Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review - Song of the Wanderer by Bruce Coville

Short review: The message from book one has been delivered. Now Cara has to find the Wanderer and bring her home.

Weary Wanderer
Must be found and returned
By a twelve year old

Full review: Song of the Wanderer is the second book in The Unicorn Chronicles, and picks up shortly after Into the Land of the Unicorns ended. Whereas the first book was mostly a "run from the pursuers and deliver a message" story that mostly focused on giving the broad outlines of the fantasy world of Luster and the ancient conflict between the unicorns and the Hunters, this story begins to fill in the details. The book also deals with the relationships between parents and children - notably between Lightfoot and his father, and Cara and hers, as well as between Cara and her grandmother and Cara's father and Beloved.

At the outset of the book, Cara, the youthful protagonist from the previous installment of the series, is ensconced in Summerhaven at the court of Arabella Skydancer, Queen of the Unicorns resting from her journey across Luster to deliver the message "the Wanderer is Weary". Having delivered her message, Cara has been sitting around waiting to be told what to do next, and the Queen soon fills her in. It seems that "the Wanderer" is none other than Cara's grandmother Ivy Morris, and Cara has to go and get her and bring her back to Luster. There is a scene in which Cara is formally charged with the quest, and some companions are chosen for her - three unicorns: Moonheart, Finder, and Bella. Moonheart, it turns out, is Lightfoot's father, and there is substantial tension between father and son. Bella is the fiercest member of the Queen's guard, and Finder is an explorer. I always find these sorts of scenes in which characters are ceremonially charged with pursuing a "quest" to be kind of silly, and almost always find them horribly pretentious. And the scenes in which Cara and the companions selected for her have the quest to find and return with the Wanderer laid upon them are no exception. In addition, of Cara's traveling companions from the previous volume, only the diminutive Squijum and the tinker Thomas join her for this journey. Lightfoot and the Dimblethum, due to as yet unexplained conflicts with members of the unicorn royal court, are unable to join them.

Cara's task is made both sad and urgent: Arabella Skydancer is waiting for the Wanderer to return so that she can die, and as unicorns "fade away" when they die, the Queen's impending death is fairly readily apparent to anyone who sees her. But before Cara can actually set out to find the Wanderer, she is told that she must first go to see M'Gama the Geomancer and have her determine which magical gate Cara must use to cross over from Luster back to Earth. So the troupe heads out to the Geomancer's house - a person who apparently doesn't much like the unicorns either (one starts to wonder if there is anyone in Luster who doesn't hold some sort of grudge against the unicorns). And in the meantime, the book points out how ragged and dirty Cara has gotten wearing the same clothes for days of cross-country travel, and how matted and ratty her hair has gotten from not being washed or combed in the time. This is kind of interesting, as it is one of the few times in a fantasy "quest" novel that I have seen addressed the gritty and dirty reality of walking all day followed by sleeping on the ground at night for weeks or more.

The group finds M'Gama in short order, and she's a pretty typical fantasy wizard: at turns cryptic and imperious, and at others unexpectedly friendly. M'Gama also has a dwarf bodyguard named Flensa who is gruff but kind of lovable too. As one would expect, M'Gama does her magic stuff and comes up with a path for Cara to take to the proper gate to take her to the Wanderer, and also a time limit she has to get there. But first she has to take a bath, wash and comb her hair, and get some new clothes to replace the jeans and t-shirt she had been wearing since arriving in Luster. She gets fitted out with some typical fantasy travel gear, and handed a sword to go with her new outfit. This strikes me as an odd decision even though there is no question that Cara is going in to danger. But does anyone really think that handing an untrained twelve year-old a sword is a good idea? It seems to me like this weapon would be more dangerous to Cara than to any enemies she might encounter. Because M'Gama is a fantasy wizard, she also gives Cara a green jeweled ring, cryptically telling her she will figure out what it is for later.

But M'Gama is pretty clear on where Cara and her companions need to go - they have to go through a forest that is easy to get lost in, enter the lair of the dragon Ebillan, who doesn't like people, and go through the gate located in a cave in the the back of his cave to get to Earth. And they have a time limit. So after all the personal grooming is done, the crew heads out. Along the way they pick up some additional companions - first they come across a troupe of entertainers, and one turns out to be an elderly tumbler named John and in an example of serendipity, he turns out to be Ivy's former husband, and possibly Cara's grandfather. Later, Lightfoot and the Dimblethum show up, saving the group from an attack by some delvers. Then they run across Grimwold, the Keeper of the Unicorn Chronicles who escorts them part of the way through his underground tunnels and tells them a story about Ivy Morris, which reveals that she has a somewhat unusual background. Grimwold also hands over a gift to Cara for her to trade with Ebillan - a huge red gem the size of a duck egg. And this ball hands Cara a new and unexpected mystery, giving he a vision of a woman in a red tree that she assumes is her mother, a vision that later turns into a nightmare vision of Beloved.

