the 2nd of 100 cupboards

on

Dandelion Fire: Book 2 of the 100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson

Random House, 2009.

466 pages.

I wrote about N.D. Wilson’s first book (in this series) 100 Cupboards the other day. I was quick to put in a request for this second book in the series, Dandelion Fire. And of course, I went on to request the newest and third book, The Chesnut King.

I didn’t have to wait long for Dandelion Fire and I pushed it to the top of the reading stack. I enjoyed it. But first the reasons why I didn’t enjoy it nearly as well as the first book. Well, there is actually just one reason.

In the first book, the humor was delightful. I was laughing out loud with no concern for the looks I was given. It is true that the humor that seduces the reader into and through the first three-fourths of the first book begins to wane under the weight of the situation’s gravity. I thought maybe some of the wit would be back to tantalize the reader into the second book.  Instead, the second book returns to the tension it collected toward the end of the first.

Neither book is inactive. The quiet moments are brief. The first book gives twists and stomach-trembling turns. This is a favorable thing. Sure, the world is Wilson’s imagination but it was difficult still to anticipate the oncoming—which I love. There were more than not those moments of “where could this be going?”  Henry Neff does this; this idea that victory isn’t necessary inevitable. Dandelion Fire holds with the first.

Wilson is consistent with his characters, carrying those from the first into the second book, and adding some more. Yes, Henrietta is as annoyingly flawed as ever, and Henry, too, is learning. But Wilson is populating his worlds and adventures with more of the usual and the strange. Where the revealing of serious intentions for a fully realized series was muted in the first book, it is very real in the second. He is giving himself a cast with which to work more complexities into the series. And he is shedding the skin of the superfluous. His handling of the York’s, Henry’s adoptive peripheral parents, is quick and has received some criticism; and they are not unwarranted remarks either. Still, he didn’t kill them off while hostages in South America, he only tried to make them worth not caring about. But the lack of caring undermines Henry’s inner-conflict effecting his decisions as to what he should do with his future. For the reader, there is no real turmoil and there is ever only one solution; an unintended weakness early in the story.

Wilson is dependable in providing well-imagined landscapes.  I had read a review of this book with one of their criticisms suggesting illustrations and maps should have been added to the volume. The diagram of the cupboards was in Dandelion Fire but the reviewer thought there should be more visual aids. They also thought a flow chart of how people are related/connected should have been provided. True, Dandelion Fire is not for the lazy reader. And it not having the suggested aides does not detract; Wilson is a capable describer.

There was the criticism of indecipherability. Much of what is said and done is cryptic, enigmatic to the point of screaming frustration. If you’ve read the first book you’ll recall the passages from the Grandfather’s journal. They were horribly inaccessible (purposefully, I’ll wager). There are events and traditions in Dandelion Fire which are introduced but not explained. This is not unfamiliar to the reader of Fantasy Fiction. Wilson does ask quite a lot of the reader, to hold things in mind and persevere until such a time as it might be answered. Like any reader knowing that they are amidst a series, the reader hopes that enough is resolved before having to wait for another volume. I’m not sure if such satisfaction is found in this area: or if the imagination of the reader is to be enough a match for the author’s to make the leaps. How exactly does Henry free his father? Why is Henry’s christening as vital as it is? I can make some strong and perhaps evidence supported guesses… But Wilson doesn’t expend the dialogue to make summaries at opportune points along the way, or even the end. Not a complaint for me, but those used to the tidy, and those unfamiliar to Fantasy Fiction may not be so forgiving. As for following connections between people: at this point—really not that difficult; but to be fair I will test this out on the nine-year-old when she is available to read this one.

Wilson also forgoes the chapter or long paragraph of what happens to Uncle Frank and company once they arrive through the cupboard door. They appear near the end, established where Uncle Frank had led Henry to believe they could be found. It isn’t detrimental, but a slight, as Wilson does take the rhythm of moving between characters throughout, keeping the action and suspense moving and building.

