It’s time for another middle-grade Quick Read (it’s almost like I’m reading all these books to familiarize myself with the market), this time examining Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of The Lost Cities.
I had never actually heard of it or the currently five-book series it spawned before it randomly popped up in my Amazon recommendation list, but I decided to take a look at it due to the totally baller covers the books have and the assortment of… let’s say “colorful” negative reviews on Goodreads, as well as some positive opinions that seemed to suggest there might be something to the story. Let’s find out!
…but before that, I want to talk about the book’s back-cover synopsis, which intrigued me because it’s strategically vague on what the book is actually about.
Twelve-year-old Sophie has never quite fit into her life. She’s skipped multiple grades and doesn’t really connect with the older kids at school, but she’s not comfortable with her family, either. The reason? Sophie’s a Telepath, someone who can read minds. No one knows her secret—at least, that’s what she thinks . . .
But the day Sophie meets Fitz, a mysterious (and adorable) boy, she learns she’s not alone. He’s a Telepath too, and it turns out the reason she has never felt at home is that, well . . . she isn’t. Fitz opens Sophie’s eyes to a shocking truth, and she is forced to leave behind her family for a new life in a place that is vastly different from what she has ever known.
But Sophie still has secrets, and they’re buried deep in her memory for good reason: The answers are dangerous and in high-demand. What is her true identity, and why was she hidden among humans? The truth could mean life or death—and time is running out.
I’ve recently been pootling around with potential agent query letters for my own project, and I kind of wonder if this synopsis was adapted from one of those. It’s exactly the right length, sets out the beginning of the story in the same way that query letters are supposed to and focuses more on plot than setting or other details.
Either way, it’s kind of strange that this description leaves out most of the book’s actual setup.
Do works of fiction have prefaces? Wouldn’t this be a prologue?
BLURRY, FRACTURED MEMORIES SWAM through Sophie’s mind, but she couldn’t piece them together.
Opening sentences are something that most writers seem to struggle mightily with–I know I have– and this one’s not great.
Next to characters waking up, about the worst thing you can give me at the start of your book is a whole lot of vague waffle about fragments of memories. It instantly makes the story feel confusing and un-grounded.
A wave of cold rushed through her as the horrifying realization dawned. She was a hostage.
In case you couldn’t tell, this is one of those things where the book opens with an exciting in medias res scene from way later in the story before going back to the beginning to show how the protagonist ended up there.
I’ve always hated this. Firstly because it’s confusing–I have no idea who this person is, what’s going on or why I should care–but mainly because it feels like the author isn’t confident enough that the actual opening chapters will grab the reader, so she has to stick something exciting at the beginning to convince them that if they keep reading they’ll eventually get to the good stuff. Even if that’s not true of this particular book (spoilers: it’s not), it’s not good to give me that impression.
Would the Black Swan really destroy their own creation?
What was the point of Project Moonlark, then?
I’m going to have to get back to you on that.
What was the point of the Everblaze?
What is the point of throwing all of these phrases at the reader on page two? I have no idea what any of this means.
The prologue ends on some portentous line about the “spark before the blaze” and okay, that was very dramatic, but let’s get to the actual story.
The weird, unnecessary prologue is all the more baffling due to the fact that the actual story opens pretty strong:
MISS FOSTER!” MR. SWEENEY’S NASAL voice cut through Sophie’s blaring music as he yanked her earbuds out by the cords. “Have you decided that you’re too smart to pay attention to this information?”
Sophie forced her eyes open. She tried not to wince as the bright fluorescents reflected off the vivid blue walls of the museum, amplifying the throbbing headache she was hiding. “No, Mr. Sweeney,” she mumbled, shrinking under the glares of her now staring classmates.
And yes, the kid protagonist getting scolded for not paying attention at school is a pretty big cliche, but I think the book pulls it off by putting Sophie in an unusual pickle that immediately makes her a legitimate underdog, rather than presenting a totally bog-standard situation that absolutely everyone experienced growing up and expecting us to care about it.
Specifically, Sophie is a senior in high school despite only being twelve due to her prodigiously advanced scholastic abilities, which makes her an automatic outcast and a source of irritation to her peers. The fact that this is mostly being presented as a problem rather than a way to make the heroine look super special and awesome is a nice bonus.
