Friday, February 12, 2016

Out Of The Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis

Source of book: I own this

Re-reading a book is usually rewarding, often like comfort food, except with a bit more richness each time. There are always things you see for the first time. I suppose our brains can only absorb and process so much in one reading. But I would say that on average, when I have re-read books, I haven’t been particularly startled before. I have a decent memory, and I try to pay attention the first time, so I don’t miss stuff. For example, while I see delicious lines each time I re-read A Christmas Carol, I can’t say I have had any shocking revelations.

This book was a definite exception to that general rule. 

I first experienced Out of the Silent Planet in elementary school, when my dad read it to us. I honestly cannot remember if it was before or after The Hobbit, but it was at a similar time. I later re-read it, probably in early high school, before reading Perelandra immediately thereafter. (I never did make it to That Hideous Strength.) So I read it with a rather different mindset than this time, and I further realized that I had completely missed some very interesting things.

There were a lot of things that I did remember correctly. I think I got most of the central idea of the fall of man affecting the other planets, and most of what I would (when I was younger) have considered “theology.” These things and themes were no real surprise. Neither was Lewis’ general distrust of technology - and to a degree science. I probably didn’t pick up as well on the colonialist themes, but they weren’t exactly a surprise. (I’ll discuss those below.)

Furthermore, my impression of his delightful world-building and wide-eyed wonder at the prospect of other worlds was correct. This is a fun book for those reasons. (On a related note, it is always fascinating to read science fiction written before the Space Age. What is now known is amazing in different ways than what was imagined.)

There were some things, though, I must admit, that I did not really notice. I think this was due in some cases to my age, and in others, to the theological paradigm I had back then which I have since moved away from.

First, with the good.

Over the last several years, I have been exploring the relationship of myth and history, as readers of my blog can attest. Recently, of course, I read The Hero With A Thousand Faces, but even before that, with Lewis’ own Till We Have Faces, it became obvious that the lines between myth and history and truth are not what we tend to demand in modern times. Lewis clearly loved the old myths, and believed they held truth of a different sort than history, although they overlapped.

I was surprised, then, while not surprised, to find a great line in this book about this. Ransom (the protagonist and narrator) thinks over the “history” of Malacandra, the name for the planet Mars in this book. Malacandra is an older planet than Earth in Lewis’ tale, and has had epochs of history that are now faded into legend. Ransom cannot decide for certain just how much is “true” history, and how much is myth. He finally concludes that “the distinction between history and mythology might be itself meaningless outside the Earth.” He might have added that to the inhabitants of Earth in the past, the distinction was indeed meaningless, and it is our modern tendency to insist on a definitive difference that often leads us to misunderstand the writings of the past.

Another thing which I found exceedingly interesting this time around was Lewis’ concept of mortality. Malacandra represents an unfallen world. One in which sin has not really penetrated. (Although the fall of Mankind on Earth has damaged Malacandra physically, its inhabitants remain unspoiled.)

And yet, the inhabitants are mortal.

I cannot believe that I didn’t note this before. I have an idea why, however. At the time, the Evangelical circles we ran in were fanatically “Young Earth.” I don’t think my dad ever really was, but other than that, I was drenched in that particular philosophy. Along with that came a whole bunch of theological baggage.

The belief was that, prior to the Fall, everything was immortal, and that death only came after Adam and Eve screwed everything up.

This clearly would not fit with an old earth belief, because all those fossils were, shall we say, dead. So things died.

Lewis, as I later came to learn, was quite open to the idea of evolution. This was rather hushed up in our circles, as was Lewis’ non-Evangelical positions on things such as the nature of hell and salvation. They wanted so badly to claim Lewis as an Evangelical that they were less than honest about his beliefs.

So whether I didn’t notice or just forgot, it was a bit striking to read his view of the unfallen world.

Everyone still dies.

