Tuesday, May 1, 2012

2013 Contenders: The Storm Makers, by Jennifer E. Smith

As Rachael mentioned, we spent last week listening to Newbery winner Jack Gantos speak to school, library, and university groups here on the Eastern Shore. It was a privilege, as he's not only a funny and enlightening speaker, but also one of the genuinely nicest people I've ever met.

One of the points on which he's adamant is that the experience we get from reading a book is highly dependent on what we personally bring to it. This resonates with me as I try to decide how exactly to frame my reactions to Jennifer E. Smith's novel, The Storm Makers. It's a terribly difficult book for me to analyze, because its strengths are deeply appealing to me, and its weaknesses are things I don't care about as much.

The Storm Makers centers on a girl named Ruby, whose family has moved from Chicago to a farm in rural Wisconsin. Life is pretty boring until evidence begins to mount that her twin brother, Simon, is developing magical powers that enable him to control the weather. His powers draw interest from the Makers of Storms Society, as well as from a group of former Society members who believe that the Society no longer serves the good of the world. These competing forces drive the conflict that propels the plot forward.

I know, as a reader, that I highly value nuanced, well-drawn characters; beautiful prose; and a sense of atmosphere and mood. The Storm Makers gets ace marks in these categories. Each sentence sparkles, and I truly appreciated that. Neither the heroes nor the villains are two-dimensional, and that was nice to read, especially in a "good vs. evil" type of plot. Smith handles those aspects very well indeed. The fraught, changing relationship between Ruby and Simon is drawn with particularly deft lines.

The book does, however, have flaws. And this isn't a Breadcrumbs situation, where I'm passionately arguing that what many people think are bugs are actually features -- these are genuine issues. The pacing can be generously described as "languid" -- this 372-page novel would probably read better at 250 pages. Additionally, as other folks on the internet have pointed out, the world-building leaves some questions unanswered, such as why a group of Storm Makers in the USA is able to essentially engage in ecoterrorism without any interference from the rest of the world.

However, my reading preferences don't place much emphasis on pacing -- I'm perfectly happy to read a book in which nothing much happens as long as the characters and prose are engaging. Additionally, though it's not like I don't appreciate the world-building of someone like Tolkien or Pullman, that's not generally the first thing I read for, even in fantasy.

The upshot of all of this is that I thoroughly enjoyed The Storm Makers, but this is one where your reaction to it will almost certainly vary depending on what you value in literature -- as well as what you can't stand. It's probably too polarizing in that way to win or place in the Newbery sweepstakes, but it may well become deeply loved among readers with a certain set of reading priorities.

Publication in April through Little, Brown & Company (Hachette)

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