The Last Apprentice, Path Finder

The Last Apprentice

Revenge of the Witch by Joseph DelaneyMy wife is always telling me I need to write a young adult or middle grade adventure series. One that’s directed at boys.

Not because we have something against girls. We have four daughters, and my wife is adamantly pro-woman. But she finds very few books for her sixth-, seventh-, and eighth- grade male readers. I haven’t done a count, but I’m pretty sure that most YA is targeted at females. And this isn’t just me. I remember visiting a Barnes & Noble in Arizona with my voracious-reader nieces a few years ago and riding the escalator to the YA section. They told me that they called it the “girl-book section” because they figured that basically 90% of it was indeed for girls.

Anyway, I think writing such an adventure would be a blast. I can already think of a number of near future or fantasy settings that would rock. But the time constraints I have right now just won’t allow me to start another series. Nevertheless, we sat down the other day and listed out all of the authors and books we knew that had a more male focus.

For about the twentieth time she told me about Joseph Delaney’s The Last Apprentice series. It’s about a boy who apprenticed to the county Spook who is someone that takes care of witches, ghasts, ghosts, etc.  Her students love the stories. She loves them. She has bought the first ten volumes for her classroom. Why the heck wasn’t I reading them?

Well, for starters, I just don’t like books about witches. And the first book in the series is called Revenge of the Witch. I don’t know what it is. Witches aren’t as bad a zombies–I am SO bored with zombies; I just don’t get the appeal. But even if they’re better than creatures that make no sense at all to me, I just don’t like spooky horror all that much. I loved to be scared, startled, and filled with dread. But not with witches.

Witches? The gals with pointy hats?

No.

But this was, as I said, like the twentieth time she’d brought it up. We were driving over to Logan (that’s the big city for us), and stopped at the library, and we went over to the YA section. Unfortunately, they didn’t have volume one. But I did see many other volumes on the shelf and figured I needed to see what the competition was doing. So I perused. A few night later we went to her classroom, and there was volume one. The one about the witch.

I sighed and opened it and began to read. And when I finished chapter one, I realized I kind of liked it. It was like the old Life cereal commercials—hey, Mikey!—and I wanted to read more. And so I took it home, read the whole book, and was delighted with the story. I liked it so much I promptly borrowed volume two, Curse of the Bane, from my wife’s classroom and read it as well. And I liked that one so much I checked out the third.

The story is about Thomas Ward, the aforementioned apprentice. In book one, he is forced to face down some witches. But it’s Alice, the girl with pointy shoes, who made the story for me. Adding her as a character transformed it from a run-of-the-mill booger man story, into something special. No, I’m not going to give you a peek at the plot. Just know that this is the book where Thomas starts his apprentice, has to deal with that new life (and I thought Delaney captured that so well), and makes some apprentice mistakes that he then has to fix.

In book two, we get to meet Alice and Thomas again, but this time they have to face down a different creature. And again, while the adventure is all cool, it’s the interactions with Alice that put it over the top.

Having praised the books, I will say that I think Delaney has something against priests and religion in general because he paints it all with a negative broad brush. It’s too bad. Not only is such a view inaccurate, but showing the good and bad could add so many delicious dimensions to the tale. Maybe we’ll see that in later books. But even if we don’t, book two was still a great read.

I’m looking forward to book three. If you’re in the mood to try something new, something about a young man and young girl that doesn’t revolve around romantic smoldering, something that a guy would like to read, let me recommend you join me in reading the volumes of The Last Apprentice.

Pathfinder

Pathfinder by Orson Scott CardI was once in a discussion about religion with a friend who happens to be an atheist and fellow science fiction and fantasy writer. He’s a great guy. The blog posts he wrote about the passing of the woman he loved who was lost to cancer were poignant and wonderful–full of beauty. I read them and wanted to be a better man. Still, he and I disagree about God.

I remember telling him that science fiction is the one genre that makes God more plausible than any other. At least, it makes my view of God more plausible.  Now, I do not want to talk religion in this essay. But it’s just hard for science fiction to leave the idea of creation and Adam and Eve alone. Witness the many stories over the years about these very things.

Heck, even the recent movie Oblivion has references—are not Jack and Victoria much like Adam and Eve? Just think about it. Their paradise together as a team, the knowledge, the fall. The echoes are simply marvelous.

Well, I just read another science fiction tale that provided a wonderful opportunity to think about these things. It’s Orson Scott Card’s novel Pathfinder. Now, the story isn’t about God. It’s not a biblical allegory. It’s not dressed-up doctrine. It’s a tale about a boy named Rigg with special abilities on a quest to find his real family and who he is. Along the way we meet some interesting people, especially one character named Loaf who leavened the whole tale. So there’s an interesting adventure and speculations about faster-than-light travel. But one of the chief delights for me was the questions and ideas this story raised in my mind about the creation of our own world—“Garden,” the name of the world, just begged for it.

For example, a long-time staple of science fiction is the idea of terraforming—changing face of the flora, fauna, atmosphere, and climate of the planet to be hospitable to your species. If you believe in a God that is more a being of advanced technology than one of unknowable fantasy, doesn’t that present a new and interesting way of viewing the creation story? It does for me, and Pathfinder sparked ideas about this.

The book also led me to think about life. First, Card has these characters called “Expendables.” They’re robots, but not really. They’re artificial intelligence. But not really. The way Card presents the expendables, you don’t think of silicon and steel and gears. You think of biology.

You think of mosquitoes.

You think about the fact that if we humans use intelligent machines, surely God must use intelligent machinery. So what kind of intelligent machinery does God employ? (Dude, that idea is just pregnant with stories!)

Are viruses and bacteria machines? Are mosquitoes and beetles (please, let there be no mosquitoes in heaven)?

The book prompts me to wonder. It prompts me to look at the life about me on our wonderful world with new eyes. It prompts me to think differently about some of my core definitions. In fact, there are some exchanges between a character and an expendable where they talk about the difference between humans and expendables and the definition of what it means to be human, especially given evolution.

This is a book about an adventure, but also a book about ideas, which is as it should be. Science fiction is the one genre, more than any other, that marries character and plot with exploration of ideas. If you’re looking for an interesting tale that will make you think about our world differently, give Pathfinder a try.

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