Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Legends of Karac Tor, Part 1: The Book of Names

Title: The Book of Names

Series: Legends of Karac Tor #1

Author: D. Barkley Briggs

Genre: Teen (13-16) Alternate Reality Fantasy

Excerpt from “Black Birds,” Chapter 1 of The Book of Names:

The day was gray and cold, mildly damp. Perfect for magic. Strange clouds overhead teased the senses with a fragrance of storm, wind, and lightning, and the faint, clean smell of ozone. Invisible energy sparkled like morning dew on blades of grass.

Standing alone in an empty field on the back end of their new acreage, Hadyn Barlow only saw the clouds. By definition, you can’t see what’s invisible, and as for smelling magic? Well, let’s just say, unlikely. Hadyn saw what was obvious for late November, rural Missouri: leafless trees, dead grass, winter coming on strong. Most of all he saw (and despised) the humongous briar patch in front of him, feeling anew each and every blister and callus earned hacking through its branches.

Making room for cattle next spring, or so he was told; this, even though his dad had never owned a cow in his life. He was a history teacher, for crying out loud. A college professor. Hadyn’s shoulders slumped. It didn’t matter. Everything was different now.

Four otherworldly black birds summon two grieving teenage boys through an ancient portal.

The Craft: Neither impressive nor fatally flawed, the writing of The Book of Names is simply average.

The characters are fairly complex and the heroes likeable enough to evoke a smile. But for me, they lack the visceral connection that makes me sit on the edge of my seat, wondering what will happen to them next.

The plot pulls you forward and throws a couple unexpected twists in an otherwise predictable story. But this is no page-turner. A page-turner, whether of suspense or just a good read, needs characters that you are deeply invested in or an added layer of tension to compensate for the characters. This book has neither.

The descriptions are fairly vivid, but sometimes long-winded. The point-of-view (POV) is broken more than I like and often for those longer descriptions—which are usually more powerful if done in a specific POV. The words flow smoothly, but don’t stand out to me for its style. The beginning is loaded down with back story in an attempt to attain the reader’s sympathy, which actually repels instead.

The one bright spot in this story is the premise. Norse mythology, Celtic fairies, Arthurian legend, and Biblical allusions all intertwine within these pages, creating a colorful world rife with possibilities.

The Content: The Book of Names is…unsettling.

I have had great difficulty during the past week pinpointing why that is. A couple factors have surfaced, but they are insufficient to explain my uneasiness, the gut instinct that says something isn’t quite right. But whether that stems from my own personal limitations—which make the book off-limits to me, but not necessarily others—or from something more foundational I cannot say.

For this story has some good content. The power of hope, the necessity of hope, in grief is powerfully demonstrated. Characters choose to do what is right, despite their wish to not ever get involved. The importance of words and especially of names is frequently shown, and how evil uses the lowest-denominator conformity to strip us of our identity. All this is then undergirded with the sovereignty of God—even “accidents” aren’t accidents.

Despite all this, The Book of Names seems to walk the border. As the cover depicts, the story is heavily cloaked in darkness. The sense of evil is overwhelming, suffocating the reader rather increasing the tension, and the hope at the end is hard-pressed to counterbalance it.

On top of this, the cultic magic presence seems strong. Not necessarily a problem on its own—it is properly evil—but the difference between good and evil supernatural powers somewhat blurs, despite Mr. Brigg’s many explanations.

While these two items walk closer to the edge than I prefer, I probably wouldn’t be as concerned if this were an adult novel. But The Book of Names is intended for 13-16 year-olds—meaning that the vast majority of the readers will be between ten and fourteen, since kids usually read up a level.

So I fear this book could feed some of the hardest parts of growing up through this age: emotional moodiness, overriding feelings of darkness/despair/purposelessness, temptations to experiment with how close you can get to the edge, and (in our culture at least) a fascination with wielding supernatural power. In addition, discernment develops much during these years and parents often release strict supervision of their children’s reading about this time, so discernment is rarely a strong point in this target age group.

Summary: The Book of Names is a book to read with caution. It walks the edge of Scriptural guidelines on supernatural powers, and evil has an overwhelming presence in the story. While these do not make the story “bad,” discernment should be exercised at a level often not possessed by the majority of the target audience. Therefore, in combination with the average writing, I recommend a guarded approach, and that if kids want to read this tale, the parents should read it alongside with them.

Rating: Writing—2, Content—2, Overall—3.2


Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Chawna, what a great review. It's interesting that you faulted the book for being labeled YA. You've made a strong argument based on the darkness--a subject I've been discussing too.

Honestly, I hadn't thought about how dark the book is until the blog tour.


Andrea Graham said...

FYI, I linked you in the midst of my review: http://askandrea.adamsweb.us/csff-blog-tour-for-d-barkley-briggss-the-book-of-names/

Chawna Schroeder said...

Thanks for stopping by, Becky and Andrea!

You had some great additional thoughts in your post, Andrea.

Becky, I don't know if I fault the book's label--this story is clearly intended for YA--but as much as how the author executed the story for YA. But I plan on blogging more on that darkness problem tomorrow...

Brandon Barr said...

Good points Chawna. Thanks for giving a real no-holds-barred review.