4- for very original characters & settings, gripping plot, valuable lessons on cultural prejudices, and straight-forward (though lacking in elegance) writing.
Tal is a Chosen; a manipulator of light through the precious Sunstones-- all that gives light in his world, eternally dark beneath The Veil. He lives in the seven-turreted Castle; the only human dwelling in all the dark world, with a level and a tower for each color. All he knows is the well-ordered systems of learning, family life, and efforts to advance his family through the colors (Red being the lowest rank and Indigo being the highest), despite the constant threat of demotion (down to *shudder* a color-less Underfolk). Once a year, his family Ascends into the spirit realm of Aenir, where light and color still reign, and where one day he will bind a spirit being to himself to become his Shadowguard, taking the place of his natural shadow and becoming his life-long servant and companion. However, lately trouble has beset Tal's family; his father has disappeared (and with it the family Sunstone, their only way to Ascend to Aenir), is perhaps even dead, his mother sickens and hovers on the brink of death, his younger brother has been kidnapped, and enemies he does not understand are suddenly dogging his every move. In a desperate attempt to procure a new Sunstone to save his mother, Tal falls from the Red Tower, into a world he finds is not so dark and empty as he always believed. So much of what he thought he knew is now being challenged, especially by the fearsome would-be warrior girl Icecarl, Milla. The unlikely pair find themselves bound to one another and to a Quest-- to return to the Castle (no small feat across the dark world of Ice) and obtain two Sunstones; one for Tal, and one for Milla's Clan.
I read this a long time ago, either stumbling across them at my local library (we lived down the street from one from 6th grade on), or at the urging of my youngest sister (who shares my love for Garth Nix)... either way it created such an impression on me that I have wanted to go back and re-read them since. When I read Garth Nix, the phrase foremost in my mind is often "how does he come UP with this stuff?" His worlds and the people who inhabit them are so believable despite being totally different from anything we know. The Icecarls bear a resemblance to our Vikings (they sail ships in a frigid land, and value strength & courage in combat more than anything else), yet are in no way an exact copy-- the Icecarls are matriarchal; nomadic; their "ships" sail on frozen ice rather than open seas. I loved the unfolding mystery around Tal and later Milla. The original questions- where is Tal's father, and why does Sushin hate Tal's family?- along with the reader's questions- How and why was the Veil made? What is the Empress like?- soon become swallowed in larger questions-- "How are the Chosen & Icecarls connected?" "Is something seriously wrong with the Chosen culture?" and "Did Tal's father, Rorem, uncover something that started the persecution that got Tal into this mess?" Children will learn to step back and evaluate their own culture instead of accepting everything they have known without any discernment.
Cautions? the brutality of Sushin takes one aback at first; likewise the violent Icecarls are a bit unexpected at first (they are very Viking-like). However, this could become a great talking point (see below).
Themes: The fallacy of belief in the superiority of one's culture; Tal is shocked at every turn, finding that his life as a Chosen has been built on many lies and half-truths (the Chosen system is neither fair nor flawless, having a natural shadow is not something to look down on, the Chosen are not alone in their world, Light Magic is not the only type of power). The differences in what individual cultures value, also the importance of caring for your family & responsibilities at great personal cost.
Bottom line? We usually are born thinking that our way of life is the best that there is, and that all we have known is all that there is. Experience often prompts us to take a step back and evaluate our own culture and values more objectively.
- List some of the things Tal believed to be true and found to be false.
- Compare and contrast the Icecarl & Chosen cultures: What does each fear and value? How does each approach the challenge of keeping a society in working order? While one culture valued thought and music, the other valued quick reflexes and natural strength. We can't say that a culture decides what is right & wrong; sometimes cultures are wrong (like Tal's mistreatment of the Underfolk because they have a natural shadow). How can we evaluate/judge different cultural beliefs (especially our own)? (using the lens and standard of God's Word. For example, Milla tends to react with violence rather than with kindness. How does Scripture teach us to treat our neighbors and even our enemies?)
- List the mysteries and questions Tal still needs to answer at book's end.
- Try to guess at the meaning of the Crone of the Far Raider's prophecy.
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-the setting is fascinating; what child hasn't experienced fear of the dark? Imagine a world of ONLY darkness, where the Sun was intentionally blocked? The three settings- outside the Tower, in the Castle, and on the Ice- are totally different one from another, and described vividly yet succinctly. Ideas learned in kindergarten, like colors, are the basis for a whole system of living. The characters are engaging and the bad guys do exactly what they "should" do in a story-- get under your skin and make it crawl. Full star.
Plot-- Totally original. We are taken from Castle Chosen life to disaster plunging through the air to near death on the Ice to life in the hardy Far Raiders Clan, and we believe it all. Full 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. However, it's never poetic; we absorb lessons on perspective and empathy by feeling through Tal, not in being told so in so many words. Half a star.
Character-building/Eternal perspective -- Tal is likeable. He loves his family, takes his responsibility seriously, and has been well-raised. He's even come by his prejudices "honestly-" by believing those who have taught him. 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.