The movement in the book is constant. The still moments are few and the intimate moments between characters that would establish relationship (and create sorrow if one should part) rob us of some emotional attachment and attraction. When a moment is shared it feels stilted and uncomfortable: no one wants to dwell on it. The relationships shouldn’t be supposed. And the estrangement is unfortunate for the reader.  The first book did better with affection. The second gaps are filled by the reader, and I know there was a lot to do in Dandelion Fire, but time should have been made.  The one plausible exception, the letters to Henrietta and Henry in case they made it back to the house, is not enough.

The Green Man is used in the lore of Dandelion Fire. I was thrilled to see it. And I was excited to see a re-assertion of the male as having a positive connection/rapport with nature.

The series has all the elements and devices people have seen, but Wilson uses them in his own way and creates wonderful story/adventure. His protagonist Henry continues to excel as a developing character, pulling us through the cupboards and worlds. Still, both Wilson and Henry do weird and hard to explain things. Wilson is valiant in his attempts and use of poetic language to ground the abstract. Some occasions are easier to follow than others. Our only comfort is in the understanding that Henry doesn’t quite understand it either. But the language of magic and foreign interactions within the strange realm becomes more comfortable by book’s end. The theme “that just because it is hard to understand does not mean it cannot exist” aides the reader in suspending disbelief; and really, the tension built in, any resolution is met with gratitude, explanations are saved for an afterthought.

As for “afterthought,” the queen representation is Henrietta. [note: possible digression ahead.]

Natalya (my daughter) read book one 100 Cupboards and really liked it; despite her growing and ever growling frustrations with Henrietta. Henrietta is Henry’s cousin and they are close in age. Henry acquires the name “Whimpering Child” by some, and his female cousin’s contempt almost from the start. He is afraid of everything, having been over-sheltered since birth. He also appears to lack imagination for adventure. Henrietta is fear-less and has an over-developed imagination for adventure. I say over-developed because she is impetuous and brash: and primarily thoughtless. Henrietta does not consider the uncomfortable consequences of adventures, where Henry considers them too readily.

Henry would move away from fear into opening himself to possibilities of things that exist in and beyond the imagination. And he would accept the less glamorous aspects of an adventure to pursue his goals/purpose. In Dandelion Fire he only continues on this course.

Henrietta does not bear well beneath the weight of her realizations.

Henrietta has always dreamed of a magical adventure; first to be struck by lightning, until she saw pictures of victims of lightning strikes; second to be carried off in a tornado. The cupboards are her opportunity and she would dive in—heedless of the effects of her actions. As Dandelion Fire explores, Henrietta has a great deal in common with her Grandfather. Her adventure and focus supersedes anything or one around her. She doesn’t even take steps to insure her own safety or retrieval.

This second book in the series plans to temper Henrietta a bit; its attempts in the first book to no avail. So early on, Henrietta is nearly killed on a lone expedition into a cupboard. Really, she is just an idiot.  She is later provoked to go into the cupboard, yet again, by herself and is put in peril—again. And then the less glamorous aspects of having an adventure (like walking for miles, hunger and thirst, vulnerability, riding a war horse, holding your breath, etc) come into play and she is a Complainer.

Where adventure would sharpen Henry and bring out his best, in Henrietta you see a failure…at least I do. And the book would continue to thump her on the head, and in the end try to redeem her some sense and maturing. We’ll see where Wilson goes with Henrietta next. It is good to have a character such as her. And I wonder at the possible criticisms available. But she is…obnoxious.

**

The first book, 100 Cupboards had definite creepiness; so does Dandelion Fire: terrifying villains and plenty of peril. I think I will rank Wilson’s villains and peril up there with Adrienne Kress’ in Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, not as good but up there…Kress has some real terrors in hers.

Dandelion Fire is suggested for ages 9-12 and I should think no one younger. And I think a certain level of ability in comprehension and fact retention should be necessary. There are more than plenty of things to keep straight in those 466 pages; I appreciate the author not insulting the 9-12 set by questioning their capabilities.

Dandelion Fire is a book two and would overwhelm the reader without the first. As with the first book, you could stop with book two and keep to daydreams; it is not so much a bridge book. But I am looking forward to reading the third book, The Chesnut King.

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