Puddlejumpers, by Mark Jean and Christopher C. Carlson, is the story of Ernie Banks, an orphan boy from Chicago who knows nothing about where he came from or the special destiny he’s meant to fulfill. Despite this overly familiar premise, the book managed to reel me in with an action-filled plot, an engaging main character, and some fairly cute magical creatures.
The opening chapter introduces us to Ernie and the Lakeside Home for Boys, where he’s lived almost all his life. He’s dissatisfied with life–he hasn’t been adopted yet and will probably be a ward of the state until he’s 18, he hates the woman who runs the home (and the feeling’s mutual), and he longs for more. What that more might consist of, he’s not quite sure. Just as we’re getting into Ernie and his world, we’re whisked back to the day he was born and learn about a community of magical fairy-like beings called Puddlejumpers who mark Ernie as their Rainmaker. He’s meant to fulfill a prophecy and destroy the Puddlejumpers’ mortal enemies, the Troggs.
Via this flashback we discover how Ernie ended up in an orphanage even though he had a loving father who is still alive (no mother–she dies early on, ala many Disney films). Through luck and coincidence Ernie ends up exactly where he’s meant to be, not only to regain his past, but to play the role the Puddlejumpers have for him.
Ernie is a likeable character, not just because his life is a bit unfair at first, but because once his desires and goals are clear, he goes after what he wants instead of waiting for someone to push him to do it. You want things to go right for him not just because he’s the main character, but because he deserves it.
He’s backed up by a supporting cast of humans and Puddlejumpers who exude uncomplicated goodness. When Ernie gets a chance to take part in a program where orphans spend a few weeks on a working farm he meets Russ Frazier, a man made of one part patience and two parts understanding, and Joey Woodruff, a girl made of two parts tomboy and one part sassy. Russ and Joey never move much beyond these surface descriptions, but as they’re very recognizable types it mostly works.
The Puddlejumpers themselves are a lot of fun and distinguish themselves via various quirks rather than a lot of character development. And again, their goodness is uncomplicated and unquestioned. They want what’s best for their community and what’s best for Ernie (to a point). They tend to be cute without going overboard into saccharine and slip a bit of environmental consciousness into a fun action fantasy story.
Unfortunately the various antagonists are even less well-rounded. They go a bit beyond cardboard, but there are times when it seems like the bad guys are bad just for the sake of badness. I never understood exactly what they wanted other than to make life miserable for Russ and his neighbors.
It’s not surprising to me that this book was written by people with a film/television background. There were many times when clunky sentences pulled me right out of the story and I felt like I was reading the genesis of a blockbuster rife with sophisticated CGI. However, the authors definitely know how to build tension, write action, and keep the reader turning pages to find out what happens next.
Puddlejmpers will make a good movie someday. It makes a pretty good book now, especially for readers who love action with a dash of mystery and characters that don’t save the day by making twelve stupid decisions before bumbling into the correct one.
K. Tempest Bradford is the non-fiction editor for Fantasy magazine.