But they die in a predictable manner and age - except for things like hunting accidents. Likewise, there were other creatures who evolved and went extinct, and a whole cycle of life. Indeed, the planet itself was not designed to last. As one of the characters explains, “[A] world was not made to last forever, much less a race.”

The thing that was missing was not death, but the malevolence that humans harbor. Sentient beings before the Fall did not kill other sentient beings. Lewis may have noticed - as I did recently - that the story of the human race in Genesis after the fall is one of increasing violence.

This leads to what I think is the central truth of the book, and its greatest line. The “Oyarsa” (essentially the angel in charge of the planet) has conversed with Ransom about Earth, and the evil guys who kidnapped and brought Ransom to Malacandra - Devine and Weston - have made fools of themselves with talk of plundering and conquering the planet. Weston in particular has tried to explain why he wants to have mankind conquer other planets, slaughter the inhabitants, and thus give mankind a form of immortality. The Oyarsa responds:

I see now how the lord of the silent world has bent you. There are laws that all hnau [sentient beings] know, of pity and straight dealing and shame and the like, and one of these is the love of kindred. He has taught you to break all of them except this one, which is not one of the greatest laws; this one he has bent till it becomes folly and has set it up, thus bent, to be a little, blind Oyarsa in your brain. And now you can do nothing but obey it, though if we ask you why it is a law you can give no other reason for it than for all the other and greater laws which it drives you to disobey.

The saddest thing about this is that right now, the one thing so abundantly apparent in modern American Christianity is this naked tribalism. This “love of kindred” which does not extend to pity of those outside the nationality, the race, the tribe, the family. C. S. Lewis saw it, but it seems to have been forgotten in Evangelical culture. The results can be seen manifested in our rhetoric about the poor, the brown skinned, the foreigner, and anyone who isn’t “us.”

All those “universal” laws, if you will, and we will break all of them to love only those like us. No wonder Christ taught so strongly against it.

Moving on from those, there were some things that grated on me this time as well. The first, and really the worst, is the Colonialist assumptions which sneak in, even though Lewis doesn’t seem to notice them.

Just as an example, there are three sentient species in Malacandra. They are different enough that they clearly cannot intermarry. However, it is telling that the one that most resembles humans - the Sorna -  are a certain way. They are the most rational of the species, and they are...wait for it...white. And likewise, the Hrossa are more “animal” or “primitive.” They are fur-covered, have an oral history of poetry and song, and are more feckless and less given to foresight. One might think of stereotypes of Native Americans or Africans, perhaps. The third species are more exotic, not really resembling anything recognisable, and do not come into the story much anyway. So they are harder to classify.

But the line between the Hrossa and the Sorna does get uncomfortable. As a Sorn explains, the Hrossa do not fear death - and they are right not to - but they could prevent deaths if they just thought ahead a little bit, and availed themselves of technology. Yep, the race that has the dance and song and poetry, loves to hunt, but doesn’t take on the White Alien’s Burden…

So that one really grated, just like Kipling’s books [link] have those colonialist ideas that just sneak in.  

The other thing that bothered me is one that I had completely failed to notice the first time.

Ransom first experiences Malacandra through the Hrossa. He learns the language and the history and culture. Coming from the human experience, he asks about why the inhabitants of Malacandra do not fight each other over resources. (This is particularly interesting since the book was written in the run-up to World War II, during the time when Germany and Japan were eying Russia and China, respectively, as sources of food and land. By displacing and starving the current inhabitants, naturally.)

One of the Hrossa explains that there are always sufficient resources, since each race (and tribe within the races) reproduces at a replacement level. Thus, there is never a need to compete for resources.

Now here is where it gets interesting. In Lewis’ account, the pre-Fall sentient beings enjoy sex. But they also have it solely when they need to procreate, and then stop. For the poetic Hrossa, they re-live the joys of their lives through song and poetry as memory, long after the experience.

