Thomas Wharton’s superior YA fantasy

Thomas Wharton. The Shadow of Malabron (Doubleday Canada 2008).

One of the pleasures of a review blog: I can review any book I read, whether or not it’s recent or a bit old. Although I bought this when it came out, I somehow managed to put it aside till now. That meant I missed being one of its happy early readers, but also that I had good fun reading it this past week.

So, what does a writer who has published an award winning first novel, Icefields, a sly & inventive exploration of some Alberta history, a second well received novel, Salamander, an historical fantasia in the magic realist vein, & a collection of short meta-fictions, The Logogryph, do next? In Wharton’s case, as he has children, he turned to YA fiction, & wrote The Shadow of Malabron, the first volume of a planned trilogy. I took too long to get to this, but then again, as he’s a professor & has to find time among a lot of other work to write, I now have to wait, still, for the second volume. Since The Shadow of Malabron is such a terrific example of what a really interested & interesting writer can do in this area, I am eager to see that second volume when it comes out in 2012 (I believe).

Wharton has taken on the challenge of writing with the vocabulary restrictions of traditional YA fiction while constructing a high fantasy that evades the traps of convention most huge fantasies so easily fall into. One way he accomplishes this, he creates a secondary world that is simply & precisely the world of all story. This allows his protagonist, Will Lightfoot, & the companions he finds there to travel through a compelling world of literary metamorphoses, where nothing is assured & everything is malleable: it’s a world of changes, since every story exists in many versions. Second, although Will comes from our world, the novel begins in the deep past of the Perilous Realm (or the storylands), in an event that world not only remembers but still suffers the repercussions of so many millennia later.

As his story begins, Will is traveling west with his father & little sister, a year or so after his mother died, when he sees a little amusement park called The Perilous Realm; but his father wont stop & later, Will (who seems to be about 13 or 14), still angry about his loss, takes his father’s motorcycle & tries to ride back to it. Chased by a police car, he finds the Perilous Realm all right, but when the cycle hits something he’s thrown into another world, & he can’t seem to find his way back. Almost trapped by a tree of mirrors & a frightening figure in black, he is rescued by a young woman, Rowen, who takes him to the city of Fable & her grandfather, a lore-master. There he discovers that he is but one of many who have found their way from ‘the Untold’ to this world, & the masters of Fable have many questions about what his appearance now means. For the Realm is under attack & has been for a long long time: ‘Malabron the Night King, Lord of the Shadow Realm and Master of Fetches. Why is it the very worst have the most names? Where he came from no one knows. But with him fear and shadow entered the realms. And oblivion.’ Especially the oblivion of all stories, which is the end of imagination & freedom.

All Will wants is to find a way home, but Rowen’s grandfather, Pendrake the toy-maker, tells him he cant go back the way he came; he can only go forward. Of course, he cant go alone, & since the lore-master needs to find out what’s happening on the borders of the Realm, & to protect his granddaughter by keeping her with him, the three of them must go on a quest. So far so usual, as is the gathering of Companions, but there Wharton introduces a few changes, including an ancient talking wolf, once a loyal Companion of the long departed Stewards, whom Will finds in Fable’s ancient Library, ‘by accident’ it seems.

And Wharton has more tricks up his literary sleeve: each of Will’s companions, the old lore-master, Rowen, the apprentice knight-errant, & the warrior Moth & his raven Morrigan, has a quest too, even if they don’t know that at the start. Moreover, as they travel North from Fable through the storylands, they move into & through various versions of myth, legend, fairy tale, & fiction. Wharton has great if serous fun playing little literary games at every turn of the narrative, yet keeps the plot tension high while slowly deepening each character. The reader can never be sure just what they will encounter but begins to feel sure that it will be at least somewhat recognizable. Finally, Wharton writes well. Unlike the far too many bloated fantasies around these days, in The Shadow of Malabron, every word counts. I’m especially impressed by the way he finds active verbs for almost every sentence, moving the action forward with alacrity, verve, & imagistic particularity.

The Shadow of Malabron is full of narrative surprises even as it follows a well known literary trail to its conclusion (but not the ending of Will’s & the others’ stories). It’s witty, crafty, & engaging: a reader, young or old, really cant ask for more.

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