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Adventure Fantasy in the Children’s Section: Garth Nix

Monday, January 5th, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

Recently, on a writer listserv I’m on, discussion veered to how to turn kids in general, but boys in particular, into avid readers. The general consensus from the parents on the list was: limit screen time, whether TV, games, videos; find books they are interested in; and read to them every day. On the topic of how to find books, one father of two boys in particular recommended the authors Patricia Wrede, Diana Wynne Jones, and Garth Nix, saying that he hadn’t considered the gender of the authors or the main characters, he just knew his kids would love their books, and they had. I would certainly second his recommendation. There is plenty for adults to enjoy, too.

Garth Nix, who is this year’s Guest of Honor at the World Fantasy Convention, is my 9-year-old son’s favorite author, and the one who easily topped his “what books would you want with you on a desert isle” list. (Here in Dubai, we are on a desert peninsula, not isle, but given how expensive books are, the feeling is sometimes the same.) Having been given a size and weight limit by his parents, he filled it mostly with Nix’s Seventh Tower and Keys to the Kingdom series.

The former consists of six slim volumes that would add up to a decent-sized tome in the adult section. It’s set on a pair of worlds, one, Aenir, the source of magic and spirits, the other, where humans live, in perpetual darkness except for the magical Sunstones that come from Aenir. Residents of the seven-towered Castle on the human world must each acquire and enslave a spiritshadow (exchanging it for their own natural one) via a quest to Aenir in order to achieve any status. The story begins when one of the main characters, Tal, has to steal a Sunstone from the top of one of the towers in order to heal his sick mother. He falls off the tower, out of the Castle, and into the wider world where his people are considered evil sorcerers…. It’s fast-paced, very readable, with humor, plot complications, and interesting characters and world-building, if (to an adult) a rather familiar overall plot trajectory.

The Keys to the Kingdom has the feel of being aimed at a slightly older audience; the books are thicker, the plot, though still very fast-paced, has more strands, and there are quite a few more important characters. The world-building is one of the chief pleasures for me–but they aren’t books to give to anyone literal-minded about Catholic cosmology. This universe was created by a (female) Architect who then departed for an unknown destination, leaving her creation and the seven Keys to the same in the hands of her seven immortal Trustees and a Will (lots of capitalization in the book). The Will stipulates that a mortal should inherit her position and the Keys. The Trustees immediately tear up the Will, imprison the animate scraps, and divide up the universe for themselves. Each can manifest in the Secondary Realms, where we mortals live, only on one day of the week, and so takes his or her title from that day. Each, as soon as the Will is overturned, becomes afflicted with one of the seven deadly sins.

At the start of Mister Monday, the first book, a scrap of the Will escapes. Fearing the consequences, slothful Trustee Monday tries to follow the letter of the Will by turning over a part of his Key to a boy, Arthur Penhaligon (surely no association with another Arthur intended). Arthur is suffering from a severe asthma attack, and Mister Monday thinks he will be able to retrieve the Key as soon as Arthur dies. The Key, however, saves Arthur’s life and marks him as the Architect’s heir. Arthur is launched on an adventure in which he has to gain the Keys, one by one, and the Trustees and their minions try to stop him. Most of the action takes place in the immense and fabulous House, the “epicenter of creation,” big enough to contain mountains and oceans, that is populated by Denizens created to record all that happens in the Secondary Realms (think angels as Victorian bureaucrats). The House is falling apart because of the sloth, greed, gluttony, wrath and so on of its Trustees. The final adventure, Lord Sunday¬†— out this January — takes place at the top of the House, in the Incomparable Gardens.

My son has re-read the series thus far at least four or five times and is practically counting the days until Lord Sunday hits the shelves. Is there a stronger recommendation?

Nix’s third series, the Old Kingdom books (Sabriel, Lirael,¬†Abhorsen, and two more forthcoming) are aimed at a somewhat older audience, teen to adult. They’re set in Ancelstierre, modeled rather on ca. World War I England and, on the other side of the wall, a magical Old Kingdom where time and reality operate differently, whose existence is officially denied by the government of Ancelstierre. The main characters are connected to the line of the Old Kingdom rulers or of the Abhorsens, or both. The Abhorsen has the power to journey into the lands of the dead and combat the dangers arising there, in particular any dead trying to exit back into the realms of the living. The title character of the first book is the teenage daughter of the last Abhorsen, who has disappeared and whom she must rescue. I don’t find the world-building as inventive and wackily coherent as in the Keys series, and Sabriel seemed rather predictable page to page, though still quite full of incident and adventure. By the time I reached Lirael, however, reading them was like crack, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next.

In plot and theme, Nix occupies familiar ground; his strengths are in creating fast-paced adventures on imaginatively conceived landscapes. His characters are always enjoyable if not necessarily complex or three-dimensional. The writing is also not his strongest suit, though better than adequate. For most adults I’d probably recommend starting with the Old Kingdom books, but you don’t want to miss Arthur and his wild trek through the House, battling the archangels at the epicenter of creation.

2 Comments »

  1. I’ve looked at a couple of Nix books, but wasn’t read to roll the dice on them. Looks like my “to-be-read” stacks are going to get a little taller now.

    Comment by James Enge - January 6, 2009 8:37 pm

  2. On the matter of turning children into avid readers, my favorite approach is one I heard from a parent years and years ago. When his children reached an age when reading on their own could be expected, they were given a strict, early, lights-out bedtime. They were also given a flashlight and kept supplied with batteries. His kids–one boy and one girl, if I recall correctly–both became avid readers.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - January 6, 2009 11:55 pm


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