Monday, April 11, 2011

Review - "The Books of Umber - The End of Time"

2009's Happenstance Found took me completely by surprise.  I was expecting a decent fantasy, and what I got from author P.W. Catanese was a vigorously imagined world and unforgettable characters.  As the beginning of a trilogy called The Books of Umber, it worked its magic on me and had me hyped and anxiously waiting for the next installment.  2010 brought Dragon Games, and with it more intrigue, more danger and some of the creepiest creatures I've ever encountered.  Seriously, the bidmis, magical beings who ceaselessly ask their master for tasks, gave me nightmares for days.  You can only imagine how impatiently I awaited the release of the third and final book, The End of Time.  Nearly the minute it entered my library's system, I had it checked out to my name.  But I hesitated when it came to starting the book.  It had been a year since I last peeked into the life of Lord Umber and his ward, Happenstance, a year of waiting for the end to come.  What if it didn't meet up to my expectations?  Thankfully, after just a few days of hemming and hawing, I dove right in.
In The End of Time, Lord Umber, Happenstance, and the rest of the crew are almost immediately thrown into adventure when Umber's friends try to lure him out of one of his emotional dark periods.  They venture off to the land of the dragons, in order to return the stolen dragon eggs from Dragon Games.  Once Umber emerges from his funk, so to speak, they return home to find their kingdom on the brink, as the king nears death, and a bloodthirsty prince waits in the wings.  Then of course there’s the sorceress locked away, who’s awake after a long meditation, and ready to cause trouble.  But most importantly, there’s Hap, and the seemingly impossible task Umber and Willy Nilly, the Meddler who made Hap, have placed before him.  That is, saving the world, our world, from itself.  To do this, Hap must learn to read the mysterious filaments that show people’s destinies, and become the powerful Meddler Willy Nilly meant him to be.  Along the way, there’s death, destruction, reunions and departures, lots of action, a thrilling chase scene that retraces the steps of the trilogy and an emotional conclusion.
With both Happenstance Found and Dragon Games, it took me thirty or forty pages to really get into the story.  But once they took off, they were off and running and I was with them all the way.  With The End of Time, I was hooked almost immediately, because Catanese wastes no time in getting our heroes into the action, or in recapping past events.  There is an assumption of knowledge that I find both refreshing and mildly frustrating.  Since it’s been two years since the first book, I had forgotten certain details that came back into play.  Luckily for all of us with faulty memories, though he doesn’t spend time detailing the events of the previous books, Catanese writes with such assuredness and clarity, that everything comes out as it should.
There’s something fascinating to me about Lord Umber, the man from our world who found himself in another and strove to make it a better place.  He reminds me vividly of the Doctor, the titular character from the BBC phenomenon “Doctor Who”, especially as played by David Tennant.  Umber’s wild enthusiasm peppered with periods of morose brooding make him real and fantastic at the same time.  Having a main character suffer from manic depression (though this diagnosis is never named) in a children’s book is challenging, but Catenese is up for the challenge.  Umber’s mood swings are felt deeply, and though only a thin explanation is given, readers can understand the feelings themselves, if not the medical motivation behind them.
Hap on the other hand, is a bit of a mystery to me, always.  It is not until the last act of The End of Time that we get a real understanding of what a Meddler is and does, and this is after Hap makes a decision that is disappointing, but necessarily so.  It’s a turn Catanese makes towards his conclusion, one that I feel he had planned all along, but it tugs at the heartstrings all the same.  At the time I was reading it, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the Epilogue, which picks up the story some thirty years from when we left it.  Part of me felt cheated out of more story, out of this enormous task Hap had been given.  Looking back on it now, I’m more at peace with the decision to reveal what is revealed and withhold what is withheld.  I’ll admit, part of me just doesn’t want to let go of these characters, rich and varied that they are.  But if that’s your biggest problem, it’s a darn good problem to have.
The Books of Umber: The End of Time by P.W. Catanese
2011, Aladdin
Library copy