Jules: We at 7-Imp, as you may know, are fond of co-reviews, our euphemism for flappin’ our gums about a book. We are happy today to have a guest co-reviewer – our tri-reviewer, we suppose – Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production. Yes, she agreed to be the the Mo to our Curly and Larry; the Groucho to our Chico and Harpo; the Bart to our Maggie and Lisa; the Harry to our Ron and Hermione; the Gleek to our Zan and Jayna. Oh, you get the idea, and someone stop us now . . .
And you may notice this is numero uno in a new series, ’cause we thought it was so much fun that we’ve got another one lined up soon. And another one after that. And another one. Someone stop us again . . . Really, the chance to talk books with some of our favorite bloggers? We couldn’t pass up the idea.
Back at the beginning of this year, I reviewed Barkbelly by Cat Weatherill and noted that a sequel would be forthcoming. Betsy read the review (indeed, she had reviewed the title herself) and left a comment, asking if we imps were game for reading said sequel, Snowbone (Knopf Books for Young Readers; July 2007; with cover and interior art by Peter Brown), when it was released. And, since I have the memory of an elephant when it comes to my to-be-read piles, I reminded Eisha and Betsy of this pledge these six months later, secured some review copies, and we all three read away at (about) the same time. And now we’re here to yak it up about performance storyteller and UK author Cat Weatherill’s sequel to her ‘06 story (’05 in the UK) about a boy hatched from a wooden egg who flees his loving home (with human parents) after a dreadful accident at school, beginning a quest for his real home and family.
However, as the title of this sequel makes it clear, the new novel is not about that boy at all (though he does make an appearance). Instead, it is about a pale wooden girl whom Barkbelly met, albeit briefly, in the first adventure that bears his name. In this sequel, the stoic, rather closed-up Snowbone (“Oh, how she hated touching people!”) becomes the leader of a band of other wooden children (”tiddlins” they are called) — as well as a human or two thrown in for good measure — whose quest is to put an end to the slave trading of the wooden folk of Ashenpeake. Ashenpeakers are born into slavery, a fact about his heritage that Barkbelly had learned in the first novel. In Snowbone, the intrepid group’s quest is complicated by the fact that human slave traders are hot on their heels and determined to stop them. Along the way, they encounter the High Prince of Balaa; enormous wooden flying machines with feathered blades; the murder and attempted massacre of ashen trees (the members of the wooden race of people who are doing what is called Moving On in life), all in the name of their sap that possesses extraordinary healing powers; one Ms. Butterbur Baxter-Figgis, cook and surgeon extraordinaire; a mystifying prophecy; the magical, dried-up, wish-granting tongue cut from the mouth of an ancient mapmaker (I’m not making this up, people); an angry volcano; giant tiddlin-eating flytraps; hungry cannibals; a slave quarry; and much more. They also learn a bit about the ancient history of their wooden race and determine who among them is truly a pacifist, while one of the tiddlins discovers his unique ability to, essentially, have out-of-body experiences and explore the “belly of the earth: the Otherworld,” the home of the Ancients. And, when it’s all said and done, Snowbone has learned a thing or two about what it means to truly be a leader.
Whew. Betsy, would you like to do the honors of commencing with the Running of Our Mouths that we call co-reviews, since you are our honored guest? What did you think? Did you enjoy the book?
Betsy: Well, first off let me say how pleased and delighted I am to be doing this with you guys. This is all new to me. You’re going to have to keep me in line and out of trouble while we’re in motion.
Now I’d like to make it clear right here and now that I think Snowbone surpasses Barkbelly in terms of literary merit. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Weatherill’s debut, but remember the end of the first book? The whole magical let’s-pull-a-Lazarus motif that came out of nowhere? Obviously it didn’t ruin the book for me, but I was less enthused after reading that deus ex machina little ending. Snowbone, in contrast, doles out the magic sparingly. Off the top of my head there’s only one “wait… what?” moment in the whole book and it happens so quickly that I’m willing to look over it. Altogether this was a more mature effort on the author’s part, with stronger themes, characters, and plotting. Of course, some people might pause over the take on death and slavery. Eisha, how did you feel about the enterprise as a whole?
eisha: I agree that it’s a stronger story than Barkbelly, especially given that I didn’t like Barkbelly all that much. Which I should probably back up and explain, since you two wrote reviews about it, and I don’t know that Snowbone would really stand alone as a story…
I liked Barkbelly’s tall-tale feel, I liked the originality of the concept, and I liked the journey that Barkbelly’s character took. What I really didn’t like were the conflicting ways that death was treated throughout the story. When a kid accidentally gets mortally injured while playing a rough version of Red Rover? Very big deal. When pirates attack the ship where Barkbelly serves as cabin boy and murder sailors right in front of him? Not a big deal - in fact, he’s all buddy-buddy with them for the rest of the journey. And then, of course, the Lazarus moment you mentioned - ill-conceived, and it did not work.
