Review: North! Or Be Eaten!

17 09 2009

image002Andrew Peterson, one of my favorite singer/songwriters, has recently ventured into the world of children’s fiction, through a fantasy series called The Wingfeather Saga.  I just finished reading Book 2 of the series, North! Or Be Eaten!, and discovered, to my joy, that Peterson’s writing is every bit as quirky and profound as his songs.

First, a disclaimer: I jumped into the middle of the series.  Not having read Book 1, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness , I couldn’t quite find my bearings in Peterson’s strange fantasy world and had to read the first page several times before it started making sense.  Who were all these people?  Nia, Janner, Tink, Leeli, Podo, Peet, Artham, Nugget … how were they related?  And what the heck was a toothy cow?

At first, I worried that this was just going to be another “journey story” that would throw together completely unrelated events under the guise of a journey  (From the title, I’m sure you can guess what direction they were headed).  But I wanted desperately for there to be more to this story than a destination.

Throughout the novel, Peterson remains faithful to his musical roots.   When the Igiby children stop and do their homework, they are not learning science or math, but the Three Honored and Great Subjects: Word, Form, and Song.  Janner excels in writing (Word), Tink in drawing (Form), and Leeli in music (Song).  The last subject, in particular (Song) is manipulated by the forces of both good and evil, and this musical dichotomy sets the stage for the final showdown.

Yes, there is a final showdown.  (Warning: spoilers ahead.  I’ll try not to reveal too many details, but I was so blown away with the ending of the book that I have to talk about it).  Throughout the novel, there is talk of building up armies for an epic battle: Gnag the Nameless and the Fangs versus Gammon, the Florid Sword, and the Kimerans.

But when the final fight actually begins, the Igibys find themselves in the midst of two other, unexpected battles: one involving Podo and one involving Tink.  These are battles of the heart, and it is in these encounters that Peterson’s writing becomes incredibly poignant.  As in the beginning, I found myself rereading pages at a time, this time not out of confusion, but in awe.

It is difficult to avoid comparing this novel to its literary predecessors (The Chronicles of Narnia, in particular, comes to mind).  But North! defies comparison; its symbolism is subtle, unique, and somehow magical.  Peterson goes further than simply retelling the Christian message in fantasy-land.  Instead, he is able to represent it artfully (but not exactly) and move his reader to a heightened understanding of the original story.

I love that the book does not end with the happy cliché of the Igibys reaching their final destination (although they are certainly getting close).  The narrative has shifted; although they are in the final leg of the physical trip, it is apparent that their spiritual journey has just begun.

Yes, it is a “journey story,” of sorts.  But, more than that, it’s a story of hope and transformations and art and mercy and good and evil.  And sea dragons.  And toothy cows.

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Sneak Peak – North! Or Be Eaten!

15 09 2009

Stay tuned for the full book review on Thursday.  But in the meantime, here is one of my favorite passages from Andrew Peterson’s new fantasty novel North! Or Be Eaten!

What’s magic anyway?  If you asked a kitten, ‘How does a bumblebee fly?,’ the answer would probably be ‘Magic.’  Aerwiar [the setting of the book] is full of wonders, and some call it magic.  This is a gift from the Maker — it isn’t something Leeli created or meant to do, nor did you mean to see these images.  You didn’t seek to bend the ways of the world to your will.  You stumbled on this thing, the way a kitten happens upon a flower where a bumblebee has lit  … The music Leeli makes has great power, but it is clear the Maker put the power there when He knit the world. (ch. 57, pg. 278)