Now seriously, this is somehow the sort of thing that would be written by a nearly lifelong bachelor who would not marry for another 18 years after he wrote this book. The idea that the ideal of sex is for procreation isn’t unique to Lewis, of course. It has plagued Christianity since the beginning. Although, to be fair, Saint Paul at least seems to have contemplated sex existing beyond procreation. Still, it is obvious that Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs, if you prefer) has been the awkward cousin among the books of the Bible, one that has been ignored, deliberately turned into an allegory having nothing to do with sex, and hidden from the kids. The idea of sex existing for pleasure and bonding and not just babies has been an uncomfortable one for the church for millennia, and Lewis is just one in that long line.

I’d just chalk this down to Victorian hangups, but I think that there is a bigger point to make about this particular version.

If indeed, sentient beings prior to the fall had sex only to procreate, then non-procreative sex is sinful. Let that sink in for a bit. And also, failure to reproduce only the “right” amount, whatever that is, is sinful too.

And I’m going to go there.

It is an idea that I have heard too freaking many times in Evangelical culture, and particularly from the religious right: the reason the poor (particularly brown and black skinned people) are poor is that they just have too damn much sex. You hear it from people like Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, who has said that we are “awash in the disastrous social consequences of people who rut like rabbits.” Yep, if “those people” would just realize that they do not have the money that would allow them to have sex, everything would just be better. I’m sorry, this is a bit of a sore point for me. I have 5 kids. Which is okay, I guess, because I am a middle class white male. But for African Americans, who on average have fewer kids than me, they “rut like rabbits.”

So yes, I kind of see what Lewis is saying, which is that overpopulation can indeed cause conflict. But the idea that one just has sex a few times in one’s lifetime - and that this is somehow the most virtuous state of being - seems a bit rich. And also inexperienced. One does indeed wonder if Lewis would have written that differently after his marriage.

I’m sure I have completely ignored important themes in the book in this review. In fact, some I have just left out because I didn’t feel like talking about them at this moment. Lewis’ writing is always rich, and always rewarding. I know I have said this before, but I admire and enjoy Lewis even when I do not agree with him. In fact, I think I can say that about all of my favorite serious authors. Part of the fun is in the argument, which is why C. S. Lewis would be a member of my dream dinner party.

Let me leave with one final thought. In Lewis’ conception, angelic beings exist on a different, yet concurrent plane. They move too fast to find matter to be substantial enough to bind them. If anything, our modern development of astrophysics has made this idea to be less incredible than one might have thought. (Not the angels, but the permeability of matter.) In the metaphysical sense, then, these beings transcend time and space. While all mortal sentient beings “die” in the physical sense in Lewis’ conception of space, they do not cease to exist, but transform to exist in the higher dimension. I love Lewis’ explanation for the temporality of existence. We mortals were never designed to live forever as we are. Dust to Dust has always been the plan. (And, as Carl Sagan said, we are made of starstuff.) But death in the Christian view has not been the end, but the metamorphosis.

Richard Strauss wrote a bit of music which was borrowed by Stanley Kubrick for his own science fiction movie. (The opening bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra.) But perhaps my favorite of his works fits this idea. 


Note on the edition: My wife found me a hardback version of the Space Trilogy after much searching. She is an amazing bookhound, if I hadn't already mentioned that. 


Other C. S. Lewis books I have reviewed:

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from the library

Poor Neil Gaiman must have had a lonely childhood. So far, in his kid books, the only friends for his protagonists end up being dead people. And if you count Good Omens, the part he wrote appears to pair up an angel and a demon as each other’s only friend.

The Graveyard Book is as creepy as Coraline, but in a different way. Both stories exist in a world where terror is an everyday occurrence, and malevolent but mysterious forces theaten. You can read my thoughts on Coraline here

I did not realize this when I listened to the book, but it appears (on further research) that Gaiman intended the book to be very much like The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling - only set in a graveyard, not the jungle. Looking back, this is very much how the book turned out, with some strong parallels with the original.

