Sunday, August 10, 2008

Breaking Dawn, by Stephanie Meyer

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. I didn't give this Twilight series a terribly good review. So, why did I read the last one? Even worse, why did I BUY the last one? So sue me, I was curious. Go Team Jacob!

At least I didn't stay up to midnight to get it the first minute it was available. I waited almost a whole week, and only bought it after I picked up a copy and read the first 5 pages. There was SOME discrimination involved here!

For the very few of you who have zero contact with teenage girls or popular culture, Breaking Dawn is the fourth and final book in the saga of Bella Swan, disaffected high school student who finds herself in love with the most gorgeous boy in the school--who turns out to be a 90 year old vampire. After three volumes of danger and yearning, Bella finds herself between two supernatural beings, both of whom love her: Edward, the vampire and Jacob the werewolf. Which will she choose? What will happen?

Like I said, I was curious.

Well, early on, Bella marries Edward, which breaks Jacob's heart. They go off on a honeymoon, where Bella gets pregnant. Yeah, I know--hasn't he been dead for 90 years? I guess he's been a most proper dead guy--he's been completely abstinent for that entire time, and given his cold body temperature, his sperm has been frozen for that entire time. Because she gets pregnant the first time they have sex.

We know this because he refuses to touch her again after the first time, appalled by the bruises he left on her, as well as the damage he did to the furniture in the room. Anyway, the baby is a hybrid, and grows to term in about a month. There is a lot of drama about how the baby is killing Bella, up until they figure out that the baby needs blood. So Bella starts drinking Red Cross collected blood that the Cullens keep in the freezer, and she likes it! So there goes that problem.

Baby gets born, turns out to be a reverse mind reader--puts pictures in peoples heads when she touches them to communicate. Everybody falls for her, and Jacob (poor dear sweet boy, aching with love for Bella, who will never love him back) imprints on the baby. So hey! He'll be her son-in-law some day!

We get a tense climax--the Biggest, Baddest Vampires show up, planning on killing the baby (because there is a law against making vampires out of infants--and they have never seen a hybrid before). There is a face-down, where it is clear that the Volturi fear the Cullens are going to attempt to seize power, so the baby is just an excuse to destroy this threat to the Volturi. Bella discovers her unique vampire talent is to be a shield, and war is averted through clever diplomacy, coupled with Bella's shield incapacitating the usual Volturi weapons.

Happily ever after, with a vague threat that the Volturi may someday return. Vampires and werewolves are now in an alliance, Bella is able to keep her father in her life, Jacob can once again be her best friend, and she has her perfect Edward again.

Based on reading Amazon reviews, this book is not as well beloved as the first three. I can see why--there is no longer that fatally addictive yearning, the unconsummated love between Bella and Edward that was the primary feature of the first books. Happy families are famously not interesting. Once Bella marries Edward and becomes a vampire herself, she's no longer a tragic heroine.

Plus, Breaking Dawn takes the characters out of high school and into a world where they function as adults, with adult concerns. Pregnancy, childbirth, parenting--not as interesting to 13 year old girls I think. The final confrontation with the Volturi was not primarily physical either--there was no battle so much as there was a showdown and the Volturi retreated with as much grace as was possible. So, with the romance and violence of the first books removed, with the adult themes added, it's no wonder that a lot of people were disappointed.

Since I am not a teenage girl, (surprise!) I was actually charmed by Meyer's approach to this book. She took some big risks, and did a very good job with them. Nearly a third of the book is narrated by Jacob, as he suffers through Bella's pregnancy and the birth of the baby. Meyer does a lovely job with the changed perspective, adding dimension to the story by getting us inside the head of the werewolves. This gives an interesting insight into why they are such enemies of the vampires, and why the treaty with the Cullens is so fragile.

Her understated approach to sex is also well done. Given the story she is telling, Meyer does have to confront it, but she does so without descending into soft-core porn. Instead, she focusses on the emotional aftermath, the joy Bella feels in her new experiences, both as a human and as a vampire. Delightfully, once Bella is a vampire, with all her newly enhanced senses and powers, she realizes something. With no human need to sleep, eat, or go to the bathroom, there is no reason to ever stop!

In fact, if on eis a homebody, there seems to be no reason NOT to be a vampire. Bella has true love--forever--all the money she would ever need, a loving and extended family, a beautiful daughter, her best friend, her father--so maybe she can't go out in public in the sun--she hasn't seemed to have lost anything.

I was surprised by the length of this book--over 750 pages--as well as the confidence with which Meyer handled it. The change to Jacob's narration, Bella's adjustment to her new life, the introduction of motherhood. . .these changed the nature of the book in a way that is true to what mature, married love is. Bella moves through this book as a different person than she was as a teen--a choice by Meyer that was not universally accepted.

