4- for original characters & settings, valuable lessons as the characters grow, an engaging action-oriented plot and well-crafted writing.
Book 4 (Above the Veil) opens in the Underfolk levels of the Chosen's Castle-- the lowest levels. We get a surprising glimpse of Sushin's true allegiance, and then are with Tal & Milla in the servant networks of the Castle. Milla is determined to get out of the castle and return to her Clan to complete her mission-- give them the Sunstone. Then she is determined to ask permission to "give herself to the Ice" (kill herself) to try and atone for the horrible thing she carries with her; a Spirit Shadow. She is furious with Tal for binding it to her, despite the knowledge that it saved her life. Aided by a small band of rebel Underfolk who call themselves the Freefolk, they pass through a molten crystal lake, where they witness the death of an Underfolk, which deeply affects Tal. He continues to question his upbringing, and to wrestle with the guilt over Milla's Spiritshadow. Bits and pieces that they have learned begin to come together, and Tal realizes that the 7 Keystones -one for each color- that hold the Veil in place are in danger of failing. One by one, the Keystone holders have disappeared, with Tal's father Rorem (keeper of the Orange Keystone) being the last to go. If the Keystones are unsealed, the Veil - "raised as a defense against Aeniran shadows-- will fail. The two soon part ways, with Milla going back to her people and Tal teaming up with Crow, a Chosen-hating, impetuous Freefolk boy. They climb the Orange Tower unseen and are barely able to take posession of the Orange Keystone, which they are horrified to find contains its Keeper. Crow turns on Tal and tries to steal the Keystone for the Freefolk. Tal's defensive magic cracks a water main and brings the ceiling down on Crow, along with other Freefolk and Tal's Great-Uncle Ebbit. Tal is nearly crushed with grief and guilt. Milla nearly dies taking her message to the Crones, and even then must await judgment for trading her natural shadow for a Spiritshadow. However, she is banished and then immediately adopted into the Clan of the Ruin Ship, and made their War-Chief, leading the attack on the invading Spirits and Sushin of the Castle. This scene is especially powerful.
Cautions? No Eternal perspective, no (intentional) shadows of Christ or the Great Story.
Themes: The equality of all persons as people. The necessity of thinking for oneself instead of merely doing as one is told. Similarly, we must be willing to evaluate our own cultures and traditions by objective moral standards, and deviate from them if they are wrong or faulty.
Bottom line? No matter what our culture or background, we have the responsibility to treat everyone we meet fairly (as equally important as ourselves) and to act rightly. (We might even find out that the people we thought were barbaric share a common past with us!)
- "It was not the Icecarl way to complain, he knew. It was the Chosen way, though. Chosen complained abut Underfolk servants, about food quality, about their clothes, about anything. Anything trivial, Tal thought. Did he really want to be like that?" (Bk 4, Ch 3)
- "Underfolk can't change jobs... We get written into the records when we're born. We don't even have names in the records. Just 'born to Sweeper #1346, a son, Sweeper #3019. We make up the names later." (Bk 4, Ch 14) Tal is horrified to find that the Underfolk are treated this way, even when it comes to deadly jobs like caveroach sprayers and crystal miners. How does this compare to God's view of all people in Genesis 1:27 & 9:6? (precious because they are in His image)
- The death of "the Thrower" deeply affects Tal. Why do you think this is? (He realizes once and for all that Underfolk are people, just like Chosen. Their lives are worth just as much, their deaths just as tragic.) "Just the memory of a human hand clawing for support, desperate for help, the last action of a dying man as he sank beneath the burning surface." (Ch 5)
- Is Milla correct in her assessment of death? "Death is the end of a song. But it is not the end of all songs. Here, a man has died. Somewhere, in your castle or out upon the ice, a child has been born. One song ends, another begins." (Ch 5)
- Discuss: "A caveroach does not know the difference between right and wrong, because they only have instinct to act upon. You, on the other hand, have at least some small parcel of thought. Do not be a caveroach." (Ch 14)
- Why might this be a summary of much of this series? "Didn't you know? I thought you'd get all this in your Lectorium. No, said Tal. I'm only beginning to realize all the things I wasn't taught in the Lectorium." (Bk 4, Ch 22)
- Compare the previous quote (Tal questioning his upbringing) with this one (a Crone questioning the Icecarl way): "She died with a knife in her hand, as she would have wished. Yet perhaps she was always too ready with her knife, instead of words." (Ch 24)
- When Milla is determined to get to the Crones and then ask for death, do you admire her (perhaps for her single-mindedness), or bemoan her?
- At the moment when Milla expects to be killed, when she hears the judgment that yes, she should be cast out, with even her name forbidden to be spoken, she suddenly gets amazingly good news: she will be re-born into the elite Ruin Ship Clan and made a leader! Tolkien called unexpected turn-arounds like this "eucatastrophes," and said they all are echoes of the Great Eucatastrophe, Christ's Resurrection.
- Tal and Milla have gone through so much together that this passage is very saddening. Do you think Milla is misjudging Tal? "If Tal did get the Keystone and somehow managed to turn the Chosen against Sushin and the free shadows, he might be able to secure the veil. But knowing him as she did, she was sure he would not want to send all the Chosen's Spiritshadows back to Aenir. So he would be an enemy and there was only one absolutely sure way to deal with an enemy. Kill them before they killed you." (Ch 31)
- List the mysteries and questions Tal still needs to answer at book's end. What is his hope? (to find the Empress- "He must do what he had wanted to do all along. Tell the Empress everything. Then everything would be her problem." (Ch 33)
Appropriate audience: Fourth- ninth grade (ages 9-14). Children ages 7 and up would likely enjoy this as a read-aloud. A quick read.
Characters & Setting-- Milla & Tal are becoming more & more real, and several minor characters are coming into their own as well. Full star.
Plot-- This book is full of obstacles. Honestly, I began to find them a bit wearing; how much more can go wrong? However, Nix manages to keep us enthralled, trying to unravel the mystery as we realize just how intertwined two seemingly-unrelated cultures are (Icecarl & Chosen). Half a star. *Warning: the book has NO resolution. You will want quick access to the sequels.
Writing-- Garth Nix doesn't waste words, yet he isn't sparse, either. We understand Tal's feelings, we see his world, we interact with new characters simply yet engagingly. Good vocabulary. In this book, there are more nuggets of truth and more of a tendancy towards poetic prose. Full star.
Character-building/Eternal perspective -- Children will learn a lot about cultural biases, prejudices and blind spots, as well as the need to champion and fight for justice for ALL, not just the "Chosen." However, the value is only moral-- there is no Eternal perspective, no (intentional) shadows of Christ or the Great Story. Full star.
Wow factor --creative, engaging world. Half a star.
Note: I have recently found this series available as a two- volume set: Books 1-3 (The Fall, Castle & Aenir) comprise Volume 1, while Books 4-6 (Above the Veil, Into Battle & The Violet Keystone) are the second volume. As these books are so short and anything but stand-alone, I personally find this set-up to be ideal!