In the latest issue of The Horn Book, Roger Sutton poses the question, "What Hath Harry Wrought?" His essay focuses on positive changes in our assumptions about children's reading habits, but Rowling's success hath wrought more insidious changes in the publishing industry as well. Pre-Harry, when I saw the word "chronicles" on the cover of a book, it brought me warm, fuzzy memories of Narnia and Prydain. Post-Harry, "chronicles" translates to "a series consisting of at least three volumes of at least 300 pages apiece, with derivative plots, stock characters, and probably some boring magic."
Enter the Chronicles of Egg.
In the first volume, Deadweather and Sunrise, we meet thirteen-year-old Egbert (Egg). He and his family run an ugly fruit plantation on a fetid island - Deadweather - inhabited solely by pirates and his own small household. Deadweather exists in the shadow of the much more attractive Sunrise Island, where tropical breezes cool the white sand beaches and proto-tourists roam the glittering streets. When Egbert's taciturn father finds something intriguing on their property, he sails the family to Sunrise, setting in motion a swashbuckling plot that manages to sustain suspense and momentum throughout its 288 pages.
I have to stop here and thank Monica Edinger, because I never would have picked up this book without her endorsement. Seriously. The ARC was sitting on my "Eh, probably won't bother reading" shelf, looking like a boring rehash of a million tired old tropes, and waiting to be used as a giveaway. I'm so glad I reclaimed it.
Deadweather and Sunrise is much better than it has any right to be. The elements of the plot are not particularly original, but the author arranges them in some startling and delightful ways. There are maimed pirates working an ugly fruit plantation, the world's first passenger cruise through pirate-infested waters, and a particularly malodorous stowaway attempt. Where the book really shines, though, is in its characters.
Egg himself is an appealing hero, making lots of brave and dumb choices for believably noble reasons. The standout character, however, is his friend Millicent (who also happens to be the daughter of the villain). As well-drawn strong female fantasy characters go, it doesn't get much better than this. For once, the author has not chosen from between the two Strong Girl stock characters: Strong Like a Boy or Stunningly Brainy. Millicent is very intelligent, yes, and also brave and strong, but it's her diplomacy skills that save the day at the crucial moment. Applied knowledge FTW! (This made me realize how much female "intelligence" in fantasy novels amounts to "I read all the time and am able to regurgitate information at will.") Millicent is also bossy, spoiled, and headstrong, calling to mind another classic Strong Girl: Princess Eilonwy of Llyr.
I look forward to reading the rest of this trilogy. There are all kinds of intriguing loose ends, and I want to know more about the endearingly unstable cabin boy, Guts.
Published in May by Putnam Juvenile.