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Monday, August 6, 2012

Review: Serpents of Arakesh by V.M. Jones

Serpents of Arakesh by V. M. Jones

Appearances can be deceptive.  The four people around the table look like a businesswoman (Veronica Sherwood); a tramp (Quentin Quested); a bodybuilder (Shaw; and a bank manager (Withers).  You would neverguess that Quentin is actually one of the wealthiest men in the world, the world’s most wizardly computer genius and the man behind the best-selling Quest computer games. 

The most recent game—Quest for the Golden Goblet—is being marketed with a special promotion sweepstakes.  People who register the game get to enter a contest to win a complete computer system, a complete set of the Quest games and … a two-day gaming workshop with Q himself. Faster than you can say “golden ticket,” thousands of entries pour in, and salfes have jumped two hundred percent.

Q has a very personal agenda behind the contest, though. He wants to find five children who can enter the magical world of his creation and find a healing potion that will save the life of his daughter Hannah.

It’s clear the author has seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory  a few times, but that’s okay.  Jones has taken the basic “golden ticket” premise and given it an interesting Harry Potte-ish gloss.  (Like Harry, protagonist Adam is an orphan who has to deal with bullies.) 

The book is very well written.  Even fans of J.K. Rowling’s humongously best-selling Potter books have to admit that her prose is no always that graceful.  This wrting in this book is wonderful.  It just wraps you up from the first page and brings you into its world.  Even the occasional use of New Zealand English—Bart Simpson giving someone “the brown eye” instead of “mooning someone”—won’t disrupt the flow.

The characters are very well-drawn, even if some of them (like Matron) are a little exaggerated.  She’s just a bit too awful for words.  But Adam is a terrific character. We’re sympathetic to him from the beginning, but when he prays for God to let something wonderful happen to him, to not let his life always be like it is—it just breaks our hearts.  He’s a handsome kid, as it turns out, though he doesn’t know it, and his flaws—his near illiteracy in particular—make him all the more human.  We root for him to overcome his learning disabilities and grow into the potential that we see, even if his teachers don’t. 

Hannah is an absolute delight, a precocious child who adores her father, champions Adam and acts like a dearly loved kid without ever seeming like a sitcom adult-in-a-child’s-body.  And without even reading the other books, you start to think that when she and Adam grow up, they’re going to be a couple because they are totally on the same wave length.  Her father calls her “chatterbot” which is a nice touch (and so much more original than the generic “pumpkin” we see so often in books to indicate a parent’s fondness for a child). 

Q is a nicely eccentric twist on a very familiar character—the absent-minded genius.  He’s very, very likable and so we like him very much from the moment we meet him in the board room, fiddling with his computer while the others in the room try to take care of business.   

One of Adam’s friends, a boy named Cameron, is dear.  He’s a rich boy who doesn’t flaunt his good luck and who has a heart and a soul. We hope to see more of him in future, but even if we don’t, we like the brief bits we get of him here.  The various kids who become finalists are types, but the types have been given nuances that make them come off the page as individuals with their own personalities and lives.  They aren’t cartoons, they’re real. 

As far as the plot goes, it’s not terrifically surprising.  We can guess the identity of the five finalists almost as soon as we meet them.  We can guess that Adam is going to be super-special among the finalists even before he touches that plasma globe and nearly blows it apart.  The choices he makes on the test are intriguing and we know that they will serve him well when he ends up in the magical realm of Q’s making. 

The adventures here are a little flat—a ot of walking around a temple with lurking snakes—but the writer does introduce an element of jeopardy with  the Faceless Ones who are following the kids in the city until they make their escape.

As with any story where ordinary humans enter a magical realm—from the Chronicles of Narnia to Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry—there are certain conventions.  The writer knows these tropes and plays with them and delivers an altogether satisfying experience. 

This book is much more interesting than any number of similar books because it puts everything together.  The characters are good.  The backdrop is detailed and plausible.  The emotions are real.  (There is HEART here.)  the danger is real and scary.  This book deserves to be more widely read.  The closest thing out there is the Heroes.com/Villains.net series, which is not as good and only really works when the protagonist is the author’s antihero supervillain wannabe. 

It’s tempting to over-praise this book but it’s pretty praise-worthy for its characters alone.  If you’re looking for a new author to read, check out this book.

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