletcher for her restraint. If there’s a theme to this book, it concerns itself with a newfangled concept: Do good things and regardless of your station in life you can still attain heaven.

Fletcher, for that matter, has done her research. The “Note From the Author” at the back of the book details how Fletcher went about researching her tale, to say nothing of why she chose to include some elements and not others. It’s here that readers will learn how much of this book is based on historical fact, how much on the Nativity tale alone, how much on the Book of Matthew, etc. Did you know that there was a conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, that could easily have been the “star” referred to? Or that the Magi fit beautifully as Zoroastrians? Then she intricately plucks out the geography of the region, citing the locations as they were known in the past and as they are known now. The Works Cited page is beautifully displayed, and it’s clear from her Acknowledgments that Ms. Fletcher was not afraid of legwork. It’s all very impressive.

In a way, this is a Christmas story of an entirely new sort. One that goes to the actual event itself and shows the world at that time and how dangerous it was. There’s magic here and fighting. Escapes and death. Miracles and treachery. All in all, an exciting take on an old tale, and one that’s never been done before. Consider me a fan.

Notes On the Cover: Actually, I was a fan of the cover of the ARC which was a little different than the one they decided to go with in the end. This one's okay, but what's with the white chick? No offense, but doesn't this take place someplace other than middle America? So why present Mitra as someone who'd fit right in with the tennis bunny set? Would it have killed them to get a girl of the Arabic persuasion? I mean, really.


At 6:23 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this review! Since my copies of PW get lost on their way to my new home (who knew Syracuse, NY, was the Back of Beyond?), I wouldn't have known the great Susan Fletcher had a new book out. I ordered it the moment I read your review, and gobbled it as soon as it arrived. I liked the book very much, and don't think Christianity is required--the story is about the girl and her brother, about accepting reality and learning who to trust. And like Fletcher's other work, it's gritty and doesn't offer unsatisfyingly easy solutions.

Thanks again!

At 11:46 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was so excited to see Fletcher's new book on the shelves. I've enjoyed her other books, especially Shadow Spinner, another story set in the Middle East, and have been waiting a long time for something like this from her.

The cover is striking and attractive. I agree with what you're saying about the pale girl, but I wanted to add that the exotic quality of the cover really captured my daughter's interest (she's eleven)when I pulled it from the shelf.

(I'm glad you mentioned Provoost's In the Shadow of the Ark as well--great stuff.)


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