Read Recently — June 2007

The Edge Chronicles: Beyond the Deepwoods by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

The Edge Chronicles is set in a place where the world just stops. I don’t know if it’s a flat world, or if there’s just a really tall cliff below the edge and then another land . . . it doesn’t matter, really. One one side there’s the Edge, and on the other is the Deepwoods. In between, there’s a mire and the Twilight Woods, not to mention a town and a big river, but none of them really matter in this volume. Also, it doesn’t matter what’s on the other side of the Deepwoods. The Edge is a big place, and a lot of people live there.

Twig has been raised in a village of woodtrolls, but he doesn’t really belong there. His skin and eyes are the wrong colour, and his legs are too long. And things don’t smell right to him, either. The other children pick on him. He loves his parents, but . . . he doesn’t fit in.

His Mother is worried, too. Not because Twig doesn’t fit in, but because his Father, who is a woodcutter, let Twig talk to a Sky Pirate who was buying wood from him. She is worried that the Pirates will return and snatch Twig away from them, so she sends him to spend some time with her cousin in another village. Setting out right that evening, Twig does something no Woodtroll would ever do: he steps off the path and gets lost in the Deepwoods.

And a perilous place the Deepwoods are. Halitoads, Hover Worms, Caterbirds, Wigwigs, Gyle Goblins, Termagants, Blood Oaks, Rotsuckers, and the huge but ultimately friendly Banderbears are what Twig faces as he bounces from danger to danger, finding the occasional friend but never able to stay safe for long. He heads for another encounter with the Sky Pirates and also with the most feared demon in the world of the Edge, the shapechanging Gloamglozer . . .

I don’t think it spoils anything, though, to say that by the end Twig resolves the mystery of his parentage; such is common in this sort of story. And we’re going straight on to the sequel . . .

The Edge Chronicles: Stormchaserby Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

Now traveling with the Sky Pirates, Twig comes closer to the Edge: to the floating Academy of Sanctaphrax and the associated Undertown. Sanctaphrax sits atop a huge floating rock, of the same type that makes the Skyships fly but much larger. The rock is kept from floating away by a huge chain tethering it to the ground. Or at least, it used to be. It was also balanced by the weight of a load of Stormphrax, literally solidified lightning from a “great storm” that struck the Twilight Woods (between the Deepwoods mentioned above and the Mire that borders Undertown. The Twilight Woods are a place of hallucination and danger). Stormphrax is the heaviest substance on earth, so only a little of it is needed to keep the rock of Sanctaphrax balanced. But someone has been pilfering the Stormphrax, so this is countered by the manufacture and installation of yet more chains. This constant industry leads to more pollution of the city’s already polluted water supply, which leads us back to the pilfered Stormphrax. It seems that an ambitious Sanctaphrax underscholar discovered that if you strike Stormphrax just the right way it becomes a substance (which he calls Phraxdust) of which even a single grain will purify a large amount of water. Strike it the wrong way, though, and a huge explosion results. The pilferer, unknown to Twig, is one Vilnix Pompolnius, and he has used the power that control over clean water has given him to become the High Academe of Sanctaphrax.

The Pirates of the Stormchaser, now Twig’s ship, are hired to do some real stormchasing: to ride a great storm to the Twilight Woods and bring back some Stormphrax. But there are traitors in the Stormchaser’s crew, and traitors in Undertown, and treachery in Sanctaphrax itself . . . in the face of those obstacles, can the Stormchaser complete her job and bring her crew back to Undertown alive?

This is obviousy a kids’ story; not “young adult” but tweens and the ilk. The world-building is great and imginative, but not necessarely logical (the Deepwoods is one of those environments where eveything is a predator; hundreds of species with apparantly nothing to eat but each other), and the book is lavishly illustrated (in black-and-white) by Riddell. The result is, for adults, a quick, fun read and a slightly-less quick read for the kids. Recommended.

Airborn by Kenneth Oppel

In a world in which the airship has never gone out of style (and it is hard to say for sure how unusual that is since I can’t find any dates in the novel. While the whole book feels very late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century-esque, it could simply be that certain revolutions of culture never happened here, as they did in our world. And history is certainly different: airships and ornithopters dominate the air, and the airship on which our hero sails travels the Pacificus to Australia from Lionsgate City), Matt Cruse is the cabin boy on the Lunardi Lines airship Aurora. The Aurora is huge and run very much like an ocean-liner. One year ago, Matt participated in the rescue of an old man stranded in a hot-air balloon somewhere over the Pacificus. As he dies of pneumonia and a bad heart, he asks Matt if he “saw them.” They are beautiful, he says. Kate would love them. Matt has no idea what he’s talking about, but he plays along.

Now, as the Aurora leaves Lionsgate City for another run, Matt guides two late-arriving passengers to their stateroom: young Miss Kate deVries and her chaperone, Miss Simpkins. Kate is the granddaughter of the man from the balloon, and when she learns Matt was the one who helped rescue him and was with him before he died, she lets him in on a secret: her grandfather recorded in his diary that, while adrift somewhere in the Pacificus he discovered an uncharted island with a flock of flying creatures living in the air above and around it. Not birds, not bats. Mammals of an unknown type. Matt is skeptical, but intrigued.

Then pirates, led by the notorious Vikram Szpirglas, attack and rob the ship. With no one in the control-room until the pirates leave, the Aurora is in no position to dodge an incoming storm, and when the Pirates’ airship is driven into her by the wind, her gasbags are ripped and she seems likely to crash into the ocean. Fortunately, the crew manages to nurse her to an island, and patching insures that she keeps some gas — enough to keep her off the ground, anyway. Based on the sketches in Kate’s Grandfather’s diary, she and Matt determine that this is the island, and Kate insists n going exploring. Will the kids find her grandfather’s creatures? Will Matt get into trouble for neglecting his duties and hangng around with Kate? Will the Aurora get off of the island? And what about those pirates?

To an extent, this reminds me of Heinlein’s Starman Jones: young prodigy on a liner/ship crashes on an uncharted location, gets involved in an “inappropriate” (socially) relationship with a young, female, upper-class passenger, mysterious new life-form involved. Overall, though it’s a very different story, and one I enjoyed. Oppel does a good job of filling in the background of the story without infodumping, and I think that part of that is not telling us things not necessary for the story, while giving us everything we do need. So far, he’s only written one sequel, the rest of his efforts going to some fantasy series about bats, but I hold out hope . . .

Highly recommended.

Can We Be Good Without God? Biology, behaviour, and the need to believe by Robert Buckman

See, this is why I’ll never be a philosopher. If I was to write a book called Can we be good without god? I would at least feel some obligation to answer the question (In fairness to Buckman, his stated objective is “to cast light on some of the forces of belief that affect our behaviour”). The least he could have done was tried.

Anyway, mostly not recommended.

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