Now in Paperback: Reckless
Little, Brown, 2011 (paperback)
German author Cornelia Funke has written an unbroken string of Young Adult bestsellers (The Thief Lord, the Inkheart trilogy, etc.), and Reckless, the first book in her new series, shows every sign of a writer who knows exactly what she’s doing. All the requisite elements of a typical teen fiction bestseller are here: the sexy ‘bad boy’ hero, the steadfast sidekick with just a hint of mutual attraction, the abundance of odd, quasi-mystical gimcracks and gee-gaws designed to seem significant to a demographic that spends most of its free time in a bad mood, plus generous helpings of portentous dialogue and cinematic-level violence. And certainly Little, Brown has done its part: book-design is clambered all over with vaguely Celtic-looking swirls and patterns – and there’s a gorgeous teen boy on the cover. If something like this didn’t do well with teens, we might have cause for concern.
Reckless tells the story of young Jacob Reckless, whose father disappeared more than a year previous, leaving book-crammed study in their family home looking like he’d return at any moment. Jacob often sneaks down there in the middle of the night when his mother and his younger brother Will are asleep and stands there amidst the impressions of his father, yearning and writing ‘Come back’ in the dust.
Wedged among the bookshelves is a tall old mirror, and Jacob long ago found a piece of parchment which read “The mirror will open only for he who cannot see himself.” It takes Jacob a bit, but he eventually figures out with this means, and in no time he’s stepping through the looking-glass into an alternate world full of dwarves and shape-shifters and ruthless warlords – and Goyls, brutish creatures made of living stone.
As you might guess from his name, Jacob Reckless loves it all. Fear, we’re told “was an emotion he’d grown to like” – in the true Teen Fiction way, he quickly learns to master his fear and embrace the wild world only he can access. He has many adventures there and gains a name for himself, only returning to the ‘real’ world reluctantly and infrequently. His mother calls social services in her worry about where he disappears to, but she never suspects the truth – nobody does, until Jacob decides to share his secret with his brother.
Tragedy strikes almost immediately. Will is attacked and cursed to turn into a Goyl – a gradual, unsettling process Funke conveys with wonderfully merciless exactitude. It’s the fear of every protective older brother, writ in fantasy terms: that you’ll fail your charge, that some evil force will take over your sibling and turn him into something you no longer understand or even like – and that your sibling will embrace his transformation, finding in it all the things he could never find while standing in your shadow. In very short order in Reckless, Jacob’s fears are realized:
For a moment, Jacob hoped against all reason that the person stirring in the neighboring cell was still his brother. But Clara’s face quickly set him straight. She stumbled over the hem of her dress as she backed away, and the look she gave Jacob was so full of despair it even made him forget his own pain.
His brother was gone.
There’s plenty else in the novel – some detailed world-building, one memorably nasty villain, some skilled panoramic descriptions of a country at war, plenty of action sequences (to put it mildly, not Funke’s strength – characters are sitting one moment and running the moment before, shackled one moment and free the next, etc), and the expected nimble word-play between Jacob and the alluring shape-shifter guide whose pledged herself to mentor him – but the central plot revolves around Will’s transformation and what Jacob can do to reverse it and get his brother back. It’s the standard pattern of the heedless young hero abruptly learning what true responsibility is, and it’s no worse a pattern for being so standard. Teaching young people to care about something outside themselves is no bad thing, especially when the lessons are wrapped in such diverting adventure.
Fans of the Teen Fiction genre won’t have any trouble guessing whether or not Jacob saves his brother (and if he does, how he does), and Book Two in the series is forthcoming. Parents looking for a possible gift to give their ungrateful little curs could do much worse than Reckless.