So I had misgivings going into Snowbone, and for the most part I was pleasantly surprised. Tighter plot, better writing, all the plusses you mentioned. At first I wasn’t sure about having such an emotionally-closed protagonist - Snowbone was interesting, but not always sympathetic or relatable for the reader. But I really liked how she grew in that regard - not a whole lot, just enough to humanize her and make her even more interesting.
Death and slavery, though…
I think death is handled better here than in Barkbelly, for sure. The violence and deaths that occur in the book are disturbing to read - but they also disturb the characters, and the “good” characters who take lives show remorse and/or deal with consequences. And as for slavery, I think it’s worth noting that Weatherill is English, and therefore maybe doesn’t have the knee-jerk reaction to the subject that Americans do. I don’t think the topic is handled indelicately, but I do wonder how an African American reader would react to the suggested solution to ending slavery for this fictional race: essentially, mass-suicide. It made me a little uncomfortable, even given the fact that “moving on” isn’t technically dying for an Ashenpeaker.
What did you think, Jules?
Jules: I see what you mean, Eisha. My one thought in reading that ending was that it was, I dunno, too convenient perhaps – that it wouldn’t necessarily go that smoothly, that everyone wouldn’t necessarily comply so well, but perhaps that will be handled in a third book? (There better be another book; I need way more info on Manu and more back story on what Mouse did all that time. I liked Manu’s “I don’t want to sit on a throne all day, sorting out petty squabbles and marrying a princess I barely know” moment). I will add, though, that I thought the image of “great armies of trees . . . converging in the darkness,” sending their roots into the earth and creating their own Otherworld was well-written (the very last page of the book) and rather unforgettable.
On that note, this is one thing I love about Weatherill’s writing: the rhythm of her words, the poetry that is imbued in her prose. I dog-eared so many pages in this book that included examples of this, such as when Snowbone and the gang first boarded the Stormrunner with Stellan: “She could feel the machine beginning to lift. It was straining against the mooring lines. So many cracks and groans and roars and rushes! Bumps and grinds and moans and shushes!” There are so many moments like this in both this title and Barkbelly, moments of such melodious prose that make me want to read it aloud. And she’s capable of moments of such evocative metaphors – the low, wispy clouds, while flying in the Stormrunner, which are like mermaids’ hair. And I really liked: “It was twilight: that magical, middle moment when the sun has gone home to supper but the moon is running late and simply won’t come out till she’s washed her face.” I think it’s obvious she has a background as a storyteller.
So, yes, you two already covered the unfortunate Lazarus-esque ending of Barkbelly, which disappointed me, too; I saw that ending as going somewhere else altogether more poignant, and so I was bummed. But I was happy to see plot elements handled more smoothly in Snowbone. I also really liked the spiritual element of this one, the “shadow-sight” ability that Blackeye possessed. Meeting the Ancients in the Otherworld was freaky-weird and fun.
Betsy, do you mind me asking what was the one “wait . . . what?” moment for you? I thought the Tongue of Torbijn was flat-out weird. I had to pause and wonder just exactly how Weatherill thought that one up. Not that it was ineffective – just wildly, uh, original! And, Betsy and Eisha, what did you think of Blackeye’s “shadow-sight”? Did it work for you? And did you all think that Weatherill handled all the multiple points-of-view well in this sequel? I, for one, enjoyed that about this one – that we had the perspectives of more tiddlins and not just primarily one, as in Barkbelly.
Betsy: Ah. The “wait… what?” moment for me was the moment when the villain wished that our heroes would “SHUT UP” and then she magically disappears. I read and reread this passage over and over and I still couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. So let’s recap. Villain is unaware that she is carrying a magical muscle (strongest in the body, eh?) that grants wishes. Villain wants heroes to be quiet. Villain disappears into “a cloud of blue smoke”. Wait . . . what? After a rereading I discovered that if a person made the same wish twice they’d disappear, but there certainly should have been a call back to that fact. Even the mention of it is done in a kind of throwaway line early in the book. Weatherill doesn’t confuse often, but when she does it’s a doozy.
I thought the multiple points-of-view very important in a story of this kind. I would have liked a couple more moments from Tigermane, of course, since I didn’t get much of a sense of her character. As for the shadow-sight, I didn’t mind the use of it so much as I did the bizarre request made of Blackeye to not mention this ability to his fellows. Why? He brings it up the first moment it’s going to come in useful anyway. Why not let him tell people about his “lessons” right from the start? Narrative tension, I suppose.
It’s not all complaints from me. After all, I know what you mean, Jules, about the language. First of all, how great is the introduction to the character of Snowbone? She’s crawling about as a baby and she sees a pirate sitting there. And then she sees his leg. “Hairy, with torn britches flapping at the knee. Lip-licking, mouth-dripping, fat, fine, juicy.” One of the things I loved about Barkbelly was a description near the beginning of the book where a bird was gnawing on a wooden egg. I wish I had the book in front of me now to repeat the image. The description of the taste of the egg, like spices, has stayed with me ever since. To this day it’s the thing I associate the most readily with Weatherill’s work.