The basic idea is this: Nobody Owens is a boy who wanders from his birth family in the middle of the night to the nearby graveyard. While he is gone, a mysterious assassin, Jack, murders his family, and comes looking for him. The ghosts of the graveyard shelter him from Jack, saving his life. They then raise him, with help from Silas, who is “neither living nor dead.” It is never really clarified what Silas is, although he has a past as a very bad person who reformed, and doesn’t fit into the other categories of supernatural creatures.

Throughout the book, “Bod,” as he is nicknamed, grows up, and has a variety of adventures, culminating in the return of Jack and his secret society (“Jacks of All Trades”) to finish the job - and Bod. Each chapter is a fairly self-contained episode, and Bod ages about 2 years in between stories. This too mirrors the Mowgli stories in a way.

One of the closest parallels between The Jungle Books and The Graveyard Book is the episode where Bod is convinced to run away with the Ghouls, who resemble Kipling’s monkeys. He is rescued by his tutor, Miss Lupescu, who is a werewolf. She, naturally, resembles Kaa in this story.

An interesting facet of this book is the way that Gaiman weaves his themes into the fabric of the story. In Coraline, Gaiman misquotes G. K. Chesterton’s quote about how fairy stories do not tell children that there are dragons, but that dragons can be defeated. In The Graveyard Book, Bod must himself learn to defeat his own particular dragon. This theme of self-reliance and courage in facing one’s fears appears to be one of Gaiman’s favorite ideas.

On a different note, Gaiman also sneaks some history into the book. The graveyard is a very old one, and has now been turned into a preserve. Thus, all the ghosts are folks from the past, from the ancient pre-Celtic days to the 1800s. Their knowledge of the world remains the same as it was when they died, so developments in technology, science, and psychology remain mysteries to them. Silas, on the other hand, travels freely, and thus is able to provide the modern knowledge necessary.

Two incidents stood out in this regard. First is the fact that when Bod does (briefly) attend a public school, he finds himself correcting his teacher on historical points. After all, he actually knows what the people of the past believed and thought.

The second is even more interesting to me. As was common in the past, the graveyard was attached to a church. The church controlled who was buried and where. The graveyard proper was reserved for the “good” people. Suicides, criminals, prostitutes, and “witches” were buried in anonymous graves beyond the official limits.

This segregation remains among the ghosts, who disdain the “bad” people buried elsewhere. Bod eventually figures out that this distinction is ludicrous. As Silas explains, it isn’t that simple. One could be executed for stealing food, for example, and the suicides were generally deeply unhappy people, not evil ones.

In one of the great lines in the book, Silas explains that suicide happens when people are so unhappy that they decide to speed up their transition to another plane of existence, thinking they will be happier. Bod asks if they are happier. Silas replies that they usually were not, because they brought themselves to the new place. I think this is a great way of handling it. I grew up in a religious tradition that believed that suicides went to hell. As I grew older, I found I didn’t believe that, for a variety of reasons. (Not least of which is that I, like C. S. Lewis, do not believe in the traditional - that is, Greco-Roman mythology-influenced hell in the first place. This connection was recognized at least since the mid-1800s, by the way. And that whatever there is, it is locked on the inside.) In this case, Gaiman doesn’t encourage suicide - although he clearly understands it. Rather, he points out the obvious, that for the most part, it isn’t really a solution to anything. The rest of the book is such an affirmation of the value of living that it functions in that way to remind the reader to be both hopeful and active in seeking life.

As for the witch buried outside the graveyard, Gaiman has a few interesting points about her. Bod befriends her, and hears her story. It turns out that like most if not all of those burned at the stake for witchcraft, she was no real witch. At least until after her death, when a plague that she may or may not have called down kills her executioners. Rather, she is an attractive woman, who “bewitches” a man, and is thus considered dangerous.

Gaiman gets this right. Witches generally fell into two categories. The first is the old woman without family to defend - or as importantly, support - her. She is a “useless eater” as the Nazis would later say about another undesirable group, and nobody would avenge her death. Hence the stake.

