A regular good versus evil story with a little bit of magic thrown in.
No bad words - isn't scary enough for children above ten.
The book opens up with a bleak picture – a small and almost abandoned town called Hopewell in Illinois, which is burnt down and in ruins. There is no semblance of life anywhere and the people still in town are a dejected lot. We then realise that we were inside John Ross’s nightmare while he was travelling in bus. He had been sitting alone, perhaps because of “the mantle of weariness he wore like the ghost of Marley did his chains” or perhaps “it was the eyes, the way they seemed to look beyond what everyone else could see, at once cool and discerning, yet distant and lost, an unsettling contradiction.” The author ends the prologue with: “You leave as many empty seats as possible between yourself and death”.
Oh boy. At this point, I wonder at the advisability of reading this book through. But it came with a high recommendation and promised to be a fast read. So, I decided to go ahead. I suffice to say it was a bad decision.
The book is divided into sections, each corresponding to one day, which in turn is divided into chapters. The first section starts with July 1, which is enough for us to surmise that something big can be expected on the fourth of July. (The story is, after all, set in America).
John Ross follows his dreams and lands up in Hopewell. He is the knight of the word, servicing the Voice of the Word (don’t even ask ”what” – Lets assume Word is God and voice is a very beautiful woman).
Nest Freemark is a 14 year old girl staying with her grandparents. Her closest friend, (apart from her group of human friends) is a Sylvan called Pick. He was a six inch tall wood with vaguely human features stamped above a mossy beard, with leaves instead of hair and twigs instead of hands; a smaller version of Ent of Lord of the rings. He was the caretaker of Sinnissippi Park and kept the balance of magic in check. That doesn’t make his saying “Criminy!!” at the start of every sentence any less annoying.
Nest along with Pick and a mysterious wolf-dog named Wraith, fought the feeders that lived in the park. In Pick’s words, “Feeders devour people”. To put it in perspective, feeders are similar to Rowling’s dementors, who fuel the depression of a person and then, when they are at their weakest, devour them. Nest could destroy them with a single glance – “Nest hissed at it furiously, caught its eye, and stripped it of its life with a single, chilling glance”.
Her grandmother Evelyn is cynical and unhappy with her life and had taken to drinking and smoking. She is, however, very fond and protective of Nest. She is incidentally the only human who knows (or believes) that Nest has magical powers. Her grandfather, Robert Freemark, is, needless to say depressed with his wife’s drinking, her constant retorts and the loss of his daughter (Nest’s mother) Caitlin. “He felt emasculated by Evelyn, helpless in the face of her fortress mentality, adrift in his life, unable to change things in any way that mattered”. Retired after 30 years in Midwestern Continental Steel (MidCon), he takes particular interest in the 107-day long ongoing company strike . The present workers of MidCon are tired of waiting with no jobs and are planning on going back, to fellow employee Derry Howe’s disgust.
The demon had come to Hopewell with a purpose which will be made clearer in the end. Meanwhile, since he is supposed to cause death and destruction wherever he goes, he influences Howe to sabotage MidCon’s reputation by an “accident” that would result on the loss of many lives.
John Ross purposefully runs into Robert and saying he is Caitlin’s friend, invites himself over for dinner. Over dinner, while conversation revolves mainly around Caitlin, Nest asks him about her father, much to her grandparents’ distress. By this time, we have enough clues to know that Nest’s father is a source of mystery for her and a bone of contention for her grandparents. Ross also knows who the father is. A normal 6th grader would have figured out who the father was by now.
John Ross is then taken to see an old oak tree, which was the prison of Maentwrog. A Maentwrog was a soul-eater, consequently leaving any living being hollow and consumed with madness. It had been imprisoned inside the oak tree for many years, but now the magic was weakening. It was attempting to break free, despite Nest and Pick covering up the splits in the tree with tree-seals. Ross is helpless in the face of this new development.
Meanwhile, Nest had also had a run-in with a native American called Two Bears or O’olish Amaneh. He is mysterious, as Indians usually are, and invites Nest to watch the summoning of the spirits of his ancestors in Sinnissippi Park. Through the spirits, she finds that her grandmother was once very wild and used to run with the feeders and play with them. On confronting Evelyn about it, she admits that it had made her feel good, before realising what they were. She had also fallen in love with the demon without knowing, and when she did, put an end to it.
Exactly at about this time, the grandparents suddenly seem closer – Evelyn starts bushing; Robert realises he loved her and thinks he was losing her; Robert calls her dark eyes, and consequently “all the hardness went out of Evelyn Freemark’s face, all the lines and age spots vanished and she was young again”.
We can safely assume that one of them is going to die. I mean, the only saving grace of the book, if overdone, was the squabble between these two. Since even that is taken away; there has to be a purpose.
To continue, by influencing one of her school enemies, Nest is kidnapped and dumped in a cave. The demon comes and taunts her that no one would come to help her. Contrary to his belief, Robert rescues her. Evelyn realises that this was a ruse to get her alone by the demon. She prepares herself for the confrontation and in the event, the expected happens.
On the Fourth of July, all these incidents show their respective colors. The “fireworks” by Howe happens, though the sabotage itself is a failure. There is a confrontation between Ross, Nest, the demon and Maentwrog. Thankfully, as an afterthought, there is a surprise in the ending.
What made me want to throw the book away was not the fact that the book was unbelievably boring (Unbelievable because it is fantasy fiction – seldom are fantasies boring). The fact that this was one of the least imaginative books I have ever read in terms of content, characters and write-up played a major part. The total lack of suspense was what got to me. Brooks made sure that he didn’t leave anything to be guessed. For instance, When Robert confronts Howe on what he is planning to do on July fourth; Howe talks about the unpredictability of fireworks and asks him to keep away from them. So when the big plan of destroying MidCon is brought to fort, there really isn’t any iota of surprise left.
There was probably one mystery left which we wouldn’t have guessed in the end. But at the end of the day, it failed to make its impact since it lay invisible in a very dull and lifeless book. The book of course ends with Cross walking towards the horizon for his next quest. But there are no questions left unanswered here (no obvious ones, and I don’t want to find answers for less obvious ones); so there really is no motivation for reading the next one.
Spare yourself. This book is definitely not worth it. It will not entertain surprise or amuse you.