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When I was a young adult, I consistently read books by a man named Kevin McFadden, who goes by the pen name Christopher Pike. (I assume this is because he's a huge Star Trek nerd, since he also likes to reference the show in his books.) I remember being blown away by the way he could build suspense and bring fantasy elements like ghosts and zombies to a high school setting, and make it consistently believable. My most favorite of his works were Monster, about how bacterium in the town's water supply makes most of the football team into flesh-eating jerks (a premise heavily "borrowed" for the film "The Faculty"), and The Last Vampire series.
So you're me, and you've got 20 or so Christopher Pike paperbacks in the basement that you don't really want to let go of. You're wandering through the library on your day off, and you see a book prominently displayed on a shelf: "Alosha." As it happens, Alosha is both the main character and the first book of a new fantasy series that Pike is working on. (It being published in 2004, the most recent of the series being published in 2007, the next volume not even finished yet, I count it as "recent.") Of course you're going to pick it up and see if it's any good -- which is just what I did.
Now, I know you can argue that it's rated at a sixth grade reading level, and so I shouldn't expect too much, and for that I call bullshit. Harry Potter books start out at a younger reading level, so to speak, but by the fourth and fifth books, it becomes obvious they were meant for a maturing audience (because Harry and the series were growing up.) I just finished Philip Pullman's sublime His Dark Materials series, and Rania can attest to its definitely being "general fiction," as that's where they used to file it during her bookstore clerk days. So being a "kid's book" means it should suck about as much as a film being in black & white means it's not as good as say, Mansquito, because the latter is in color and Citizen Kane isn't.
Here's what I can say that's positive about the Alosha series: The cover artwork by Daniel Dos Santos is consistently fantastic. Surprisingly my favorite illustration (the one above) is on the cover of my least favorite entry in to the series, The Yanti. But let's get to the parts I don't like...
Yeah, so I said it. The writing sucks. And it's not because McFadden isn't a gifted writer. I debated whether or not to go back and read my favorite books of his from the eighties just to verify I wasn't a victim of poor taste (like most of the eighties.)
But I don't really need to double check to know that it's fairly lazy writing to copy and paste whole pages from your previous novels. And when I say copy and paste, I mean that literally. Just as someone is about to make an important point in The Yanti (the third book), he references a previous scene in one of the other two books, or, worse still, he references scenes from the beginning of the same book, by pasting what was said and then italicizing it. My initial reaction to this was "Why are you bothering with this, I remember things that were just said."
I tried to justify this action by theorizing that maybe he thinks young children won't be able to recall salient plot points from the previous novels. Then I brushed that aside. If it's important enough, you'll remember it, right? So my next thought was that epic fantasy writers like J.K. Rowling and Tolkien manage to spin these lengthy tales about made-up worlds with fantastically complex details, right down to family history and backstory that you don't even get to in the main story (see: The Silmarillion, the as-yet-unpublished Harry Potter Encyclopedia) without boring you to death repeating themselves. Unlike what happens in The Yanti.
But let me back up. Alosha, though it was clearly written with a much younger reader in mind, wasn't so terrible a book. My complaints were that the main character, Ali, was obnoxiously high-strung, and that there seemed to be an underlying "Save the Earth!" message that at this point as a theme for a children's story bores me the fuck out. ("The Last Mimzy" being my primary example of why I can't tolerate the hippy-kids genre. It's as unfocused and misleading as a PETA campaign.) However, the concept of the story -- once it was revealed -- fascinated me, and Ali even cracked a few jokes toward the end that endeared me to her.
That is not to say it was a well-written book. It was not. The dust jacket on the hardcover will lead you to believe that the writing was "lyrical", but whoever that critic was, he either has a sense of humor (what with modern lyrics consisting of such genius as "Noddin' my head like yeah, movin' my hips like yeah"), or he hasn't bought an album since Led Zeppelin had a drummer. What I'm trying to say is: the pull quotes were laughably inaccurate.
Still, I picked up the second and third books to give them a try. The story -- Ali is a young girl who has recently lost her mother and spends so much time "communing" with nature that her memory of a previous life as a Faery Queen is activated, thereby exposing her to a parallel Earth filled with elves and leprechauns and such -- is a bunch of good ideas strung together awkwardly. The Shaktra, the second book in the series, expands on the concept a little more fully, and despite not having a lot of action, is a much more fast-paced read. It's engaging in the way Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers is engaging: as a major part of the story unfolding itself and launching you towards what looks like an exciting conclusion.
At least, it all seemed like it was rocketing toward a good idea, so I kept reading. I haven't read many fantasy novels with leprechauns as main characters, for one thing. For another, despite The Amber Spyglass's beautiful concept that there is no heaven, we simply become one with the Earth forever when we die, I much prefer the Alosha trilogy's assertion that our souls pass back and forth between this world and the fantasy world that parallels it. You may be human now, but when you die you could be resurrected as a dragon, and that would be goddamn exciting. I like summer breezes and blades of grass, but given the choice? DRAGON.
Yet as we get farther and farther out in the story, it seemed like the author would take the time to literally repeat himself, but would leave out important history that made comprehending the story possible. We're in to the third book and he's just now not explaining that our hero, Ali, and her nemesis, Doren, aren't actually sisters (which was the big reveal in the second book.) They're half-sisters, sorta? Again, this is not explained. He never said plainly in the second book that Ali's mother, who also happened to be the reincarnation of her Fairy Mother, Amma, is not the mother of Doren (or Doren's human counterpart). We just sort of have to catch up on page 300 of the third book, when the human mother of the human Doren keeps referring to her daughter as "her" daughter.
Yeah, it's that clear in the book, as well. Family backstories become muddled in The Yanti, along with exactly how the parallel Earths work. At first we thought there were just two, except for the one that was kind of like Hell. But oh, there's one that's kind of like Heaven. And the other one that is apparently run by the internet. Or space aliens.
And how often do we get to reincarnate? Once? Eight times? Some people go on but some people don't? It seems like if you're a "high fairy," you get to do whatever the fuck you want, there is no continuity in that area of the story. I pity the leprechauns. Shorted on height and afterlife.
Let's not even get started on the timeline of who was re-born as a human when, either. Nothing seems to match up the way I think it should. I'm sure if the author would bother to explain it a little more clearly, I could understand who got mad at whom for what and subsequently got cyber aliens to lobotomize them with a space crystal. (Yes. These things are all in the book.)
At a certain point during The Yanti, between skipping over the italicized blockquoting and the ridiculous way the story glosses over things like the main character murdering her schoolmates and kidnapping the local sheriff, I began to get really pissed. This was not the sort of quality storytelling I was used to from Christopher Pike.
So, I went through my piles of paperbacks. In one stack, there were the three or four Christopher Pike books I remembered fondly or whose cover art I liked (even in the eighties, the illustrations were good.) The other stack, which was considerably taller, had practically everything else he'd written. The other stack only netted me $8 at the used bookstore, which should probably tell me all I need to know about whether or not his writing stands the test of time.
*At one point someone switches the physical doors to the parallel worlds and so a nuclear explosion is diverted. I still don't understand how a 25 megaton bomb could destroy regular Earth while leaving fairy Earth just slightly stunned, but then again the book was overall a hot mess of what the fuckery.