September 14, 2012
What Came From the Stars
First sentence: "So the Valorim came to know that their last days were upon them."
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Review copy snagged from the ARC pile at my place of employment.
Tommy is not a happy camper. His mother died recently, and his whole family (father, sister, him) are struggling to cope. It doesn't help that his father is getting pressure from a local real estate agent to sell so she can develop Huge Seaside Condos. And it REALLY doesn't help that he's in seventh grade, turning 12, and his grandmother gave him the LAMEST present: an Ace Robotroid Adventure LUNCHBOX.
Except, after lunch, his whole world changes: he finds a chain in the lunchbox, puts it on, and becomes, well, greater than he was.
See, the chain holds all the art from the Valorim, a race that's being conquered by the evil Lord Mondim and the O'Mondim in a world far away. They put all their knowledge in the chain and threw it out into space (at the speed of thought; I did wonder, initially, how all this was supposed to happen, since things don't travel through space terribly fast, but Schmidt did account for it later in the book), and hoped for the best. And Tommy was the best that he found.
I should stop here and say that I agree with Jen: the realistic parts of this book work great. Schmidt knows how to write boys in a way that's both real and vulnerable. Tommy's dealing with some heavy issues here, guilt and survival and worry, and Schmidt makes it all come alive. He's got some good friends, he's doing okay on the surface, but he's struggling.
But, at least for much of the book, the fantasy element didn't work for me. I appreciated the difference in tone between the Valorim and the realistic parts of the book (I also found it to be an interesting choice to se the Valorim parts in italics, which set it apart even more), but I kept coming back to the feeling that funny languages and epic histories does not a fantasy make. See: Tommy put on the chain and immediately began spouting weird words, and having new talents, and he never even questioned it. Never sat back and said, "Where the heck did this come from?" or "Why on earth do I know that?" And that really bothered me. I wanted some sort of internal struggle with Tommy, some way of him trying to figure out what was going on, trying to grasp at understanding of a situation that was so far outside of his realm of understanding, but I got none of that.
I could brush it off as it being an upper middle grade book, but I don't really believe that; Schmidt is a better writer than that. No, I'm chalking this up to a lack of understanding of how fantasy works (though, I suppose, if you pin me down, I'm not quite sure how it works, either). It's a good idea, and I do have to admit that by the end it was bothering me less; there's some adventure, and a bit of a battle, and a very sweet ending which almost made up for the initial bristle.
I just wish it could have been more than it was.
(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I've been asked to make sure y'all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)