23/08/2013

The Lands Beyond (by Marie Lange)

Marie Lange was just fifteen when she wrote this book, as part of the ‘NaNoWriMo’ challenge in November 2012. She wrote it by hand, transcribed it to computer, and spent several months editing before taking up an offer of ‘print on demand’ self-publishing with CreateSpace.

Marie is the oldest daughter of some close friends, so I watched her progress with interest, and growing admiration as she made goals for herself...and fulfilled them. A friend of hers designed the cover, and my husband helped her with the technical part of uploading the document.. then finally, earlier this week, her novel became available on the Amazon sites, both in paperback form and on Kindle.

While young adult fantasy isn’t my preferred genre of reading, we were delighted to be given a signed paperback edition of ‘The Lands Beyond’, and I have just finished reading it. It’s not a long book - the challenge in November was for a 50,000 word novel, and that’s roughly what this is. It’s just under 170 pages in printed form.

The story features Zephyr who, like the author, is fifteen. She’s a normal schoolgirl in the US who gets along well with her parents, and enjoys after-school activities such as drama. We meet her as she’s about to get ready for a summer production of an abridged Shakespeare play, and observe her hanging out with her friends, with no idea that her life is going to change drastically within the next couple of days.

There are, however, hints even in the first chapter that something is awry: Zephyr’s eyes are an unusual colour, and she has repeated dreams where she’s flying. There’s a strange man, too, who seems to be watching her, but for some reason she’s not afraid of him. It’s an excellent first chapter, which hooked me right away, setting the scene for something unusual to happen.

Zephyr learns that she is an ‘Air Elemental’. I had not previously come across the term, but apparently Elementals are traditional mythological beings able to control the elements. In this book the Elementals seem to be human, some of them growing up - as Zephyr did - in our world, although others live in a different world entirely, the ‘Lands Beyond’ of the title. Zephyr learns that she is to be transported to the other world for a kind of summer school, to help her learn to harness and control her powers.. and is then pitchforked into a dangerous quest where she and three new friends must work together to try to stop an uprising of evil.

The whole novel is told in the first person from Zephyr’s perspective, and this works well; the author handles the viewpoint excellently, never making the mistake of trying to take her readers inside other people’s minds. In a fairly short book like this, it’s difficult to get much depth of characterisation, and I did find it hard to distinguish, sometimes, between Aiden and George, the two boys in the group. Zephyr’s female friends, however - Joan in the early chapters, Jenny at school, Merilyn on the quest - are nicely portrayed, different enough to be able to remember them (even though I never managed to keep track of Jenny’s various siblings).

Unusually for a teenage novel, all the named adults are pleasant and generally helpful, both parents and teachers. None of them particularly stands out, other than, perhaps, Zephyr’s mother (who is also an Air Elemental) but then the adults don’t have major roles to play in this novel.

The writing is competent, more mature than would usually be expected of such a young writer. The pace is perhaps a bit too rapid at times: sometimes by the end of a chapter I almost felt that I had to catch my breath as events happened so quickly. I’d have liked a bit more scene-setting at times, more of a chance to take stock and appreciate what was happening before the next drama. The book could easily have been 20-30% longer - but this is, perhaps, a drawback of trying to produce 50,000 words in thirty days.

There were occasions when I felt that Zephyr and her friends were being a bit immature, only to remember that they are in their mid-teens. Knowing the author well meant that I could hear her own personality shining through Zephyr’s and - to some extent - her friends. A teenage writer has far more insight into how teens think and behave, after all, than someone like me who left my teens behind over thirty years ago. There’s a lot of laughter and grinning in the book, which sometimes felt a bit inappropriate to me (such as when facing grave dangers) - but perhaps this is how teenagers are. It’s certainly a generally cheerful book. Perhaps there could have been some conflict between the four questing characters before they finally pull together to vanquish the enemy (as we know they will) but it isn’t really a problem that they seem to get along well from the start.

I do have a couple of minor quibbles. My first is very small: I was mystified as to why Zephyr’s mother, herself an Elemental, had not given her daughter any hint of who she was. Perhaps it would have been hard for a young child to handle the news of having special powers, but at fifteen, particularly when she was about to be whisked away to the Lands Beyond, it seems strange to keep it a secret. There’s more than a nod to Harry Potter in the plot, but Zephyr’s family are no Vernon and Petunia desperately trying to keep her away from her destiny. Her parents are loving and generous; indeed, from a parental perspective, it seems that they’re rather too ready to hug her and then wave her off cheerfully when she departs for another world with little notice. So I could not think of a single good reason not to have prepared her at least a few months in advance, and given her some idea of what she might expect.

My second quibble comes later on, when the four students set off on their dangerous quest. They have backpacks with camping gear, clothes, food, and even some cooking equipment such as a frying pan. I’m not entirely sure how they manage to carry all this, but even granted that they do, the food (mainly bread, bacon, cheese, eggs and apples, as far as I could tell) would not have kept for more than a couple of days. However, two weeks later they are still helping themselves to sandwiches and other food from their supplies, only starting to run low on apples. It’s a minor detail, but there are several references to meals, which - irrationally - started to annoy me increasingly

Having said that, I’m well aware that to feel irritation with the details - or wanting to ask the characters questions - is a sign that the book was getting under my skin. The world is well enough constructed that these inconsistencies grate - so in a sense, it’s a kind of backhanded compliment to the writing.

'The Lands Beyond' is intended for a young teenage audience, but is entirely suitable for younger children who like this kind of low-key fantasy novel. A fluent reader of about eight or above would probably enjoy it, yet it’s sufficiently interesting to appeal also to adults wanting a quick, light read. One of my sons, who is keen on young adult fantasy books in general, assures me that this stands up well against much that is published in this genre.

All in all, I was impressed.

'The Lands Beyond' is available in paperback form from both Amazon UK and Amazon US. The Kindle edition is also available on both sides of the Atlantic, and it can also be bought directly from CreateSpace.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 23rd August 2013

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