Natural History Museum in Balboa Park, assuming his students would be excited about the all-day field trip. He didn’t seem to realize that unless the giant dinosaur replicas came to life and started eating people, no one cared.
I laughed out lout at this.
There was no way to make Mr. Sweeney understand why she needed the music to cancel the noise. He couldn’t even hear the noise.
The other strange thing about Sophie is that she can read people’s minds, less in a Professor X way and more in a “constant, unstoppable psychic assault” way, which is a lot less fun.
She finished her answer, and Mr. Sweeney grumbled something that sounded like “know-it-all” as he stalked off to the exhibit in the next room over. Sophie didn’t follow.
I’d like to say that no teacher could possibly act this way and keep their job, but unfortunately I know from personal experience that that isn’t true.
Sophie repressed a sigh as her mind flashed to an image of the information card in front of the display. She’d glanced at it when they entered the museum, and her photographic memory recorded every detail.
Oh, she…she has a photographic memory as well as being super smart and telepathic?
Well… I guess those three things can sort of go together.
“Nice job, superfreak,” Garwin Chang— a boy wearing a T-shirt that said BACK OFF! I’M GONNA FART— sneered as he shoved past her to join their classmates. “Maybe they’ll write another article about you. ‘Child Prodigy Teaches Class About the Lame-o-saurus.’”
Garwin was still bitter Yale had offered her a full scholarship. His rejection letter had arrived a few weeks before.
Okay, you’re pushing it now.
Sophie’s parents won’t let her go to Yale because it’s “too much attention, too much pressure, and she was too young”…but there are already tabloids writing intrusive stories about her, and they are letting her go to a college, so what exactly about going to Yale is over the line?
In fact, if they’re so concerned with Sophie avoiding “unnecessary attention” then why did they let her jump four grades and go to high school? It’s not clear that she even wants to be there in the first place.
(I’m aware that there’s probably some more plot-relevant reason for trying to keep Sophie out of the public eye, but if so then they’ve royally screwed it up)
This would be way more interesting if the situation was flipped and her parents were actually trying to milk the “kid genius” angle for all it was worth, pushing her to rush through her academic progress and get as much exposure as she can. And I’m aware that saying “this book would be way better if it was about something completely different” isn’t exactly a useful criticism, but on the other hand if the book’s setup just makes me think of other stories I’d rather be reading, that’s kind of a problem.
Anyway, Sophie spots a mysterious Hot Dude and is instantly smitten by his aqualine orbs and fifteen year old dudeliness.
“Is this you?” he asked, pointing to the picture. Sophie nodded, feeling tongue-tied. He was probably fifteen, and by far the cutest boy she’d ever seen. So why was he talking to her?
“I thought so.” He squinted at the picture, then back at her. “I didn’t realize your eyes were brown.”
“Uh . . . yeah,” she said, not sure what to say. “Why?”
He shrugged. “No reason.”
That’s not really creepy or anything.
A bunch of kids run into the museum, and their annoying little kid thoughts overwhelm Sophie. But then she realizes that Hot Dude (his name is Fitz by the way) can hear them, but that she can’t hear his thoughts, which is very mysterious indeed.
He grabbed her arms to steady her. “It’s okay, Sophie. I’m here to help you. We’ve been looking for you for twelve years.”
He says this, and was clearly in the museum looking for Sophie, but he also seemed really surprised when he realized she could read minds. I guess maybe not all elves can do that?
OH WAIT SPOILERS LET’S MOVE ONTO THE NEXT CHAPTER DOOTLE DOOTLE DOOT DOOT
Sophie runs out of the museum and onto a road and is nearly hit by a car, but busts out some telekinesis to save herself.
The way this scene is presented is really confusing. Sophie explicitly states that she didn’t know she was capable of doing this, had never done it before and doesn’t know how she does it, but this is how it’s described:
Her hand shot into the air, her mind pulling strength from somewhere deep in her gut and pushing it out through her fingertips. She felt the force collide with the falling lantern, gripping on like it was an extension of her arm.
