Thursday, February 26, 2009

The sincerest form of flattery

If it's true that there are only seven basic plots, pity the poor children's fantasy writer of the 21st century, doomed to follow the juggernaut that is JKR. Your most original thought may be considered a pale imitation of one Mr. Potter and his alma mater. Thus it is likely to be for one Henry H. Neff, author of the new series called The Tapestry. I just finished Book 1: The Hound of Rowan. In this story, an ordinary boy named Max McDaniels has a moment where his heretofore-unknown-to-him magical powers are revealed, he is recruited to attend a special school for those like him, where there are threats to the fabric of magic society, that Max -- whose powers, however nascent, are greater than those of his peers -- foils in scenes of high drama and peril. And this is only his first year.

To be fair, this book is set in the United States -- not usually a location for fantasy; Max does not live under the stairs, but with his acutely embarrassing father (there is a missing mother ... I'm assuming she's going to show up eventually, thus explaining Max's skills); the students at Rowan Academy develop a close relationship with an often-endangered magical creature; the faculty are colorful in less dramatic ways as that other place (actually I think a lot of that color comes from the narrator); and Dumbledore, erm, the headmaster is a powerful magician named Ms. Richter. Alas, there is a complete Hogsmeade ripoff called Rowan Township (I don't think I'd be quite so irritated if he'd left that out.) and an athletic competition known as Euclidean soccer (can you say Quidditch?).

Maybe The Tapestry's similarities wouldn't have been so obvious to me if this first installment hadn't spent so much of its nearly 12 hours in creating the Rowan universe. The details are legion, the characters many. It's only near the end of the book that Max's pretty terrifying adventure occurs. Otherwise, we're meeting students and faculty, acquainting ourselves with the campus and its history, and getting a few things arranged plotwise (in a surprising twist, Max's father -- ignorant of his son's skills -- is, for his own safety, let in on the secrets of Rowan Academy) so that things can go forward. And while I think those readers hungry for another Potter-like adventure will enjoy meeting Max and watching him absorb his new world, all that exposition is not served very well in an audio format.

The book is narrated by an old favorite, Jeff Woodman, who knows how to read a book! He keeps the story moving, while knowing how to use pacing for emotional impact. There was a point in the story where Max is deeply sad and I really felt that in Woodman's narration. He can create distinct characters using accents and delivery and many of these were enjoyable to listen to (I wrote all the character names that I liked in an email to a colleague which is mysteriously missing from my sent mail ... hmmm ... maybe I only thought I sent it!). In general, the adults were more interestingly portrayed than the young students, who seemed -- with a few exceptions -- to blend together. In particular, this made keeping track of who was who quite difficult, as there were a lot of them.

I wouldn't hesitate to give this to a young reader, but I might think twice about offering it as an audiobook.

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