The second category is the younger woman whose sexuality is viewed as a threat. Often, this would be an outspoken woman, who didn’t fit societal norms and gender roles. Thus, she was a natural and easy target.

There are many great ideas in this book, from the Ghouls already mentioned, to a being called the Sleer who protects the barrow of the Druid king. The Sleer is a parallel to the white cobra in “The King’s Ankus,” and has a similar ending, with the treasure killing those who covet it. I also laughed at the idea of the poet who wasn’t recognized during his lifetime, so wrote only for “posterity,” which seems to have failed to recognize him as well.

Gaiman has a dark and dry sense of humor, and this book, like his other one, isn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows. Fortunately, I have an appreciation for his style and humor. My kids are similar in that respect, enjoying both Gaiman and Wodehouse humor. My second daughter in particular has always had a fondness for the macabre, so darkness, dungeons, rats, and ghosts have thrilled her since she was a toddler. Even the younger kids have come around on scary stories. I have done some of my job as a parent, I guess.

This book, like Coraline, is not for everyone. If you like Poe, this is up your alley.

There are two editions with different illustrators. Each has his merits.

Brooding illustration by Dave McKean

Lighter line art (of the witch) by Chris Riddell

One final thing I should mention in connection with the audiobook. Gaiman reads his own stories - and does a fantastic job. His timing is perfect, and his diction is clear in a moving car, which isn’t a given.

There is one more reason to listen to the audiobook version. Gaiman partners with some interesting musicians for incidental music. Coraline has some creepy songs that are sung by The Gothic Arches. (See my review for a clip.) The Graveyard Book goes one better by enlisting Bela Fleck, banjo player and composer, to write a version of Camille Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre for banjo and cello.

This is really an amazing idea, both in the abstract, and in the execution.

Here is a clip:

I have a special love for Danse Macabre. Any fan of old cartoons have heard it, of course. I had the opportunity to play the solo violin part back in my college days. Our conductor at Bakersfield College put together a Halloween concert. In addition to Danse Macabre, we did Mussorsky’s A Night On Bald Mountain (familiar to anyone who has seen Fantasia), Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead (one of my favorite works, written in significant part in 5/4 time), and Charles Ives’ Halloween. Good times. Here is the original Danse Macabre.

For those who are curious, the E string on the violin is tuned down to an E flat, so that it makes a diminished 5th with the A string. Because we had a small orchestra, I used two violins so I could play the orchestra part when needed.

I also have to link some Bela Fleck. Before Chris Thile, before Mumford and Sons, Bela Fleck pioneered the fusion of bluegrass, jazz, and pop. Here is one of his tunes with the Flecktones.

Later, it was destined that Fleck would partner with Chris Thile. One of my favorite albums of all time is Thile’s Not All Who Wander Are Lost, which features Fleck on banjo along with some other incredible musicians. My favorite track, “Raining at Sunset” is worth looking up. Or just buy the album already and contribute to the support of a true genius musician. Here is another track, “Riddles in the Dark,” which re-imagines the battle between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in the heart of the mountain as a repartee between mandolin and banjo.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Death Valley: The Desert Blooms

God never made an ugly landscape. All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild. ~ John Muir

Mention Death Valley, and people start thinking of a bleached cow skull baking in the impossibly hot sun. Perhaps they think of a desolate landscape, with endless sand stretching into the distant horizon.

What one fails to anticipate, however, is that Death Valley isn’t so much a horizontal place, as a vertical place. Within 20 miles, you can find the lowest point in North America and a mountain that is more than 11,000 feet high. Go an additional 100 miles, and you reach Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states.

The reputation of Death Valley as lifeless is likewise false. Life abounds, but often in different forms than we are used to. Furthermore, Death Valley National Park is a huge place, the largest park in the lower 48. In fact, the park is just barely smaller than the state of Connecticut. Finally, while some consider the desert to be ugly, I believe that John Muir was right. There is no “ugly” in nature, just a different kind of beauty.

