“Everyone is on a path that leads them (sic) to where they belong.”
That’s one of my favorite lines from The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill, a story that looks into the ideas of magic, home and family, and, most important, fate.
Many fantasy novels use the idea of fate as a theme--characters are destined to be something or do something. Often the fate question is nicely woven into the plot; other times, it’s not. In a recent article in Entertainment Weekly Trey Parker and Matt Stone (speaking on how South Park episodes always have a lesson) said, “Plot should reveal the theme, and not vice versa.” Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in fantasy books.
Naruto (the manga and anime) deftly delves into questions regarding fate and destiny. At least two of the characters--Naruto and Gaara--have demons (real demons) inside of them. And they must decide if they will let the demons control them or if they will learn to control the demons--in essence, they must decide their own fates. Meanwhile, another character was sort of born into the wrong bloodline (one of ne’er do wells). His family isn’t supposed to have the heroes, but does that mean he can’t rise above that and become a hero? The Naruto stories do as Parker and Stone say. The plots are interesting and the story advances without the theme hitting you over the head.
Troubletwisters, by Garth Nix and Sean Williams, doesn’t handle the idea as nicely. I was so excited about this new series (I think Garth Nix’s “The Keys to the Kingdom” series is highly imaginative and recommend it to fantasy-loving teens). But Troubletwisters didn’t delight me at all. Worse, the authors use tease us about the fate of the two main characters. The "troubletwisters" of the title are twins who are just coming into their superpowers, if you will (check out the website: “Jack and Jaide’s destiny is about to unfold…”). But throughout this first book, the twins’ gifts and those of their family members are kept from them. They start to do strange things and strange things happen to them, but are told time and time again that they aren’t ready yet to learn the whys and wherefores. That doesn’t create suspense. It’s just annoying. Especially when their grandmother keeps calling them “troubletwisters” and yet refuses to tell them what that means. The conflict and action in this novel then relies on what the twins might be, not on what they’re doing.
Much better in dealing with characters’ fate is The Emerald Atlas, the first book in the new “Books of Beginning” series by John Stephens. The reader discovers the fate of the three children (and by fate here I mean destiny again and about how important they are to the fate of the world!) as they discover it. No one hints at it. Those that may know more than Kate, Michael, and Emma know aren’t really involved. And those that have an inkling are often just as surprised as the kids are as things unfold. The kids go on a quest and learn things about their past and about what they seem to be destined for. They are actively involved.
Best of all is The Mostly True Story of Jack. There are a few people who know about Jack's lineage and can explain mysterious happenings for him. But in this book, keeping the knowledge from him is woven into the story. At one point, Jack’s aunt suggests that they tell him everything. But his uncle says that isn’t reasonable: “My dear boy, if I were to tell you a wellspring of magic exists right beneath our feet, what would you say?” Jack replies: “I wouldn’t say anything, because that’s insane.” And later adds, “There’s no such thing as magic.”
Turns out Jack is magic. He’s the child of Mother Nature. In the end, Jack must decide if he’ll go back to her and prevent her from tearing the world apart. The story here is about Jack discovering who he is and deciding what to do about it.
Comparisons can be made to “Harry Potter” (of course!!). Harry is told things slowly and finds out what he must do over the course of the seven novels. But I appreciate the fact that not too far into the first book Harry is told something straight by Hagrid: “You’re a wizard, Harry!” Thanks, Hagrid. Why keep us guessing?