It’s been a while since I last posted. Been busy writing and editing, and doing a bit of reading too. This is the book of a blogger friend, YA and also fantasy in a way, that has intrigued me for months now. Well done, Mike Fedison; you’ve written a book about children that gave this adult food for thought.
I had already gathered, from following the author’s blog that, although the boys who feature in this story are quite young, this wasn’t going to be a straightforward comic book adventure. In fact, the action is secondary to a thoughtful exploration of the individual motivations, personal problems and anxieties of the characters.
Using the vehicle of solving a kidnapping mystery, each of the boys takes a burden of small personal dramas with him into a parallel universe, which becomes more a setting for their voyage of self-discovery rather than the whole point of the story. They all have problems that are part of growing up, dealing with family tensions, and coping with social and physical stigmas. The boys don’t behave as a pack, and I think the author has very cleverly chosen a disparate group of not really close friends. Each character is essentially alone with his anxieties, and only at the end of the story, by learning to overcome these anxieties does each one discover the true meaning of friendship.
The pace of the story is always measured; the first part especially, which describes each boy’s home background, is slow to gain momentum. Throughout, to show character growth, each of the boys spends much of his time alone in introspection. Although this slows the action, the end result is a more satisfying read.
The characters themselves are likeable, touching even, though in some aspects they come closer to metaphor than flesh and blood. There’s the ‘Brains’ who nobody likes, the aggressive one who has trouble controlling his violent streak, the joker who just wants to be liked, and Mitchell who is lumbered not only with rowing parents but a speech impediment.
Given the subject, the whole story could have been rather preachy, as each boy faces his personal demons and overcomes them. But the tone is not at all moralising, and the author has a light touch with the theme of growing up. Joe, the aggressive one, for example learns to control himself, not by having the daylights beaten out of him, but by understanding Ryan’s quiet courage. Brainy Marc learns the limitations of his rational explanations, not by having stronger intellectual arguments thrown at him, but by accepting Mitchell’s simple statement that you can’t explain everything with handy theories. The boys learn a lot about one another and themselves, and all four appear at the end as more likeable, balanced human beings.
The least convincing aspect was the mystery of the ‘ghost girl,’ which to my mind leaves a lot of loose ends. The girl herself understands an awful lot about the paranormal, psychic messaging, and the workings of parallel universes for a seven-year-old, but is surprisingly inept when it comes to conveying vital but very simple information to the boys trying to rescue her.
But that aspect of the story is almost incidental. The real story is about self-discovery, growing up, and learning how to be a friend. This is a book any parent would be happy to have their child read. Unlike many books with a ‘message’ aimed at the young teen age group, this one takes the subject of friendship, unhitches it from any religious connotations or motivations, and goes right to the heart of the notions of tolerance, selflessness and responsibility.