Two years ago, I visited Death Valley National Park for the first time. I know, shocking, considering I have lived in California most of my life, and have driven within 100 miles of the valley floor dozens of times. We just never got all the way there. The kids loved it so much that they have been begging to go back ever since. My heart is in the mountains, but they are too snowbound for camping during the winter. The desert has grown on me, and I have come to appreciate and love its stark beauty.

Death Valley averages 2 inches or so of rain a year. This is a great example, though, of how “average” and “typical” are not at all the same thing. Some years, Death Valley gets exactly zero precipitation, while other years, it can get much more, often in a single storm.

This actually happened last October. About 3 inches fell in a few hours, causing flooding and damage. (See this LA Times article for the results of the flood at Scotty’s Castle, in the mountains above the north end of the valley. Be sure to watch the video.) 

As a result of this, and some other smaller storms, Death Valley received a significant amount of rain. And rain means that things can grow.

Because of the cycle of dry years followed by the occasional rain, the native plants of Death Valley (and much of the surrounding Mojave Desert) have adapted to survive. Seeds can live for years in extreme conditions - the soil can reach 200 degrees F in the summer. But give them a good soaking, and the desert will bloom.

I suspected this would be a good year, so I kept an eye on the conditions. Sure enough, by mid-January, flowers were appearing. I jumped online and found a campsite I could reserve, and we planned a trip. We succeeded in finding abundant flowers (which should persist for another month or so, if you are interested in seeing them.)

These pictures are of the vast fields of Desert Gold which grows on the alluvial fans extending into the valley. These particular pictures are the best of the bunch, and were taken about 5 miles north of Badwater, the lowest point in Death Valley.

In addition to the Desert Gold, there were also a variety of Evening Primrose and other flowers.

When the air is clear, which is most of the time, distances in the desert can be deceiving. This is the view north from Harmony Borax Works, near Furnace Creek. The near mountains on the sides are about 20 miles away. The more distant mountains at left center are 50 to 75 miles away. The barely-visible ones behind that are 100 miles distant, and are at the very far end of the valley. It’s a big place.

Death Valley isn’t particularly sandy, actually. But it does contain several dune systems. The most easily accessible is the Mesquite Flat Dunes. They cover quite a large distance, but are not that tall - the tallest is only about 100 feet. (The Eureka Dunes are much taller, at nearly 700 feet, and are more pristine. They are harder to access, though, so we have not yet visited them. Maybe next trip…) I got this spontaneous picture of my eldest daughter, Ella, doing a handstand on top of the tall dune at Mesquite Flat.

Death Valley has an interesting geological history. Two plates pulled apart, and the rocks in between fell down to the side like closely packed dominoes. This created the set of parallel mountains and valleys that are the “Range and Basin” formation that covers much of Nevada and parts of Utah and California. In the distant past, the area had a tropical climate, and Death Valley was filled with a giant lake. Later, after the Sierra Nevada mountains were pushed up, rain was blocked, and the area became a desert. You can see evidence of the different epochs exposed throughout the park, from some (geologically) recent volcanic activity, to metamorphic rocks dating back a billion years. Because of the way the valley was formed, there are steep and rugged mountains surrounding the valley on both sides. Erosion has created spectacular side canyons. 

As I tell people all the time, you simply cannot truly experience nature from a moving car. You really need to get out and hike. Death Valley has many hikes up the side canyons. This is one of the best, Mosaic Canyon, on the west side of the valley. Layers of marble alternate with breccia. You can read more about the history at the USGS page.

On the other side of the valley, and a bit south, is one of the most famous places in the park. If you are a U2 fan, you probably know the cover to The Joshua Tree Less well known is that the famous pictures were not taken at Joshua Tree National Park. The tree comes from Inyo County, near Red Rock State Park. And the cover itself comes from Death Valley National Park, specifically Zabriskie Point. Leading from that spot down to the valley floor is Golden Canyon. (And also Gower Gulch, which is another good hike.) We hiked up Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral, and got this picture looking down the badlands to the valley floor. In the distance, the high, snow-capped mountain is Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park at 11,043 feet high.