Which makes it seem as if she knows exactly what she’s doing and is in conscious control of the process. If the idea was to portray this as a reflexive manifestation of hitherto unknown power, it would have worked better to just have her throw her hand out, and then the lamp-post moves seemingly for no reason. Maybe have her be a little woozy afterwards, which is the universal fiction shorthand for “this character just totally awakened their hella cool inner power that they didn’t know about.”
Fritz insists they skeddadle, and once they’re clear of the accident starts mumbling cryptic stuff until Sophie asks him to just explain what the hell is going on.
…which he does in the next chapter!
SO . . . WHAT?” SOPHIE MANAGED TO SAY when she finally found her voice. “You’re saying I’m . . . an alien?”
She held her breath.
Fitz erupted into laugher.
Her cheeks grew hot, but she was also relieved. She didn’t want to be an alien.
That’s kind of cute. This book can spin a witty line, at the very least.
“No,” he said when he’d managed to compose himself. “I’m saying you’re an elf.”
I have very conflicted feelings about this.
On one hand, the idea of a parallel world of elves that exists alongside the normal world shouldn’t seem any more ridiculous or hard to take seriously than a secret world of vampires or wizards or the hundreds of other fantasy archetypes that have gotten the same treatment over the years…but for some reason it does.
I think part of the problem is that vampires(/wizards/werewolves/etc) have for a long time been positioned as mythological beings existing in our world, whereas in popular culture elves are specifically associated with secondary fantasy settings. Similarly, while vampires and wizards have become utterly generic fictional templates that aren’t specifically tied to any one property (Dracula doesn’t count, because Dracula as both a story and character created so much of the modern vampire image that it’s basically melted into it), when someone says “elf” 99% of people immediately think of Lord of The Rings. Even Sophie thinks of it right away.
I’m about to say something that sounds incredibly stupid, but stick with me for a second. The problem with elves is that they’re too fake.
What I mean by that is that most people think of them as having been created by a specific series of movies less than two decades ago (which is obviously not true, but it’s the common pop-culture perception), whereas vampires and werewolves have been in our pop-cultural consciousness for nearly 100 years, and most people are far more aware of their older folkloric roots than they are of the roots of elves. All of this means that things like vampires feel like they’ve been part of the world for much longer– they feel “real” in a way that elves don’t in the same way and for the same reasons that the Greek and Roman pantheons feel more “real” than Xenu. There’s a perception that they have some sort of objective existence outside of the specific stories that spawned them, whereas elves feel like something that someone just made up.
…all of which is my incredibly long-winded and over-complicated way of saying that this book being about elves feels silly, even though I recognize on a purely intellectual level that it probably shouldn’t. It would probably help if the story was set in a fictional world instead of San Diego.
Anyway so Fitz pulls out a thing that seems kind of like a wand which he insists isn’t a wand but actually a “pathfinder” (it doesn’t help that the narration itself calls it “a wand” when he takes it out) and offers to show her some Serious Shit.
She wanted to say no— he couldn’t actually prove anything. What was he going to do, whisk her away to some magic elf land?
But she bit her tongue and concentrated on holding his hand, ignoring her racing heart. Seriously— when did she become one of those silly girls?
It’s called puberty, Sophie. I thought you were meant to be a genius.
Fitz uses his not-wand to transport them both into Elfland, which is all totally rad and magical.
“Where are we?”
“Our capital. We call it Eternalia, but you might have heard it called Shangri-la before.”
“Shangri-la,” she repeated, shaking her head. “Shangri-la is real?”
“All of the Lost Cities are real— but not how you’d picture them, I’m sure.
This idea– that all of the fictional, magical cities of legend are actually real and part of a parallel universe– frankly seems like a way more interesting hook to hang a book series on than elves. You could make each book be about a different city, and the span of human mythology provides basically limitless potential material, especially if you also include non-city fabled locations like Tir na nOg or the Greek underworld.
By the end of the chapter Sophie has seemingly already started accepting that she’s an elf and distancing herself from humans, even though she found out about this less then an hour ago. I complained about this in my big Harry Potter post, and it’s just as irritating here. I really want some sort of hesitation in this scenario.