Of Mice and Magic

Kid lit has gone way beyond Winnie-the-Pooh.

Even the most voracious readers have blind spots. When I was a kid, I loved sci-fi, but swords-and-sorcery-style fantasy in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mode never rang my bell. So as the years passed, as science fiction withered away while worlds of fantasy proliferated without number, I lost sight of the entire genre.

It was Hayao Miyazaki's recent animated film Howl's Moving Castle, based on a fantasy novel for teens by the prolific Welsh writer Diana Wynne Jones, that brought me back to the fantasy shelves at my local bookstore. Here were arrayed whole racks of books by authors I'd never heard of: Whoever Brian Jacques was, he'd sure been busy with his Redwall series; and here was a new novel by 19-year-old Christopher Paolini, who, the jacket said, had sold over a million and a half copies of his first book, Eragon, begun at the age of 15. And both the latter authors were coming to Seattle soon. Maybe it was time to catch up with what today's kids are reading.

It's a good thing I didn't start my exploration with Paolini; I wasn't expecting a masterpiece from a precocious home-schooled first-time novelist from isolated Paradise Valley, Mont., but I was still deeply disappointed by Eragon and its just-published sequel, Eldest. This lumbering coming-of-age tale of a boy and his dragon is painfully derivative of Tolkien, but it utterly lacks the qualities that raise Lord of the Rings toward greatness: the inexorable movement toward a tragic goal, the moral complexity of the challenges facing its characters, the linguistic decorum, which achieves a clarity and dignity rarely achieved in 20th-century popular fiction. Maybe the thirst for high-flown adventure is great enough among young readers to keep this series going through its third and (please, God) final installment, due in 2007. But if it's going to be worth reading, Paolini had better get the hell out of isolated Paradise Valley and learn something—anything—about the world outside of books.

Brian Jacques pronounces his surname the old-fashioned British way, as "Jakes." And old-fashioned is the word for almost everything about Jacques' Redwall world, centered on a medieval abbey of that name populated almost entirely by mice. In this world, good people (well, good rodents, cats, birds, etc.) are all good, bad people are all bad, virtue is often tested but always triumphant; the dialogue is corny but just made for reading aloud, the chapters are bedtime-story short. There's only one thing that differentiates the stories (18 so far, not including the just published—and I'm not making this up—Redwall Cookbook) much from the 100-year-old Thornton W. Burgess animal tales of Mother West Wind and her friends: the frequent and graphically described mayhem. To an old-timer like me, Redwall reads like Peter Rabbit adapted by Quentin Tarantino. But Jacques' target audience of 10- to 12-year-olds doesn't seem a bit fazed by it. Hmmm . . . Oh, well . . . 

The real prize I discovered in my research was Wynne Jones, who has everything a writer of light fiction needs: wit, imagination, a strong narrative sense, and a willingness to play with the rules of the fantasy genre whenever she feels her story needs it (the moment, for example, in Howl in which a young girl turned by black magic into a doddery crone walks out the door of the titular castle and finds herself in the drab, rain-sodden garden of a tract house in contemporary Wales). Wynne Jones' novels range from fairy-tale light to adult dark, but few are so focused on readers of a particular age as to prevent them from being read by young or old. For me, Wynne Jones has revived my faith in fantasy as a genre. I wish she'd come here on an author tour; I know I'd have lots of questions.


Brian Jacques will visit the Seattle area to promote his latest Redwall novel from Oct. 11 through Oct. 23, including an appearance sponsored by University Bookstore at 7 p.m. Tues., Oct. 11, at University Temple United Methodist Church (1415 N.E. 43rd St.; space limited; for ticket information, call 206-634-3400) and an appearance 2 p.m. Sun., Oct. 16, at the downtown Bellevue Barnes & Noble (626 106th Ave. N.E., Bellevue, 206-451-8464). For a complete list of events and readings, go to www.redwall.org/dave/news.php and click on "On Tour."

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