Saturday, April 14, 2007

Earth, Wind, And Fire. Wait...And Water

Shannon Hale has a new book coming out soon for adults. So I decided it was time for me to read her most recent book for young people, River Secrets.

River Secrets is described as a companion book to two earlier Hale works, The Goose Girl and Enna Burning. I liked The Goose Girl enough that I actually went out and tried to read some fairy tales since it was based on one I wasn't familiar with. I skipped Enna Burning but had no trouble coming up to speed with River Secrets.

Hale's books exist within an imaginary universe that seems somewhat similar to a late medieval world. There are princes and princesses, transportation is primarily by horse, and guns don't appear to exist. There are soldiers rather than knights, though. And within this universe there are people who can control the elements. Sometimes it's wind, sometimes it's fire, sometimes it's water. (In The Princess Academy , which I've also read, some young women can communicate somehow with rocks. I don't remember the exact details.)

This power is random and democratic. A princess or a young noblewoman might have it but so might a working stiff. Though in these books women seem to have it more often than men.

River Secrets, however, centers on Razo, a powerless character who appears in earlier books. He's a poor, young soldier, a very charming Everyman who isn't all that adept at even run-of-the-mill soldiering, forget about having a grasp on anything supernatural.

So Hale has a well-developed setting, good characters, and some elegant writing--particularly at the beginning of chapters. What's she's not quite so good at in River Secrets is plot. (Hey, plot is hard. Believe me.)

In an earlier book Bayern (Razo's homeland) fought a war with Tira that Bayern won because Enna, of Enna Burning, has power over fire. She used it to assist her people but at a heavy cost to the Tirans, who are still bitter. A Bayern ambassador with a military escort (and Enna as a waiting lady) goes into Tira to try to make nice. But burned bodies keep turning up, the implication being that someone is trying to sabotage the Bayern mission by framing them for these murders.

So the book seems to be a mystery. I like cross-genrization, myself, and this idea definitely worked for me. However, the elements of the plot don't necessarily lead from one to another, there's often long gaps in the action, and big questions are never dealt with. For instance, who the heck are these dead people? We find out at the end, but, logically, wouldn't someone have missed them and raised questions? The Tirans have no organization in place to investigate crimes and stop criminals? One character tries to kill Razo, he knows who does it, but nothing happens to her. Why not? He didn't tell anyone? And, if so, again, why not? And, finally, the ultimate antagonist isn't very well-integrated into the story.

Then there are romantic elements that are not unattractive, by any means, but because those aspects of the book are better done than the mystery, they tend to make the mystery's failings stick out even more.

My concerns don't seem to be shared by others. The book received at least two starred reviews, and bloggers turned cartwheels over it. This is one case where I can understand the response. I think that Hale, like Megan Whalen Turner, is a very decent writer who has created a universe her fans like so much that they're willing to turn a blind eye to any missteps in order to enter it once again.

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