So, a satisfying read, and less disturbing than the first three--no longer does Edward seem like a creepy stalker, who is literally cold and hard to the touch. Once Bella becomes a vampire, their body temperatures match, and he is no longer marble like. The two of them are now well matched--Bella is even slightly stronger, as a "newborn"--and they work together to raise their child and to deal with threats to their lives. I wouldn't be surprised if it was the least popular, as it goes far beyond the understanding and interest of the younger readers--but as an adult, I thought it did a good job of wrapping up the series.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Alchemyst, by Michael Scott

This is one for the mother-daughter book club for Bunny's 7th grade friends. This particular title was selected by one of the daughters, rather than one of the mothers, and it shows. Unlike some other magic books (*cough* Harry Potter *cough*), this one simply does not hold up to adult reading.

Fifteen year old twins Josh and Sophie are spending a summer in San Francisco while there parents are on an archaeological dig. Hoping to save up enough money to buy a car, the twins have landed summer jobs across the street from each other. Josh works at a bookstore run by Nick and Perry Fleming; Sophie works at the coffee shop.

One day (specifically May 31), a small gray man enters the bookshop followed by two VERY large overcoated body guards. The gray man is Dr. John Dee, and he is searching for the book that holds all the secrets of all magic, and he knows it is in the bookshop.

Soon, mad magic breaks out: the Flemings are revealed to be Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel, who have been guarding the Book of Abraham the Mage for over 500 years, using the knowledge inside to brew an immortality potion, and to create gold and diamonds for their financial needs. Dee wants the book for nefarious purposes involving something called "the Dark Elders." In only a few pages, Dee has grabbed the book, Josh has managed to retain the final two (and most important) pages of it, Perenelle is captured by Dee, and Nicholas, Josh and Sophie are on the run.

The rest of the book is more or less what I call a "run and gun." Dee poses a threat, the kids run, they find a temporary refuge, Dee finds them again, the kids run, ad infinitum. At least, it felt infinitum--it's a remarkably turgid book that runs on for 369 pages, and yet fails to generate any suspense or character development. You could summarize the book like this:

Part One: "Oh no! Golems! Run! " Magical battle ensues, and book store is destroyed.

Part Two: "Oh no! Rats! Run!" Magical battle ensues, dojo is destroyed.

Part Three: "Oh no! Crows! Run!" Crows attack our heroes on the Golden Gate bridge, SUV is destroyed.

Part Four: "Oh no! Crows AND cats! Run!" Magical battle ensues, gigantic Tree of the World is destroyed.

Part Five: "Oh no! Animated skeletons! Run!" Magical battle ensues, quaint antique store is destroyed.

The book ends with the twins and Flamel escaping to France through use of ley lines and a mirror. There is no resolution at all, merely a set up to the next of what is promised to be a six book series.

While on the run, the kids and Flamel run into mythic beings from all over the world: Golems, Hekate (Greece), Scathach (Ireland), the Morrigan (Scotland); the Witch of Endor (Bible), Bastet (Egypt), Yggdrisil (Norse legend), and probably some more I have forgotten. Few of these are explained or given any real context--Scott seems to be operating on the principle that YA readers will already recognize all these characters. If I had already been familiar with these, I think the story might have had more depth or resonance. As it is, why are Hekate, Scathach and the Witch of Endor "good" guys, while Bastet and the Morrigan are "bad?" How do they end up on the sides they end up on? Scott doesn't tell us, nor is there much help in myth either.

There is one moment of some suspense near the end of the book. Sophia has had her magical powers Awakened, but a magical battle erupted before Josh could do the same. Dee spots this as a vulnerability, and he approaches Josh and tells a plausible story that casts himself as the good guy and Flamel as the criminal. Josh doesn't know quite what to believe, but then Sophie shows up and grabs him by the hand and the decision is made. Way to spoil any sense of ambiguity and foreboding!

There are inconsistencies in the storytelling as well. The Flamels have to drink the immortality potion each month, or they begin aging--one year for every day they don't have the potion. Presumably, they would have taken the potion on June 1, but can't because Dee intruded. So how come by the end of that day, both the Flamels are visibly gaining wrinkles, losing hair, and becoming more frail? One year doesn't do that!

Flamel variously claims that he has spent 500 years studying the magic book, and also claims that he hasn't studied anything but the potion and gold-making parts. Despite having been on the run from Dee for most of those 500, Flamel hasn't tried to learn any magic or defensive spells, while Dee has apparently spent most of those same 500 years doing just that. Why would Nicholas Flamel be so unconcerned with the threat Dee poses, and yet spend 500 years hiding from him?

Finally--because I have to stop some time--despite being called "The Alchemyst," there is no alchemy in the book. There is a great deal of using the power of one's aura to do magic, and some brief discussion of "elemental magic," but no science of alchemy. In fact, Nicholas Flamel is so generic that he could be any Hollywood blockbuster hero, rather than the learned and scholarly man one would suppose him to be. I keep seeing him as Nicholas Cage--perhaps from the National Treasure movies--smart, yes. Capable of great physical effort? Yes. Demonstrating one iota of intellectual curiosity? Not so much. Really, there is no way you could believe that he had spent hundreds of years reading and studying--he's really no smarter than the dopey twins he's running around with.

Some reviews and press tout this series as a fit successor to the Harry Potter books. I disagree. And the proof of that? Despite the complete lack of any resolution what so ever at the end of this book, I have absolutely NO desire to pick up the second one.