CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 12 . . . . February 17, 2006
Beyond the Valley of Thorns. (The Land of Elyon , Book 2).
New York, NY : Orchard Books/Scholastic (Distributed in Canada by Scholastic Canada ), 2005.
221 pp., cloth, $15.99.
Adventure and adventures-Fiction.
Grades 4-7 / Ages 9-12.
Review by Ruth Latta.
"There is much you still don't know, and I have my reasons for keeping things secret," [said Warvold to Alexa] "The fate of the Land of Elyon hangs around your neck, and this burden must be carried with the help of your friends if we are to succeed."...
As the breeze carried us on blue waters I'd only imagined in my past, I curled up on the deck with an old blanket underneath my head... And then I was asleep and rocking on the waves...It would be the last quiet I would know for some time."
How fitting that Beyond the Valley of Thorns arrived in my mail on Hallowe'en! The elfin heroine, mysterious wolf and castle turret that grace the cover are enough to send a shudder of anticipation down anyone's spine. This novel is the second in Patrick Carman's "Land of Elyon" series. In the first, The Dark Hills Divide, the young central character, Alexa, defeated the villain who schemed to bring down her father's city from within.
Both of Carman's novels achieve suspense and tension thanks to his choice of plot structure. Some novels are structured like three act plays. Others are episodic. Carman's novels follow a pattern known as "The Hero's Journey," first outlined by Joseph Campbell and subsequently by Chris Vogel in The Writer's Journey.
In a typical "hero's journey" plot, the novel starts out in the "normal" world. In Beyond the Valley of Thorns, Alexa's normal world is the land of Elyon. Judging by a map in the front of the book, Elyon appears to be a triangular island, with four linked towns at one point, the mysterious, unknown "Tenth City" at another point, and the Valley of the Thorns near the third. People travel by horse and cart, names are Anglo Saxon, cities are walled, and convicts make up part of the population, as they did in Virginia prior to the American War of Independence and, subsequently, in Australia.
The second step in the "hero's journey" plot is the "call to adventure." Alexa receives this summons when reading in the library in Lathbury. There is a knocking behind her chair and, through a secret door, comes a tiny man named Yipes. He is the "mentor" figure required in a hero's journey plot and the person who prepares the hero to take up the challenge being presented. In this case, Alexa must go to a cave in the Dark Hills where something has been hidden away for her by the late Warvold, who was the founder of the four cities settlement. A world traveller, he convinced people to settle there and was one of a triumvirate of administrators, another of whom is Alexa's father. Warvold died at the start of the previous novel, The Dark Hills Divide.
Next, according to the requirements of this particular plot structure, the protagonist must cross a threshold into the world of the adventure. Alexa sneaks out of Lathbury with Yipes, enters the forest, and descends into a dark, vermin-ridden cave, where she meets a former convict, John Christopher. John gives her a magical stone, a Jocasta, which bestows on its possessor the gift of understanding other languages and communicating with animals.
Alexa learns that more is expected of her. Long ago, Abaddon, a seraph from the god Elyon's "Tenth City," wanted to rule the Land of Elyon. He enlisted a gang of seraphs to scatter the sacred stones that enabled their bearers to hear the original language of Elyon. These rebel seraphs went out of the Tenth City, turned into giants, and in invaded the land known as Castalia, beyond the Valley of Thorns. The original Abaddon is long gone, but his successor, Victor Grindall, is the most recent of many giants to run evil, cruel regime. Alexa's mission is to defeat Grindall.
In the "hero's journey" plot, the hero faces a number of tests leading up to an ordeal. Alexa sets out for the Valley of Thorns with John Christopher, Yipes, a squirrel, a wolf and a hawk. First, they encounter "the black swarm" -- bats that fly in a swirling mass and devour people. Next comes a sighting of the malevolent giants, zombies disfigured by bat attacks. The little band then encounters a seemingly friendly giant who gives them information and professes to be on their side. A further test is an encounter with wild dogs. By talking to them (thanks to her magic stone), Alexa persuades them to fight the evil giants.
Entering Castalia, they risk revealing themselves to an inhabitant, a woman named Margaret. She shelters them and introduces them to Balmoral, who has long dreamed of liberation from the giants and who regards their arrival as fulfilment of a prophecy. They are discussing the overthrow of the ogres' regime when one arrives, searching door to door for some strangers. Balmoral and John kill the ogre, but John dies in the encounter.
The Castalians, led by Balmoral and Alexa, rise up against their oppressors. Then comes Alexa's big challenge or moment of truth, a prerequisite in the "hero's journey" plot. As fighting rages, she goes out onto the wharf and approaches the Dark Tower . Terrified, she hears a voice like the wind telling her, "It is you who must go, you have I chosen. There is no other."
Alexa's ordeal comes when she enters the tower and finds Grindall, the evil successor to the rebel angel Abaddon, and his eight henchmen. He demands the stone, and the ogres begin tossing Yipes around. Before Alexa hands over the Jocasta, her companion, the hawk saves the day. Then freedom fighters come to her rescue.
In this type of plot, the hero gets a reward or prize. For Alexa, the prize is the liberation, first of Warvold's wife, then Warvold himself. It turns out that he had faked his death in the first novel as part of a plan to rescue his wife.
Normally, at this point, the heroine sets out for home, where she faces one final test, but author Patrick Carman departs from the pattern here. Instead of going back to her father, Alexa sets out on a river voyage with Warvold to rescue Yipes and to defeat Grindall. The fate of the land of Elyon depends upon them!
Adult readers will note the parallels between rebel seraph Abaddon's departure from the Tenth City and Lucifer's departure from Heaven in Paradise Lost. Elyon is a mysterious godlike force, perhaps a person. Margaret tells Alexa that "Elyon is among us, close by, waiting in the shadows, until the cruelty runs its course and he returns to claim us." Balmoral tells Alexa that "Elyon made Abaddon the brightest of the seraphs, as a friend and helper." Later, Alexa tells Balmoral that "Elyon is near. It's as if I feel his very presence hanging around my neck."
Many writers allude to famous literary works and to spiritual concepts to elevate their novels. I wished that Carman had chosen names with fewer connotations though, as they tend to be misleading. "Balmoral" made me think of the royal castle. I expected the character to speak with a Scottish accent. "Grindall" is a little too close to the legendary "Grendel." "Castalia" reminds me of "Castile." "John Christopher" reminded me of the story of St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child in his arms. That particular name choice is not misleading; rather, it fits in with the idea of John Christopher protecting Alexa, the chosen one. For me, the artistry of the novel was marred by two much borrowing. Young readers, however, blissfully unaware of connotations, will hurtle along, eager to see what happens next.
The hero's journey plot is the structure of choice for action-adventure and fantasy novelists. Patrick Carman excels in its use.
Ruth Latta's young adult novel, The Secret of White Birch Road, (Baico, Gatineau, 2004) is an amateur detective story. It was reviewed in the October 13, 2005 edition of CM.
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