Philadelphia Enquirer Elyon review 2005

Writer Katie Haegele The Philadelphia Inquirer Don’t you just love a fairy-tale ending?A few years ago Patrick Carman spun a fantasy story with a 12-year-old heroine to entertain his two young daughters. He self-published the bedtime story as a three-book series, The Land of Elyon, then watched as it became a runaway hit. Then the world’s largest publisher of children’s books picked the series up, and Carman is taking it – and his wife and daughters – on a tour of the country.In the first book, The Dark Hills Divide, we meet Alexa, the precocious daughter of the mayor of Lathbury, one of four walled cities connected by roads – also protected by high stone walls – that make up the maybe-futuristic, possibly-ancient Land of Elyon. Alexa and her dad are on their annual summer trip to the city of Bridewell.With most of its inhabitants off peddling their wares, Bridewell in the summer is nearly deserted and stiflingly hot. And while the city’s walls protect its citizens from unnamed dangers said to lurk on the outside, they make Alexa feel “like a prisoner,” and she burns with curiosity about the dark hills and forests beyond. When Warvold, the cities’ creator, dies unexpectedly, Alexa gets the chance not only to investigate the outside world but to save Elyon.You could hardly ask for a more perfect hero than a skinny, investigative 12-year-old girl. From the get-go Alexa is hopping up on windowsills, peering, listening, exploring, borrowing things without asking, and spending hours curled up in a cozy, dusty library, doing research. Since she straddles the divide between the vivid imagination of childhood and a more adult awareness, her worldview is wide open to possibility – unlike the men in charge, “blinded… to the world outside” by years behind the walls.In the wilderness, Alexa meets animals who tell her she’s the only one who can help reunite them with their loved ones, whom they were separated from when the wall was built. Because of her size, she’s able to slither through narrow underground caverns. Just a few months older and she’d be too big. But she’s old enough to embrace the story’s important message without conflict: Sometimes it’s not bad guys who cause trouble, but good guys who make shortsighted choices out of fear.The book has quite a few elements of another, more famous wonderland: crawling and falling through tunnels; quirky, talking creatures (one of them’s even a rabbit, albeit a gray one); and things getting “stranger,” like Alice’s “curiouser,” all the time.Carman clearly has a fondness for old things – letters with wax seals, fancy spyglasses, jewels with symbolic designs etched into them – and Alexa’s world is charmingly arcane. Alexa’s narration makes occasional use of an old-timey turn of phrase that gives the book the feeling of a classic fairy tale. But the language isn’t overly cute, nor is the story elaborately strange. After all, the Land of Elyon’s problems are only a generation old and entirely fixable by one brave girl. Carman’s book isn’t so much a fantasy as a story about real people facing the usual strife – give or take a talking animal or two – that just happens to take place in a world that doesn’t exist. Strictly speaking, anyway.

Patrick Carman