We had a whole crop of great-looking new books show up the other day, and I had to limit myself to checking out two of them. The first was Been There, Done That: School Dazed, and the next was The Vanishing Island by Barry Wolverton. This is the first volume in The Chronicles of the Black Tulip trilogy.
It’s 1599. Bren Owen lives in Map, England, and his father is a mapmaker for Rand McNally who is a mover and shaker in the world. Bren has been tapped to go into his father’s trade, because he has the marvelous ability to see something once and then be able to faithfully replicate it on paper. But Bren wants more than to spend his life hunched over a paper. He wants to see the world. He wants adventure. He wants to find his fortune!
Bren will do anything he can to change his future, and the only way he knows how is stowing aboard an outgoing ship. But his attempts to stowaway go badly wrong, and he ends up working in McNally’s vomitorium, cleaning up drunks after wild parties. When a dying man gives him an odd coin, Bren’s life gets much more complicated. Everyone wants the coin, and Bren decides to parlay the coin into freedom. But has he made a deal with the devil? Has he really found freedom, or just a new kind of captivity?
I was expecting this to be an historical fiction novel, but it’s not. Wolverton does an excellent job of presenting the text as historical fiction, but he skews things just enough that it isn’t historical (for instance, Rand McNally wasn’t a person, but the combined surnames of the American company’s two founders), and he also includes magic, which, you know, totally blows it out of the water altogether.
The book was pretty graphic, too: lots of vomit, blood and gore, and violence. I don’t think it’s enough to really upset the kids who will read it, but a governor’s head being lopped off at dinner and rolling down a table has a pretty high ick factor. It might bother some moms who like to read their kids’ books. So, fair warning.
I did like the book. Bren is a likeable, ingenious boy who knows what he wants and goes after it. He pits himself against adults who don’t understand him and stands up for people who are weaker than he is. He’s fair-minded and hard working—all good qualities in a hero. I’d recommend this for lovers of adventure stories in upper elementary.