Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Review of The Books of Umber: Happenstance Found by P.W. Catanese

In some cases, as an author launches into a new fantasy series, there’s a noticeable grinding of gears, the kind you might hear at a large and prosperous gristmill during the Middle Ages. I didn't get that feeling with Wrede's new series, Frontier Magic (reviewed above), but I did get it with this first volume in P.W. Catanese’s Books of Umber, Happenstance Found. Still, the series definitely has potential.

The story begins with the discovery of a young boy in a series of ancient caves. His name is Hap, short for Happenstance, and he has no memory of anything prior to about five minutes before he is found. Hap turns out to be the hidden treasure an adventurer named Lord Umber has been seeking. Like a foundling on a doorstep, the boy has a note in his pocket, and it is addressed to Umber himself. Soon Umber and Hap are making their way out of the caves, accompanied by Umber's companions--a strongman named Oates who is magically compelled to speak only the truth and a shy one-handed archer named Sophie. The four barely manage to escape a dreadful wyrm, the collapse of part of the cave network, and a volcano. Then, as they set out across the sea on a leviathan boat, they realize they are being followed.

It soon becomes obvious to the others that Hap is a little different. He never needs to sleep, can leap much higher than ordinary people, can see in the dark, and can read and speak any language—even dead ones and languages from other worlds. He also has strange, glimmering green eyes. For his part, Hap finds out more about Lord Umber, especially once he is ensconced in the man’s fortress, the Aerie. Umber is a stranger to this magical world, bringing with him knowledge from the land of his origin. He is essentially a Renaissance man, but in addition to his own brilliance, Umber has a secret device that provides him with information.

The author gives strong clues early on, so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Umber is a refugee from Earth. The explorer appears to be manic-depressive, as well, which is an interesting component in a fantasy. (At one point he tells Hap he misses his meds.)

Umber is well regarded as the savior of his city-state and a provider of ideas such as how to build a better ship. When Hap visits the royal palace with Umber, he meets three princes: the duty-driven heir to the throne, a jolly drunkard, and a poisonous snake type. Back at the Aerie, an uptight housekeeper, a miniature man, a mad librarian, and an extremely dangerous captive witch round out the cast. It is clear that the author intends to write future books involving the princes and the witch. But this volume is mostly about how Hap is pursued by a horrible being who seems to want to assassinate him. Even though Umber draws on all of his resources to protect the boy, the Creep eventually closes in on Hap. The climactic scene brings Hap face-to-face with his stalker, who turns out to have something far more terrifying than death in mind.

Fortunately, one of the best things about Happenstance Found is the way the good guys defeat the villain. I had been wondering how they were going to pull it off, and the answer turns out to be surprising, effective, and even funny. Watch for it!

As for flaws, I did get a little irked by the larger story arc and the way it’s presented: a powerful unseen being has led Umber to Hap, and his goal has to do with helping Umber save Earth, not the world of this story. That aspect of the plot felt like we were seeing the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. Besides relying on deus ex machina, Catanese devalues the world of the story by making it a sort of byproduct of the problems on Umber’s home world. Fantasy imperialism rears its ugly head, as does a messagey “save the environment, ‘ware the apocalypse” agenda for readers here on Earth. (Useful thoughts, perhaps, but difficult not to wield heavy-handedly in a fantasy adventure story.)

Even so, the array of characters in Happenstance Found bodes well for future volumes, and I’m curious to see what the author does with them, especially Hap and his strange gifts. The book is told from Hap's point of view, yet there’s no doubt Umber is really the star of the show, an intriguing cross between Indiana Jones and Leonardo Da Vinci, with a morose drop or two of Sylvia Plath thrown in for good measure.
And so it begins: If this first volume is all about setting the stage, then the stage is very well set.

Note for Worried Parents: The bad guy is pretty scary. I mean, really scary, especially in that climactic scene. The witch is kind of horrific, too. Amazon lists the book as being for 9- to 12-year-olds, but I’d say it depends on the 9-year-old.

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