Saturday, August 13, 2011

Middle Grade & Young Adult Corner: The Monster in the Hollows (Wingfeather Saga, Book 3), by Andrew Peterson

Note: Click here if you need a refresher on the previous two novels. ;)

Overall: 9.3

If we could just get Peterson's books into wider circulation, I think Peterson himself would become this generation's C.S. Lewis. I'm not kidding.

AR Grade Level: Unknown
Suggested Age Range: 10+

Plot Synopsis:

"Janner Wingfeather's father was the High King of Anniera. But his father is gone. The kingdom has fallen. The royal family is on the run, and the Fang armies of Gnag the Nameless are close behind. Janner and the family hope to find refuge in the last safe place in the world: the Green Hollows -- a land of warriors feared even by Fangs of Dang.

But there's a big problem. Janner's little brother - heir to the throne of Anniera - has grown a tail. And gray fur. Not to mention two pointed ears and long, dangerous fangs. To the suspicious folk of the Green Hollows he looks like a monster. But Janner knows better. His brother isn't as scary as he looks. Or is he?

Join the Wingfeathers on a new adventure filled with mystery, betrayal, and sneakery in a land of tasty fruits. There's a monster in the Hollows, and the truth lurks in the shadows." -- from the book jacket.

The Skinny:

Andrew Peterson seems to be taking the J.K. Rowling approach; in other words, as the three Wingfeather children have grown older, their story has matured as well. In this, the latest Wingfeather installment, the humorous footnotes that were sprinkled throughout At the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and North! Or Be Eaten have completely vanished, the fearsome (and toothy!) wildlife is barely mentioned -- and most importantly of all, the plot focuses less on the external and more on the internal. Indeed, the armies of Gnag the Nameless don't appear until the very end of the book -- and I think that's a good thing.

The Monster in the Hollows requires a good deal more careful reflection when it comes to sussing out its themes. For example, who do the insular and suspicious Hollowsfolk represent? If you'll allow me to advance a theory, I believe they are meant to symbolize Christianity in the modern world. Since the fall of Anniera, you see, the Hollowsfolk have successfully beaten back the Fangs of Dang. But at what cost? Because the Hollowsfolk have chosen to take a defensive posture, they have missed the opportunity to rescue the rest of Aerwiar. Similarly, many Christians today have responded to the depravities of our popular culture by erecting their own (metaphorical) harbor gates. They refuse, full stop, to engage with that culture, preferring instead to avoid all contact with sinners "out there." Peterson, evidently, sees this circling of the wagons as a failure to live up to Jesus' call to evangelize, and personally, I agree.

Another dominant theme in this novel tackles God's capacity to heal what is broken and pull the good out of tragedy and disaster. As Artham tells the Hollowsfolk:

"I was broken, I tell you, hardly a man at all! Unmade and foundering was I! But in the pit of the Phoobs I too sang the song of the stones! I became no Fang, but sprouted these." He flexed his wings and swooped them forward, blowing back the hair of those nearest him. "I cannot tell you why. All I know is that in my heart was a burning love for young Kalmar. Gnag bends things for breaking, and the Maker makes a flourish! Evil digs a pit, and the Maker makes a well! That is his way."

In what is perhaps the novel's most beautiful twist, we discover that even the cloven - the twisted beasts who lurk in the Blackwood - are subject to the Maker's mercy in this regard -- and young Kalmar, who spends the entire novel struggling with the external marks of his sin, finds himself in just the right position to understand what the cloven are and why they too need love.

In a way, Kalmar's journey in this series is very similar to Edmund's journey in The Chronicles of Narnia. He starts off eager to dispense with his responsibilities and run away from who he really is -- but when this urge finally gets him into serious trouble, Kalmar - like Edmund before him - comes back from the brink a more humble and more mature king. It's an interesting arc in both incarnations. In all honesty, I can't wait to see where Peterson's High King goes from here.

Characterization: 9.0

Peterson's humane rendering of Kalmar, Artham, Podo and Esben as they face the consequences of their past mistakes is especially noteworthy.

Plot/Pacing: 9.0

This book takes a slower pace than does North! Or Be Eaten -- and sometimes the jumps between the main plot and the (also excellent) side plot (which features Sara Cobbler and the child slaves of the Fork! Factory) feel a bit jarring. Still, Peterson has a real gift for writing chapter conclusions which inspire in the reader a desire to keep going.

Concepts/Themes: 10.0

See the discussion above.

*Oh, and PS: Once you've finished the novel, don't forget to read the appendices. The exerpt from the First Book is an absolutely gorgeous piece of writing:

...The Maker fears not the doings of Will. He weaves and wends the tale of the world, and watches o'er its endings. He has bid me bear my courage. He my fear has long assuaged. Even as he warns me of my rebel son's ambition, even as his shining eyes are lined with grief in joy, I sense, my son, a mighty love for me and each of us, his children, and I am fain to trust his voice. He means to make his subjects merciful and wise; sorrow and struggle bringeth both. We will, he tells me, grow by grieving, live by dying, love by losing. The heart itself is the field of battle and the garden green...

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