Morpheus Road, The Light: Winning voice makes up for some plot issues

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsYA fantasy book reviews D.J. MacHale Morpheus RoadMorpheus Road: The Light by D.J. MacHale

Morpheus Road: The Light by D.J. MacHale is the first book in a projected YA horror trilogy, focused on young Marshall Seaver, who is being haunted by his own artistic creation, a creepily menacing character he calls Gravedigger.

The story is a fast-paced read, though it gets off to a somewhat slow start as we’re introduced to the main character and his best friend Cooper. The two have one of those awkwardly painful adolescent friendships where one has leapt full-heartedly into the young adult world (Cooper) and the other is still staying safe on the outer edges of childhood (Marshall). Unfortunately, Cooper’s jump into near-adulthood has landed him in trouble, and as a consequence, his parents have decided to remove him from bad influences by taking him to their lake cottage for the summer. This ruins Marshall’s plans for the usual buddy-summer, though his ideas of summer fun and Cooper’s had already clearly diverged. The opening does a nice job of setting up the tension between the two, as well as between both of them and Cooper’s older sister Sydney. It also sets up Marshall’s social isolation, which rises not only out of his single friendship with Cooper but the recent death of his mother, an international photographer. Added to the tension of a possibly fracturing friendship and Marshall’s still-tender grief is some suspense over Cooper’s recent trouble and just how deep (and dangerous) that trouble may be.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe supernatural kicks in slowly at first, beginning when Marshall accidentally breaks a strange artifact his mother had picked up on her travels and given him as a present. Things really start to take off, though, when his father leaves for an out-of-town conference and Marshall is left home alone. The horror starts small — strange noises, odd images that turn out later to have possible explanations — but soon neither the noises nor the visions can be easily explained away. When Marshall’s Gravedigger (a character he’s been sketching for some time) starts to show up, the horror builds to a full sense of terror and menace that only deepens when Cooper turns up missing. Eventually, Marshall and Sydney team up (reluctantly at first) to try and figure out what’s happening around them as people start to disappear or die.

As mentioned, The Light is a fast read once one gets past the opening, which is slow only in relation to the rest of the book. And it should be slow, as MacHale takes the time to set up the characters and give us something/someone to care about.  Marshall is especially sharply drawn as somewhat lost:  a bit of a loner, someone who doesn’t quite understand why those things he was doing just last year suddenly are “childish” or “uncool,” a boy who doesn’t quite get girls yet, a son whose lost his mother and hasn’t come to terms with that loss or his new relationship with his father yet, a friend who doesn’t quite understand why his friendship seems to be unraveling. Sydney is less developed, but has a clearly distinctive personality and is more complex than she first appears. Cooper is the least-defined, but that’s because he’s given the least amount of space. Within that space, though, one gets a pretty good picture of him and that fine line he’s trying to thread between child and adult. Adults are mostly non-existent or undeveloped, not surprising in a YA, though I did wish we had a stronger sense of them.

It’s a tough plot to discuss without giving major spoilers. So suffice to say that while MacHale keeps things moving with several chase scenes and tense moments, and has a nice sense of building to bigger and more horrific things, there are a few aspects that don’t quite seem to hold fully together if one thinks about them too much, mostly toward the latter third of the book. And the ending seemed both a bit over the top and a bit anti-climactic, paradoxical as that sounds. Unfortunately, trying to explain why would spoil too much.

While much of the book’s lower-level mysteries are resolved by the end, the big questions (along with some new ones) remain, setting us up nicely for the second book. While the horror plot is mostly just solid, the main character’s winning voice largely makes up for the weaknesses in plotting. Recommended.

Morpheus Road — (2009-2012) Ages 9-12. Publisher: #1 NYT bestselling author D.J. MacHale’s Morpheus Road trilogy brings readers down an ethereal pathway between the worlds of the living and dead.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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