Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Fun Ride In A Hellish Sort Of Way

School Library Journal called Anne Ursu's The Shadow Thieves "a great addition to this newly popular Greek-myth genre."

There's a "Greek-myth genre?" When did that happen? Did somebody send a memo?

Can anybody start a genre?

I read the first page of The Shadow Thieves, and my heart sank. It's written in one of these third person voices in which the unnamed third-person narrator speaks to the reader. I hate that. By the third page a kitten had appeared. Just forty-eight hours before, I'd read a perfectly awful book with kittens.

I held The Shadow Thieves in my hands and thought, Damn. I have to read this whole stinking thing.

By page nine I had totally reversed myself and stayed that way for the rest of the book. The voice wasn't annoying. It had attitude. A great attitude. And the cat wasn't icky and annoying. She had attitude, too.

Plus she wasn't around all the time.

Once upon a time there was a girl named Charlotte who turned thirteen and developed a bit of attitude as thirteen-year-olds do. She also had a cousin named Zachary who was British and perfect. Except for the business of attracting a shadow thief from hell. Well, from Hades, actually. Charlotte and Zachary find themselves in the unenviable position of having to save not the world, not civilization, but eternity. The afterlife.

I have wondered in this space if writers read differently than other people do. As I was reading this book, I kept thinking about the choices Ursu made while writing it. That voice, for instance. She almost lost me in those first couple of pages. It took a while to hook me. And as she says, herself, plotwise "We Begin in the Middle." Then she went on to "The Beginning," "The End of the Beginning," and "The Beginning of the End." This moving around in her storyline works, I think, because the first two sections deal with different characters.

Her characters also are different. Charlotte and Zachary are different and not just because one is a girl and one is a boy and one is white and one is bi-racial and one is American and one is English. They are different human beings.

And then the folks in the Underworld--they are hysterical in a terrifying sort of way. Ursu must really know her Greek mythology. Believe me, it's hard to write humor about things you don't know.

In spite of the great wit in this book, The Shadow Thieves is a dark tale because its basic premise is that the afterlife of Greek mythology is true. Remember those grim depictions of Hades when Odysseus had to trot on down there? Yeah, it was not a pretty sight, and in the world of The Shadow Thieves that's what's waiting for all of us when we pass on. Though an epilogue suggests things aren't as bad as they seem (and The Shadow Thieves is the first in a trilogy, so perhaps something else will be revealed in a later book), the portrayal of the afterlife is disturbing. The book's vocabulary is sophisticated, and though Ursu does a good job of prepping readers for the mythological references, I do wonder if they won't be enjoyed more by those who are already familiar with that material.

The book's publisher is marketing the book for grades three to seven. I think it's going to shoot over the heads of the kids on the low end of that range. But it should be a pleasure for older kids.

And, personally, I'm going to be seeking out Ursu's books for adults as well as the next book in this series.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yep ! Not only is there a "Greek Myths" subgenre in fantasy, but there are any number of other subgenres - such as "Arthurian legends" - any subject on which you can name 6 or more books tends to constitute a subgenre these days...

gail said...

Six or more books--that's very helpful.

Anonymous said...

I plucked that number out of the air - but it's true that a whole group of authors (sometimes deliberately, sometimes not) all start writing on a particular subject. Right now I'm reading a lot of books in the war subgenre of historical fiction for children/YA - which is not a deliberate choice on my part, particularly, but seems fitting for this time of year...

But yes, subgenres exist, especially in fantasy/SF - there's also the growing Norse myth subgenre - I must have read at least half a dozen books in the past 2 - 3 months that are based on one or more aspects of Norse myth.

And there's the dragons subgenre - that's always popular !