Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Book Review: The Mistmantle Chronicles: Urchin of the Riding Stars by M.I. McAllister

It's hard to remember that my child doesn't recognize cliches or care about what's trite or used or done to death. He doesn't predict what's predictable, he hasn't read the thing that makes me say something is derivative, and whatever I can see coming will probably surprise the heck out of him. He's seven.

Urchin of the Riding Stars is not innovative, except for the fact that the characters are squirrels, otters, moles, and momewraths. Or... hedgehogs, rather. Or ferrets. So what? Another small animal takes the stage. We've seen it done with rabbits, with rats, but have squirrels ever been swordfighting heros before? I don't think.

Sadly, the originality ends with the choice of species. To start the tale, a baby squirrel with unnaturally pale fur (a strange birthmark? a sixth toe? ) is dropped on the shore and picked up by a captain of the realm. Given to a dumb but motherly foster mother, he is raised in humble circumstances, then brought to the castle where he is trained as a page, and as you can see from the cover shot, soon gets his own sword and cloak and has to be brave and save the world. I wonder if book 2 or 3 in this series will reveal that he has noble blood? And I also wonder if the sun will come up in the east tomorrow.

There is something dark in the dungeon. There is a wise old priest. There is a befuddled king misled and betrayed by a power-hungry lieutenant. I've seen it before. I am getting a little eye-rolling fatigue over here. But, has the child seen it before? No. For the child, it may all be exciting and new.

I bought this book because Benny, age 7, is deeply interested in swordfighting and good and evil and princes and dungeons. I thought this would be a sweeter, easier way for him to read about adventures of this nature without the intensity of humanity. It's just squirrels, right? It wouldn't freak him out or give him nightmares or inspire him to decapitate his sister, right? Well, I was right and wrong.

The surprise of the book, and also the redemption of the book, is that it actually didn't back off the intensity just because there's a squirrel on the cover. The bad guys actually kill people, they don't just endlessly and ridiculously threaten. The abuse of power is damaging, and the danger is real. The little animals are overworked and hungry, and there's a practice called "culling" where the infants who are born with any deformity or weakness are killed by the government, actually by the corrupt lieutenant. Yes, the hero is sweet, overly sweet, cloyingly and insufferably sweet to this adult reader, but the immediacy of the violence affected me, made me care about him in spite of myself.

So, we'll see how it goes with the child. As soon as we finish Bunnicula, we're going to try this one. I'll let you know how it goes!

Now, I must ask (speaking of Bunnicula): If microwaves kill all the nutrition on vegetables, how life-threatening are those new Glad bags that you can use to steam vegetables in the microwave? Isn't that like... a hideous betrayal of children everywhere, suffering through steamed broccoli with absolutely no nutritional value?

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