In anticipation of the upcoming movie based on Kathryn Lasky’s Guardians of Ga’Hoole series, Scholastic has re-released the first book in the series, The Capture. Being an owl fan, I of course had to give it a try! Lasky is clearly following in Richard Adams’ footsteps here, what with her invented owl words and the mixture of animal behavior and very human social commentary. The Capture is less intense than Watership Down in terms of both reading level and violence level, however, and would be suited for readers who might be too young for Adams’ book.
Soren, our protagonist, is growing up in a loving, comfortable barn owl family. Lasky incorporates a great deal of information about owl behavior and translates it into the customs of a culture. The owls have rituals for their first bites of different types of food, for example, and for the stages of learning to fly. Lasky is skilled at depicting the intricacies of a social structure, as is evident both here and in last year’s Hannah. The rituals of Soren’s family create a sense of warmth and community, even if they do sometimes focus on owls’ digestive processes a little too much for me. (Kids will probably love it. Especially if they’ve done the “examine the owl pellet” thing in school.)
One day, though, Soren tumbles from the nest and is kidnapped by several other owls. He is taken to St. Aggie’s, which claims to be a school for orphaned owls. But Soren isn’t really an orphan, and this isn’t really a school. It’s more of a cross between a totalitarian state and a cult. Now, Soren and his new friend Gylfie need to resist brainwashing, find allies, and escape St. Aggie’s. The St. Aggie’s scenes are creepy enough to get under even an adult’s skin, while still keeping the violence level appropriate for the target audience. There are a few deaths, but the details are mostly glossed over.
Soren and Gylfie are inspired to heroism, in part, by the legends of Ga’Hoole, which are kind of like the owl equivalent of the Arthurian cycle. I really like the idea behind The Capture, which is that one should be brave in the face of tyranny and that stories can help build that courage. The book would have been stronger, though, if a few of the legends had actually been worked into the story. We often read that one character is telling the Ga’Hoole stories to another, but not what’s actually in those stories. I’ve been a mythology geek for at least twenty years, so it’s pretty easy for me to imagine what the stories are probably like, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect a child to have the same knowledge base. One of the things that worked well about Watership Down was that some of the El-ahrairah stories were included in the novel. It helped build the world the rabbits lived in, and including the stories could have done the same thing here, and it would have lent even more weight to a touching scene where Soren and Gylfie make up their own legend to honor a friend.
Other issues include an unlikely coincidence, songs that don’t scan, and an abrupt ending. It’s not a cliffhanger, but it leaves much unresolved (presumably to be addressed in the subsequent books). This was an issue in Hannah as well, and maybe this is just a quirk of Lasky’s style that I’ll have to get used to if I continue reading her books.
Nonetheless, The Capture is enjoyable for the most part, and suspenseful. The prose veers toward the “textbooky” a bit when describing owl biology and behavior, but it’s beautiful at other moments, and the story has a good message without beating you over the head with it. I’m looking forward to the movie.