Here is another view of the badlands in this area, from our 2014 visit. This was from one of the hills above Gower Gulch. 

Also from our 2014 visit, here is Telescope Peak from Badwater, the lowest point to the highest, in only 20 miles.

This is Badwater from above. You can drive out to Dante's View, about 6000 feet vertically above Badwater. Not much horizontal distance, however. You could almost jump down from here.

I took this one on our 2014 visit, early in the morning just before the sun rose. This is looking west from Furnace Creek across to the Panamint Mountains, north of Telescope Peak. One of my favorite, despite the dust spots. The curse of a small camera...

This is part of my ongoing series on the National Park System. You can find the index here.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from the library

We had our introduction to Brandon Mull with Fablehaven, which we listened to on or trip to see the in-laws for Christmas. However, the fact that Fablehaven came first was due to an accident. Originally, I had ordered The Candy Shop War from our library. It’s a big system, and you can order stuff from branches a hundred or more miles away. For some reason, there ended up being a waitlist for it, so I left it on order and ordered Fablehaven, which came in first. Thus, we listened to that one, and then The Candy Shop War when it came in a month later.

Brandon Mull can certainly write an exciting and well-plotted book. If anything, this one is more like a mystery novel than the fantasy of Fablehaven. However, there are significant similarities that are perhaps themes in Mull’s writing. We will have to read/listen to more and see, I suppose.

First, a bit of the plot and the world Mull builds. As in Fablehaven, ordinary children discover a hidden world, which lurks just beneath the surface of the “real” one. In The Candy Shop War, it turns out that there are wizards who are searching for a treasure which lies in the town that the four children, Nate, Trevor, Summer, and “Pigeon” inhabit. These wizards are very old, and only survive by staying in their heavily enchanted lairs. Furthermore, they are largely immune to the effects of magic, which is most effective on children, and loses its potency as a person ages. Well, at least the kind of magic that can be used to do things. The magic that makes one oblivious to what is going on seems to work on everyone.

The four children happen to come into a new candy shop in town one day, and meet Mrs. White, who offers to let them earn special candy by doing tasks for her. The first one is weird: gathering mushrooms full of insect eggs using special bait, but the reward is amazing. They are given “moon rocks,” which make them light enough to leap great distances.

However, once the children are hooked, the tasks become more dangerous, and more morally questionable. Before they know it, they have broken into a museum to steal an artifact (that Mrs. White claims belonged to an ancestor), and robbed a grave. When she asks them to wipe the memory of the local ice cream man (who turns out also to be a wizard), they finally have had enough. Now, however, they are essentially fighting against Mrs. White, who has turned on them. Things eventually end up with a showdown between Mrs. White and the others, who have made a temporary truce to defeat the greater threat. In addition to Mr. Stott, the ice cream man, they join forces with John Dart, a sort of cross between a policeman and a mob enforcer within the wizard world.

A few things about this book. I’ll start with the one thing I didn’t like. This struck me with Fablehaven as well, but not as much. Mull simply writes awkwardly about race. It’s almost as if he was a white Mormon kid who grew up in largely middle-class, white surroundings, went to BYU, and...oh, that actually looks a good bit like his biography. So yes, when he mentions race, it’s not natural to him. In this book, it comes up in this context. To disguise themselves while doing their little burglary stunts, Mrs. White gives them “melting pot mixers,” which randomly change their race temporarily. As I said, awkward. Not the idea, but how it was handled. Basically, nothing changes. I grew up in a predominantly minority neighborhood, and believe me, plenty of things change. Let’s just say that in no way would I want to be African American and be breaking into a museum. Not the best plan for survival. Heck, even having a toy gun can be dangerous enough. And one can’t help but think that after the fact, in what appears to be a predominantly white town setting, the three black kids in school would have been hauled in for questioning after they appeared on the video camera. Just saying. This is the worst, but one gets the idea that Mull tries really hard to be colorblind, at the expense of actually noticing things. In that sense, the weakness in his writing is his lack of observation.