The group gets one last companion along the way when Cara ignores M'Gama's advice in the enchanted forest and leaves the marked path in the middle of the night after being spooked by a vivid nightmare apparently sent by Beloved. She hears a sound in the dark, and naturally investigates where she finds the gryphon Medafil caught in a trap set by hunters. She frees the beast and it offers to help her find her way back to the path in the morning, but first it takes her back to his eyrie where we find out that he also has a history with Ivy Morris. One starts to wonder if there is anyone in Luster who is not on a first name basis with Ivy. Because everyone also seems to hand out gifts to Cara when she stops by, Medafil hands over a size-changing globe that lights up when Cara holds it, and a shell that has the voice of her grandmother singing The Song of the Wanderer magically implanted in it. All of this gift-giving does raise some questions though - Cara acquires pretty much everything she has through the stories as gifts handed to her by people she meets. Luster appears to have no actual functioning economy. Through Cara's travels she has met a record keeper, a tinker who fixes watches, a bunch of acrobats, and a Earth wizard as well as a collection of fantastical beasts such as unicorns, dragons, and griffons. But she has not met any farmers, craftsmen, or anyone else who produces much of anything useful (other than watches, and you can't eat those). One wonders where the food that the acrobats, chronicle keepers, and Cara herself eat comes from. I suppose that in a fairy tale story aimed at young readers, the mechanics of growing food and compensating those who do so is not something that one would expect the narrative to focus on, but given the focus on the details of personal grooming, leaving out where the food comes from seems a little odd.

Despite disliking dragons, Medafil decides to join the eclectic band heading to Ebillan's territory, and before too long Cara is negotiating with the dragon for passage. Ebillan is less than enthused to have three humans, four unicorns, a man-bear hybrid, a squirrel-like thing, and a griffon show up on his doorstep. He is even less enthused when he learns they want to pass through his lair and go through the gate to Earth. Oddly, even though everyone else has handed out gifts to Cara throughout the book, Ebillan demands payment for allowing her to traverse his territory, insisting that she give him something valuable for the privilege. But this makes one wonder: how can these things be valuable if they have been handed out like party favors? What Cara ends up trading has subjective value to her, but is it really valuable to anyone else given that it was just handed off to her in an almost off-hand way earlier in her journeys? To a certain extent, it seems that the items in the story simply exist to provide object lessons for the reader, which is somewhat less than satisfying.

Finally Cara gets to her destination, and in a twist that isn't all that surprising, finds that Beloved got there first with a group of hunters, including Cara's father Ian. In a scene with numerous twists and turns, we learn the truth about Lightfoot and why he is estranged from Moonheart. We also get an interesting twist to the relationship between Ian and Cara, and something of a family reunion when John shows up on the scene too. (Actually, the whole fight is a family reunion, because Cara and all of the Hunters are descended from Beloved, and Cara's unusual heritage ties her to the other participants in the fracas). After the fight with Beloved winds down with (it turns out) something of a Pyrrhic victory, Cara finds that her grandmother is in some sort of deep sleep, whereupon the mysterious green ring M'Gama gave her comes in to play (one other thing about all the gifts handed over the Cara is that they all end up being uniquely useful) and she recovers the Wanderer. In the end, the Wanderer is returned to the Queen who, as predicted, dies shortly thereafter, and a moderately unexpected replacement is put in charge and, as one would expect, things end more or less happily.

Song of the Wanderer is a strong follow-up to Into the Land of the Unicorns that wraps up many of the immediate conflicts while leaving open several others. In doing so, Coville  performs a difficult balancing act of making the story seem complete while also providing enough fodder for future volumes in the series, and in this case, he balances the two goals quite successfully. Despite the heaping helpings of serendipity that are liberally ladled into the story, it retains enough coherence to hold together. With well-integrated themes about the value of friendships and family relationships, the book rises above the typical young adult quest fantasy, and delivers very worthwhile read.

Previous book in the series: Into the Land of the Unicorns
Subsequent book in the series: Dark Whispers

Bruce Coville     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

No comments:

Post a Comment