Shadow Thieves by Ann Ursu, Reading Level 4
Anne Ursu's Cronus Chronicles series, the first book of which is The Shadow Thieves, manages to be playful and menacing at the same time, a bit like Eric Fortune's cover illustration which I loved so much I had to share in its text-free form. Published early in 2006, less than a year after The Lightning Thief hit the shelves, The Shadow Thieves is a different animal all together. And really, why even compare the books? The Greek gods and goddesses are a bit like vampires when it comes to literary representation these days - there are as many different ways to make them modern or keep them classical as there are fish in the ocean. I do feel compelled to point out this one major difference between the two books, though. Where as The Lightning Thief is a fast paced, action packed book right out of the gate - I felt like I was watching a movie as I read it - The Shadow Thieves takes it's thoughtful, descriptive, character building time, waiting 100 pages before even mentioning the Underworld. Of course, this ultimately a matter of writing style, but it interests me that the main character of Riordan's book is a boy, where as the main character of Ursu's book is a girl.
Ursu employs first person narrator to guide the reader, sometimes in a very sardonic voice, through the story like Ariadne and her ball of thread in the Minotaur's maze. When we first meet the main character Charlotte Mielswetzski ("Say it with me: Meals-wet-ski. Got it? If not, say it again: Meals. Wet. Ski. There. You thought your name was bad?" the narrator chides the reader) she is on her way home from a not-too-great day at school. Charlotte is cranky, grumpy, even, and definitely unhappy. Her best friend has moved to Russia with her parents to teach English to orphans. Encouraged by her mom, she tried out for the school play and didn't get cast. Her only joy comes from making up stories to explain the absence of homework in some of her classes. Charlotte yearns for something out of the ordinary, magical, even, to happen to her. Somehow, though, the ordinary keeps piling up. Charlotte finds a kitten, which she names Bartholomew, Mew for short, (too cute) but this doesn't really shake up her life in any significant way. Charlotte learns that her cousin, Zachary, is coming to live with her family from his home in England. Still no big deal. Even worse really, since Zachary, or Zee as he likes to be known, is friendly, out going, good looking and sporty, all the things Charlotte feels she is not. However, things start to change quickly when Charlotte's friend becomes mysteriously, deathly ill. Soon the rest of the kids at her school are toppling like dominoes.
Zee knows why and he tries to tell Charlotte, but ultimately decides to prove it to her, which almost results in a trip to the Underworld. Instead, they are rescued by Mr Metos, their creepy English teacher who fills in some of the gaps in their story. Mr Metos is part of the Promethian Society, a group dedicated to protecting humans from the follies of the gods. Mr Metos explains that Philonecron, grandson of Poseidon, is trying to take control of the Underworld from Hades, who has become so jaded over the years that he turned the Underworld into a corporation full of mid-level managers and bureaucratic busy bodies. Phil has some plans for Hades, the Underworld and the Shades who inhabit it. Through his mastery of sorcery and Zee's blood, Phil has managed to create an army out of Shades from the shadows of living children, rendering them virtually comatose. When they are tricked into believing Mr Metos wants them to head down to the Underworld, the story takes off and Charlotte and Zee are forced to rely on their wits and instincts (and, fortunately, knowledge of Greek mythology and the ways of the Underworld) alone. Ursu does a great job re-imagining the Greek gods and goddesses and creating her own vision of the Underworld and all the creepies that reside in it. She even provides a bestiary at the end of the book to sort them all out...
One thing I loved about this book was the role of, mere existence of PARENTS. Unlike most fantasy novels in which the kids disappear for an indeterminate amount of time and no one seems to notice, Charlotte and Zee's parents notice. Not only are they typical, they are modern. Zee has a few visits with the psychiatrist when things go wrong in England and all his friends are falling ill. Charlotte's mother is "a child psychiatrist who wrote books on adolescence and was very concerned with Charlotte's well being, This was not always as advantageous as it sounds." Another interesting aspect of the books, as noted by another Charlotte, this one of the blog Charlotte's Library, is the fact that Charlotte and Zee are not, "Chosen Ones, with a Great Destiny and Magical Gifts etc." This is so true and so worth taking note of. The fantasy genre will always have characters who labor under the assumption of normalcy only to wake one day and learn that they are special, and young adult fantasy even more so. What kid doesn't dream of this, or at least dream that they are maybe adopted and there real parents are out there somewhere, maybe even royalty... But, I think it is much more challenging and ultimately interesting to write characters who are normal and survive by their brains and courage alone. Well done, Anne Urusu!
Book Two, The Siren Song, finds Poseidon out for revenge after Charlotte and Zee's actions lead to another, harsher banishment for Philonecron. They are tricked into taking a cruise through the Mediterranean on board Poseidon's own cruise line. Book Three, The Immortal Fire, finds the two on Mount Olympus facing off with Zeus in an effort to stop Phil once and for all.
A little treat for all you art lovers out there... The original illustration for the hardcover of The Siren Song, as interpreted by Eric Fortune. Not sure why Brandon Dorman took over for the paperback edition and book 3, The Immortal Fire.