- Posted by Ed Sizemore on November 23, 2008 at 12:52 pm
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: by Kazu Kibuishi
- PUBLISHER: Graphix/Scholastic; $9.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
WARNING! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
Karen and her two children, Emily and Navin, are moving into their ancestor’s former home. While cleaning the house, Emily finds her great-grandfather’s study and a necklace with an unusual carved-stone amulet. During their first night, Karen is taken by what can be best called a land octopus. The kids follow after her, desperate to rescue their mother, and discover the basement leads to another world, Alledia. The amulet talks to Emily and tells her that great-grandfather Silas is still alive and where to find him for help. He passes on the ownership of the amulet and its power to Emily, and they continue on with the mother’s rescue. Emily and Navin are able to get her back, but the octopus poison has put her in a coma. They now need to find an antidote to wake her up.
Let’s get to the heart of the matter. I have a lot of reservations about this book. For a kid’s book, I found this to be very dark. In fact, I’m not sure I would give this book to anyone under 12 or 13 years old. The book begins with an emotional Louisville Slugger to the face. Emily and both her parents, David and Karen, are driving at night on a small mountain road to pick up her younger brother from a play date. While trying to avoid a broken-down vehicle, their car swerves off the road and down the side of the mountain. The car lands upside down on the edge of a cliff ready to tumble into the ravine at any moment. Emily and her mom are able to get out, but the dashboard has pinned David inside the car. They can’t pull him out or keep the car from finally succumbing to gravity. Both watch in horror as David disappears into the darkness. All this is the first twelve pages of the book.
The next scene that concerns me comes when Emily finally meets her great-grandfather. He’s dying and needs to pass on the power and responsibility of the amulet. There isn’t time for him to give an explanation of Alledia, the amulet, or the consequences of becoming the new owner. He chooses instead to play against Emily’s evident fear of losing her mother and confusion about her current circumstances. He tells her, “It will help you attain the power to shape your world. It will give you everything you desire, and much more.” The amulet takes up the same strategy and tells her, “Without power you cannot attain what you desire. Without the stone, all that surrounds you will turn to dust. Embrace the power … and use it to save your family.” As a life-long fan of Tolkien, major alarm bells sound when a near-omnipotent item tells you that it can give you the power to shape the world to your desires. Plus, I think it’s dirty pool to toy with a kid’s emotions like that. I’m uncomfortable with a twelve-year-old being pressured into such a momentous and life-changing decision. The way both Silas and the amulet are willing to use such shady tactics in the name of expediency makes me wonder about their motives and morality. Navin is the only one that expresses reservations about what’s going on, and he is readily dismissed. Personally, I side with Navin’s instincts of caution.
My own fears were increased when Emily encounters the elf prince. He claims that his father is an evil dictator oppressing the land. However, the prince’s methods and ethics make you question the kind of person he is, much more the kind of ruler he would be. To make matters worst, the amulet tells Emily, “Destroy him, Emily. Make him pay…. He took your mother from you. MAKE HIM PAY!!!” No one, or thing, should be advocating that a twelve-year-old murder someone, especially not out of revenge. In fact, at this point I’m being to question the basic morality of Alledia. These are the good guys?
The amulet might be right, that the elf prince will prove to be a tremendous problem and maybe even a fearsome enemy, but given that Emily knows nothing about what is going on, to ask her to kill someone purely from spite is absolutely unacceptable. And just to be clear, the elf prince may have kidnapped Emily’s mother, but he didn’t kill her. (In fact, I don’t think it’s clear that the elf prince was the actual kidnapper and not simply someone taking advantage of a situation he discovered.) Again, I’m really worried about how quickly the amulet is willing to manipulate Emily’s emotions to achieve its own ends. It’s looking like Navin may be the sagest person in the book.
Now, let’s talk about what I liked. For all its flaws, this is a well-written book. It’s quick-paced and keeps your interest from the first page until the last. You don’t have to worry about young readers getting bored in the middle and not finishing the book. The problem will be having to tell them book two isn’t available yet. This is a great book to introduce junior high students to graphic novels, fantasy literature, or just reading in general.
Kibuishi has created a wonderful cast of characters. Karen comes across as a vulnerable single mother trying to overcome the tragedy of her husband’s death while providing a good life for her young kids. Her love and concern for both kids is readily apparent. Emily is a great hero, for both girls and boys. Her life’s been turned upside down and she’s trying her best to be head of the family in the absence of both parents. She’s smart, confident, has natural leadership ability, and isn’t scared to stand up to the amulet. I’m not always happy with her decisions, but I don’t know if I could do better in her place.
Navin is quickly becoming my favorite character, simply because he wants to take a couple of minutes to think about what’s going on. He refuses to be left behind or to sit quietly in the back seat. He wants to help and has some real skills to contribute. Silas’s creations, now Emily’s assistants/mentors, are a great collection of secondary characters. How can you not love a trio of consisting of an unpretentious pink stuffed bunny, a robot with the personality of a crotchety old man, and a strong silent blue robot? All the cast are people you would enjoy spending time with and getting to know better.
The art is phenomenal. The character designs are simple but highly effective. Kibuishi is able to communicate the whole range of human emotions on the characters’ faces. He also does a great job with the look and design of Alledia. The creatures are unique but feel like they would all be part of the same planet. He takes a familiar creature and gives it a bizarre twist, like the land octopus, to make the world strange but still relateable.
The book looks like a big-budget hand-animated film. The drawings are dynamic and come to life. Each panel is like the key cel of an animated film. As my eye moved from panel to panel, I found myself naturally filling in the characters’ movements, so it felt like I was watching a cartoon instead of reading a book. It’s the color that makes this all possible. This is one of the best colored books I’ve ever seen. The use of light makes everything pop off the page. Kibuishi thanks a lot of people, especially his wife Amy, for helping him complete the book. The book’s stellar quality is a testament to the amazing craftsmanship and sheer number of hours put into its production.
I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude with this book and series. I’m hoping that book two will alleviate the most serious of my concerns. Hopefully, as we get to know more about the world of Alledia, Silas’ and the amulet’s actions will make more sense and become less sinister. Kibuishi seems to be crafting children’s fiction in the same vein as Harry Potter. Alledia is a morally complex world where not everything fits a nice black-and-white scheme. The good guys are trying their best but don’t always make the right decisions. I don’t mind blurry ethical edges and children’s fiction that refuses to give nice, neat, pat answers. But I do want there to be a real distinction between the bad guys and the good guys and how they operate. I’ll give Kibuishi the benefit of the doubt and withhold any final judgment.
A preview of the first sixteen pages of the book and other information is available at Scholastic’s website. There are updates on the progress of Amulet book two at the author’s website. Matthew Brady has also reviewed the book.