The Dark Hills Divide: Interesting premise but little spark

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review: The Dark Hills Divide THe Land of Elyon Patrick Carman The Dark Hills Divide by Patrick Carman

Patrick Carman’s The Dark Hills Divide has a good if not all that original premise at its core — a kingdom of four cities completely walled in and a 12-yr-old heroine who longs to see what’s beyond the walls. The walls were built a generation ago by Thomas Warvold, a well-traveled adventurer who came up with the idea to overcome people’s fears of expansion into unknown and allegedly dangerous lands by building walled roads and towns using temporarily freed convicts as laborers. Decades later, Warvold’s death sets into motion a slew of activity as the towns are threatened by those inside and out (internal kingdom strife, a possible high-level traitor, the supposedly re-imprisoned convicts) and previous assumptions are questioned (the dangers of the outside land, the effectiveness of the walls versus their societal cost, etc.).
At the center of all of this is young Alexa Daley, daughter to one of the town’s mayors, friend and confidante of Warvold, frequenter of the kingdom’s largest library, and all-around pest to the man in charge of the kingdom’s safety—Pervis. When her dream of seeing what’s beyond the walls comes true, Alexa uncovers a plot against her city and a possible traitor. She also discovers magical stones, talking animals, and a new perspective on the walls’ consequences.

All of this could have been put to good use, but The Dark Hills Divide falls mostly flat. Part of the problem is that Alexa is, especially in the first half, far too passive a character. She is told what to do by adults or animals and then she goes ahead and does it. There’s little sense of adventure or danger in what she does and simply declaring her adventurous or heroic or frightened doesn’t make her so. The land outside the walls is covered pretty perfunctorily so it never really comes alive for us. The same is true of the land inside the walls, where we meet relatively few people (all of them seemingly old or middle-aged men — where are the women and children?) and get very little sense of culture.

The plot is also problematic. As mentioned above, there is little sense of danger or suspense for the first half of the book; the arduous journey/quest Alexa makes is mostly conveyed through telling us it’s arduous and by describing her blisters. Again, there’s little sense of substance to it. The puzzles in the story seem arbitrarily constructed and solved, adding little to the story and feeling therefore more of a gimmicky add-on because puzzle stories are “in” nowadays. And there are some plot points that don’t seem to add up or don’t flow very naturally from the story.
The second half of the book, as Alexa searches for the traitor among them, is better than the first, but not particularly strong itself, only in comparison to what comes before. In the end, The Dark Hills Divide as a whole is a disappointment, falling flat in most aspects of good fantasy — strong world creation, compelling plot, vivid characterization, imaginative spark. Not recommended.

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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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