Tethered Dreams

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This post is a combo. In the first place, it is a somewhat affable suggestion about what really ought to be on your shopping list this Christmas if, as it ought to, the list of people you are shopping for contains some readers. Far be it from me to tell you what to do in this already busy season — but I merely want to save you time. And help to save the West while at it.

My second point is a brief review. The first book in the Ashtown Burial series is The Dragon’s Tooth, which is also out in paperback. The second is called The Drowned Vault. The third (which I have read in manuscript) is currently being edited by Random House as Empire of Bones. This whole project is a series of five, so there will be two more books coming after that. The fourth is tentatively titled Green Eggs and Ham, and the fifth is The Velveteen Rabbit. Actually, with regard to the last two, I am not as confident about the titles as I sounded.

The set-up is this. In The Dragon’s Tooth, two young quasi-orphans (their father is dead, and their mother is in a coma) are swept up into a secret society, founded by St. Brendan the explorer monk, that their parents had one time been connected with. The secret society is one dedicated to exploration and discovery, combined with all sorts of stuff that are definitely on the weird or paranormal side. In this first book, Cyrus and Antigone are inducted into the society, and have to establish themselves in it. In the process, they make friends and they make enemies. Even though the society technically represents “the good guys,” it has been around long enough to have gone to seed in many respects. Some of its members are just lazy, some of them have gone over to the darkness, and some of them are the faithful remnant. An astute reader can pick up on the fact that this institutional framework mirrors the history of the Church.

In The Drowned Vault, Cyrus and Antigone become full-fledged antagonists against the villain, one Dr. Phoenix, who at the end of the first book captured the dragon’s tooth that Cyrus had inherited from Billy Bones, the one who had gotten them into Ashtown in the first place. The good guys are scrambling to put together a coalition capable of withstanding the assault that they know Phoenix to be preparing. Part of this means they must harken back to an earlier good guy of Ashtown, Capt. John Smith (yes, of Pocohantas fame), who had successfully checkmated the villains in an earlier round of the perennial battle. John Smith is also, as it happens, an ancestor of Cyrus and Antigone, and you can catch a glimpse of him on the cover. He barrels back into the fray, much as Merlin does in That Hideous Strength.

I won’t tell you about Empire of Bones, other than to say everything keeps ramping up. If it keeps going at this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if the fourth book bursts into flames in your hands as you try to read it.

The third thing I want to say is this. Nate’s writing is good, really good. In fact, this is one of my father’s “complaints” about it. He says that it is like reading Kipling — he says that the writing is so consistently good throughout that it makes you want to say woof and take a breather. He would prefer (or so he says) some roughage, some breathing space. But I don’t think he really thinks that — it is just a way of making the observation that some writing is really dense and good, like cheesecake, and other writing is good in other ways, like angelfood cake. Angelfood never makes you say woof. These are page-turners, and you can breathe when you are done.

But having mentioned Kipling, let me draw out a final application. We live in a time when young people need food for their souls. That food has to come from a definite place, from a particular kitchen — and a cook who knows how to be dogmatic about recipes, but also where to be creative with recipes. In these postmodern times, it is easy for those who emphasize narrative and story and creative voices to simply assert (without proving anything they say, because proving things isn’t their bag) that this necessitates some sort of ironic detachment that floats over everything. But creativity without rock solid convictions is simply giving way to untethered weird dreams. No, in these books, the weird dreams are tethered, and are tethered in just the way that young readers today need. It may be some years before many of them figure out why they know certain things the way they do, but they really will know them. 

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