Ennara and the Fallen Druid (Ennara, #1) by Angela Shelley, Patchwork Press, October 2014.
Middle grade fiction stands apart from its younger and older (Young Adult) cousins in ways that go beyond the simple division by ages. Kids this age are just beginning to spread their wings, assert their independence and individuality, and test their limits. Friends help them define themselves and try out new behaviors and identities, although not always in ways their parents approve. At the same time, they’re not ready to plunge into the full-blown angst, sex, blood, and darkness (although certainly rock/n/roll) of stories for older readers. They often prefer adults to hang around somewhere, just not too close by; they tread the line between wanting to go off entirely on their own and needing someone stronger and wiser to lend a hand when they get in over their heads. In other words, they’re highly capable children. Some will happily devour literature for teens and adults, but others want the same adventurousness, but featuring kids closer to their own age.
With this perspective in mind, I embarked upon a series of adventures with young Ennara and her friends. The setting included many familiar elements: low-technology villages, magic, prophecies, pirates, “shadowspawn,” and druids. In an adult fantasy, these might feel generic and derivative, a hodge-podge of time-worn tropes, but in Angela Shelley’s hands, they evoke a sense of familiarity. Pre-teen readers aren’t after a startlingly original world with sophisticated culture and so forth; they want a good story with characters they can relate to. So even details that caused me-the-adult to roll my eyes were strangely congruent and certainly didn’t cause me to stop reading (although I admit, finding a professor in a plaid blazer in the middle of a fantasy tale gave me a giggle). I don’t think the intended readers will notice, for instance, that druids have been done to death in adult fantasy; instead, they’ll recognize the name, just exotic enough to be not-here-and-now, but not so alien as to require chapters of backstory and explanation.
So the above-mentioned shadowspawn appear in Ennara’s village, thereby initiating a quest for our young heroine. Ennara is magically gifted, of course, although not educated in its use. She has a mentor, a wise old magician (who incidentally is in love with her potion-making aunt, which made me smile), a family, who remain behind but send their love and support, and a best friend. As the adventure unfolds, she picks up a new friend (and a huge marine cat named Smoos who loves to swim), loses the mentor partway through (although he’s still alive and they wrap him up to bring him along with them). Ennara’s gifts and self-confidence grow as she learns from her adventures, so there are no sudden bursts of power but a careful, step-wise mastery and growing self-knowledge, which is, after all, what the pre-teen years are about.
The second book begins with Ennara enrolled in a school of magic, the Druidic Academy. Again, that’s something we’re all familiar with from the Harry Potter books, and others. The initiating incident is both hilarious and innovative. One of Ennara’s classmates has substituted a dead flower for the wilted one she is supposed to revive, thereby giving rise to a plague of zombie flowers. Zombie flowers are quickly followed by a turtle dragon, and the friends are off on a new adventure. The one wrong note here, in my opinion, was an attempt to paint this world as the aftermath of the fall of our current civilization. While it’s possible to combine fantasy and what is essentially science fiction, in this case it was both unnecessary and it led to too many unanswered questions.
One of the strengths most evident in the Book of Shadows was the choice between light and dark magic. So often in books for older readers and adults, when anyone tells a character to beware the dark side, that’s exactly where that character goes, sometimes succumbing to its temptation. Ennara has a natural affinity for dark magic, but she listens carefully when warned to choose the light. And that’s exactly what she does. It isn’t easy, but even as she struggles to find a way, she never wavers. I found a refreshing innocence in Ennara’s determination, one that, while it might not appeal as strongly to cynical older teens, offers validation and comfort to younger readers.
Lastly, both books emphasize the value of loyal, accepting friends (even the marine cat). Ennara and her friends are team players, often fighting together, each with his or her special strength, their whole being greater than their parts. She cannot master every challenge and overcome every obstacle on her own, but together they can. This emphasis is hardly unique to middle grade fiction, which only reinforces how we all need a community. The message here is that it isn’t necessary to be the best in everything in order to be a hero. Your friends have your back.
The end left open the possibility for a third adventure for Ennara and her friends. I hope we get to see what happens next!