This week I read the first book in Patrick Carman's The Land of Elyon series, The Dark Hills Divide. This is a middle grade fantasy series that I would personally put at the easier end of the reading spectrum for that age group. It's the story of 12-year-old Alexa Daley, daughter of the mayor of the town of Lathbury, in the land of Elyon. Alexa and her father go, as usual, to spend the summer in the capital city of Bridewell, joining the other leaders of the kingdom, Warvold and Ganesh, and other Bridewell residents. Bridewell, like the other towns in the kingdom, is surrounded by high walls. Even the roads between the towns are surrounded by the same walls, so that none can leave the kingdom, and no dangers can enter within. The walls are both literal and figurative, sheltering but also stifling.
Warvold, the elderly local hero who championed the building of the walls in the first place has a key that allows him outside of the walls. Shortly after her arrival in Bridewell, Warvold takes Alexa for a short walk in the wood beyond. He imparts some words of wisdom to her ("If you make something your life's work, make sure it's something you can feel good about when you're an old relic like me."), as well as a cryptic poem, and then he dies. Warvold's death sets in a motion a series of political events for the kingdom, and a related series of personal adventures for Alexa.
Alexa is an excellent heroine. She's brave, curious, and just a touch disobedient. And she loves books. Her favorite place in a Bridewell is a marvelous old library, filled with crooked rows of shelves, mysterious old books, and cozy, dust-filled corners for reading, not to mention a kindred spirit of a librarian named Grayson. Alexa's adventures include a difficult journey, secret tunnels, talking animals, the deciphering of hidden clues, and the challenge of not knowing who to trust. The other characters in the book are mostly likable, especially the small man Yipes and the easily excitable squirrel Murphy. Even the vile Pervis, captain of the guards, has his appealing qualities.
Overall, I think that this book will appeal to younger fans of fantasy novels. The plot has plenty of twists and turns, and the atmosphere varies from brooding menace to magical possibility. The symbolism of the walls, and the questions raised about safety vs. freedom, add substance to the book. I don't think that the series will appeal quite as much to adult readers of children's books. The talking animals are a bit precious. I also personally found the fact that Alexa is the only child in the book a bit off-putting, for some reason (though only children might relate to Alexa's life among adults). But I think that for kids looking to escape to a fantasy world, but not quite ready for lengthier novels like Inkheart and Eragon will find much to like.
The books in this series started out as bedtime stories that the author told to his two daughters (perhaps explaining the presence of the strong female lead character). Asked about his knowledge of children's books, Patrick Carman responded "... I did a lot of research, and I just like those stories anyway. I just like youth fiction myself. I read it just because I like to read it. You know, they just tend to be good, fun stories." A man after my own heart!
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.