It was interesting to note that so much of this book concentrates on the importance of being a good ruler. Snowbone wants to rule her tiddlings fairly. Manu his people (if he ever returns to them). In fact I loved Manu’s line about his people that “I wouldn’t lead them into a war that had nothing to do with them,” if only because I felt it had more than a drop of timeliness today. But then Filizar, whose life has been saved by cannibalistic natives and who has been treated as a god by them for years, betrays his people lickety-split and that’s supposed to be okay? It reminded me of the inconsistencies you mentioned Eisha, regarding violence and death in the first book.
This being an interesting year for children’s fiction, how do you think Snowbone stacks up in terms of some of the other titles you’ve seen thus far?
eisha: First, good call on the shadow-sight secrecy, Betsy. That was totally weird, and totally unnecessary. It bugged me too.
You’re right, too, in that it’s been a very interesting year for middle-grade fiction so far. There have been crime-fighting skeletons (Skulduggery Pleasant, co-reviewed here), supernatural rats (Emmy and the Incredible Shrinking Rat, co-reviewed here), alien invasions (The True Meaning of Smekday), teenage urban explorers battling Chinese crime lords and exiled European royalty (Kiki Strike and the Empress’s Tomb)… A book about wooden children trying to overthrow slave traders should feel right at home.
Seriously, though, I thought Snowbone was pretty good. You both mentioned Weatherill’s skill with imagery, and you’re absolutely right. There were some lovely turns of phrase in this book. You can really tell it had its origins in oral storytelling. And Snowbone herself is a great character. I think my hesitation to put it near the top of the pile of what I’ve read so far, besides the whole touchy slavery issue, had to do with personal taste. It just doesn’t do it for me, but I fully recognize that it could do it for plenty of other readers. What about kid appeal, though? Do you think it’s a book that kids would choose, and enjoy?
Jules: I really didn’t think twice about the secrecy behind the shadow-sight gig. I figured we’ll find out later why it was so insisted upon. Perhaps we will find out that there is some sort of sinister aspect to it, though I doubt that, since we didn’t get that sense at all in this title. But, yes, I suppose within the context of this novel (potential sequels be damned), the length of time it remained a secret was rather unnecessary.
I’m only assuming, by the way, that more books are to come . . .
I’m with Eisha on how Snowbone ranks for me thus far this year. First of all, speaking for myself, I don’t read half the middle-grade novels you do, Betsy. I consider myself well-informed, I read and keep up, and I do my part. But since I also try to cover YA and picture books at 7-Imp, I’m not the middle-grade-novel reading goddess that you are (that’s a compliment; I’m not being flippant). So, I am a tad bit hesitant to respond to that question, since I’m not an authority here, but I’d love to here you answer your own question on that: How does Snowbone rate to you, compared to what you’ve read at this little-over-the-midway mark in 2007?
Secondly, I agree that it’s a well-crafted novel, and I think it has definite kid appeal. In terms of personal taste, I enjoyed it — but not as much as some others I’ve read this year (keeping my aforementioned limitations in mind). I suppose for me Emma-Jean Lazarus, who – if you haven’t heard – fell out of a tree, is My Favorite Protagonist Thus Far (though Storm of Lyn Gardner’s Into the Woods isn’t one to sneeze at either; the first U.S. edition of that title was this year anyway).
But I’ll say it again: I like Weatherill’s poetic, dulcet prose. I’ll line up to read whatever she brings us next, whether or not it’s related to little wooden people and no matter the target age at which it is written.
Betsy: Agreed. As far as I can tell, Snowbone is going to go the way of Barkbelly. It’ll find its niche but nationwide popularity is not its fate. As far as I can tell, 2007’s been a pretty so-so year. Usually you get some particularly strong contenders by June, but this season the books have been fairly low-key. Even then, while I liked and enjoyed Snowbone but I think it’ll sink into the greater mass of fantasy fiction this year. Gosh I wish I had a group of test children to hand this book to. I guess the homeschooler bookgroup I run might work, but they let out for the summer, so I won’t know how they feel about this one for quite some time. For me, it has appeal but I cannot call it extraordinary. Original, yes. Enjoyable, heck yes. But it didn’t stand alone. I think there will definitely be sequels to come. Weatherill’s certainly set herself up for some and I’d by lying if I said I didn’t want to read them.
eisha: True, she did leave some tantalizing threads hanging. No doubt we haven’t heard the last from the Ashenpeakers. I’d probably read the next one too – she seems to get better with each book, and the concept is pretty cool. I’d definitely read it if it meant we three would tri-review it – this has been totally fun! Thanks, Jules, for suggesting it; and thanks, Betsy, for playing along. And hey, we didn’t even have to keep you in line.
Jules: Yes, it was fun. Thanks, Betsy! Let’s do it again one day. Until then . . .
Read Chapter 1 of Snowbone here at this Penguin Australia link . . .
Read Chapter 47 of Snowbone here at this Puffin UK link . . .