Young Adult fantasy: making kids look forward to trips to Uncle Joe’s creaky old farmhouse since the Pevensies popped into Narnia. N.D. Wilson’s Dandelion Fire, the second entry of the 100 Cupboards series, goes beyond the call of YA duty with believable characters and sardonic prose, while dragging tension and half-painted worlds keep it from transcending the genre.
In the first volume, 100 Cupboards, 12-year old Henry York, stashed at his aunt and uncle’s Kansas farm by travelholic parents, embarked on his fantasy hero quest by discovering another world. Except now, after young readers have scampered through Hogwarts and braved the Miserable Mill, a single wardrobe is rather mundane—Henry York discovers 100 tiny doors that lead to various worlds. I never read 100 Cupboards, but press for the book was generally favorable.
Dandelion Fire picks up right where the first book left off. Henry has grown from his battles with a dark witch, and his face bears the scars to prove it. Yet the events of the last book have also made Henry realize he comes from another world. Meanwhile, a letter in the mail marks the upcoming end to his magical, life-threatening summer in Kansas. Will our boy return to boarding schools and trips to the soda fountain? After surviving acidic witch-blood, he’s not entirely opposed to the idea.
Henry York is refreshingly real for a young fantasy hero. And not real in the sense of emotional turmoil and street-savvy grit. Henry does consider returning to Boston, away from angry witches and magic. His internal struggles are just tumultuous enough to seem real, without falling into the irritating angst-ridden hero trap.
The rest of the cast are likewise weird and lively. From Uncle Frank blasting at windows with a shotgun to Cousin Henrietta’s nonchalance at exploring dangerous worlds on her own, the characters in Dandelion Fire give it a level of engagement too often missing in a genre riddled with whiny teenyboppers and wisecracking sidekicks.
Even the antagonists, so often nothing more than cowls and crankiness, are well developed. Chief among them is the sorcerer Darius, whose malice and megalomania run alongside misery and mewling sycophancy.
Any chance of Henry returning to Boston dies when he encounters Darius, who wants to enslave him and take his power. This is after our poor boy is struck by lightning and blinded by a magical dandelion.
Protagonists do not get easy breaks in Dandelion Fire. While Henry has the potential for amazing gifts and power, the people who want him dead are very real. Soon, he, his aunt and uncle, cousins, and even a poor police officer are sucked back into the worlds of the 100 cupboards, just in time for fairy battles, more evil witch shenanigans, and long-buried family histories.
Often, the interplay between the characters is more interesting than the plot. Henry and Uncle Frank chatting by a cornfield is a fine, layered moment, and much more engaging than life-leeching witches in need of an ax to the head.
But perhaps the spiritual nature of Dandelion Fire is very much intentional. N.D. Wilson is also the managing editor of a Christian journal, and while Dandelion Fire is not a Christian book, its view certainly is. Fear not though—Wilson seeks not to damn or save your soul. Not a lipstick or nylon in sight, the religious aspect of Dandelion Fire remains in the slant of the ideas more so than an active force.
In pure prose, Wilson has style to burn. The novel’s bursts of suspense come more from how he writes than actual story—not exactly a compliment, but a testament to his writing ability. The prose in Dandelion Fire puts it above average children’s fantasy. With a clear but snickering tone, the trials of the characters often take on humorous spins, just before someone loses an eye or falls off a cliff. The sarcasm is unusual in a book of this type, and a very welcome addition. At the same time, descriptions and dialogue always shine, even when the plot wanders towards lethargy
As the book goes on, one can see that Wilson’s strength for characters and prose surpasses his strength for plot. Henry and Henrietta are easy to understand and support, without knowledge of the previous book, but the world and plot are slippery and difficult to visualize. When the story gets running, it is not on the level of subtlety as the characters and prose. Down with the evil witch, let’s save the fairies. It is not that the story is simple, but that it offers little that one has not seen before.
The lack of a strong story likewise affects the reader’s engagement. Tensions should run high as Henrietta flees from bad guys. Instead, it simmers. In the end, the drive to read Dandelion Fire is to find how the characters end up. Who cares about magical fairy worlds?
Dandelion Fire is not a poor book. For characters and writing, it is a bright spot in Young Adult fantasy. The weaknesses of the story, however, keep it from transcending the genre. Hopefully the upcoming sequel, Chestnut King, delivers a story on par with Dandelion Fire’s interesting characters and elegant writing.