Concerning Heroes

For reasons that I may explain someday, I’ve been looking into the field of YA (“young adult”) fantasy fiction. I’m certainly not the target reader for these novels, so it would be wrong for me to try to write a conventional book review. It’s not to be expected that I would have the appropriate emotional response to any of the stories.

But I can pay attention to the technical side of storytelling, and flag things that seem to me to work well, or not.

I’ve just finished reading Stravaganza: City of Masks, by Mary Hoffman. Briefly, it’s an alternate-world story that flips back and forth between 20th century London (in our own world) and a city quite like 16th century Venice, but a bit different. I’m a sucker for alternate histories and pre-modern cultures, so this kind of thing is my cup of tea. The two lead characters, a boy and a girl, are both 15. The plot is mainly palace intrigue — a well-trodden field (I can think of a dozen examples), but one in which there are plenty of variations to explore.

The world-building is a little thin, but will probably go down well with 15-year-old readers. There’s plenty of local color and a bittersweet ending.

What concerns me, from a technical standpoint, is this: The two lead characters don’t do anything. They do a lot of sight-seeing, and the boy quite accidentally foils an assassination attempt by stumbling in on it. But all of the action that moves the story forward is undertaken by the adults.

One of the basic guidelines of storytelling (I won’t call it a rule, because I don’t believe there are any rules) is that the lead character should get out of the difficulties that rise up and smack him or her in the face through his or her own strenuous efforts. The lead character should not sit around passively and wait to be rescued.

I can’t say young readers won’t like City of Masks. I’m sure a lot of them will relate to the characters, enjoy the scenery, be thrilled by the suspense, and end up happy. But I can’t help feeling the story would have been stronger if Lucien and Arianna had tackled a few thorny problems on their own, rather than sitting around passively and letting the grown-ups hand them satisfying solutions on a silver platter.

Granted, 15-year-olds have somewhat less scope for independent action than adults, but if you compare City of Masks to something like Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, the difference is obvious. In the latter, the kids are pretty much on their own, forced to deal with difficult problems again and again without the comfort of adult help.

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