I feel silly in some ways even pointing this out, because this is, for goodness sake, just a kid fantasy book. It’s not expected to be great writing, and one isn’t necessarily expecting depth of characterization. Anthony Trollope this is not, and makes no pretence of being. Still, just, I guess, a bit awkward.

That out of the way, there are so many things to love about this book. The ending is outstanding, sneaking up even on me, who usually does a good job of guessing when I read murder mysteries. The ending was a surprise of the best kind, leaving one feeling the opposite of cheated. On a related note, Mull did a fantastic job of plotting and pacing this book. Looking back, it was just like the best of mysteries, as no object, no detail, no occurrence was forgotten or accidental. Details mattered, and were not just there for decoration. In contrast, there was a little bit of a deux ex machina feel to the ending of Fablehaven. In context, it was a good ending, and fit with the imaginative world it was set in. In The Candy Shop War, success depended so much on the quick wits of the protagonists that it really required that the children would have to find a way themselves without powerful outside aid.

Another thing I loved about this book was the sheer imagination of the world. The foundation idea that “don’t take candy from strangers” wasn’t just an invention of modern helicopter parents, but an ancient saying to protect children from the wiles of devious wizards was a nice starting point. From there, one suspects that the ideas for the candies themselves arose from the author spending days just dreaming of cool ideas. There is no end to the creativity, and one suspects that if book length were not an issue, he could have kept right on going.

The attractions of this book weren’t just those of the imagination, however. If Fablehaven sometimes felt a bit like an allegory of Original Sin, The Candy Shop War poses more immediate ethical dilemmas. How does one know who to trust? Those who seem nice may or may not be that way at heart. And who is telling the truth? How do you know? One of the answers suggested is that those who have something to gain will often hide crucial details. Once you know the possible motives, things are not as benign as they seem. This seems to be a good thing for kids to contemplate. At least to a lawyer who thinks that “follow the money” would have saved a client or two from falling for scams.

Other questions contemplated are whether the end ever justifies the means, is revenge something we should seek, and how does one avoid the corruption of power. Good things to think about, in any case. Mull does a decent job with these themes. He’s no Terry Pratchett  - who is as good as they come at writing moral thinking into his books - but he is no slouch either. 

Just a word on the common ideas I have noted in both books. First I already mentioned, which is realistic setting, but with a hidden world. Another is the idea of the fuse. In Fablehaven, malevolent beings are secured with knots. In order to untie a knot, the being must do a favor at the request of another. The magic power in the knot is released to do the favor. Likewise, in this book, there is a character who is called a “fuse.” He can only do so much magic before he loses his ability to exist. The amount he has used is represented by how much of his body is covered with a birthmark. When he has no normal skin left, he dies. Just an interesting parallel. I suppose either could have a metaphorical idea behind it - or at least one it would be possible to create. The third parallel is the connection between food and drink and magic. This isn’t original to Mull, obviously, but he seems fond of it. (Likewise, I think Mull likes food, because even the non-magical stuff gets heavy play in his books.) In this book, the white fudge causes stupor and lack of awareness, while the milk in Fablehaven gives sight of the hidden world. An interesting idea.

There is a sequel to this book, apparently, but it is not (yet) part of a longer series like Fablehaven. I suppose it doesn’t lend itself to that. Once the secret about the magic candy is out, the protagonists, at least, will never be as innocently drawn into the world of wizards. Future antagonists will need to find a new tool.

My kids love Brandon Mull. They’ve already checked out the next Fablehaven book in print form. (Which means I need to play catch-up…) These have been a great addition to our traveling audiobook list. The great pacing and plots do a good job at keeping the driver awake, and they help the miles melt away. The Candy Shop War was enjoyable, and all of us recommend it.