What Came from the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt

The guy in the window looks like a creep, but he's not, he's a nice kid.

Confession: Gary Schmidt is one of my old kidlit crushes.  Admittedly, confessing an old crush is barely a confession, particularly when the crush was at its strongest back in 2010.  Might as well confess that I used to wear clothes that didn’t fit me properly and listen to lame music (guilty, but who isn’t?).  But you know how, sometimes, you meet an old crush and you just get that crushing feeling inside?  Well, that’s how I felt when I saw not one, but two, Gary Schmidt books on the library shelf.  I was looking for Lizzie Bright or The Wednesday Wars so that I could sit with Gary and reminisce, but instead, I came home with new books and stars in my eyes.

I admit, I was a bit surprised when I started reading this book.  Gary Schmidt is a magical writer, but generally speaking his magic is found in real life moments.  I was not expecting a fantasy book, but I thought I’d play along.  So, my crush has changed a little – people change, right?

Anyways.  I used to read a lot of fantasy novels (while wearing lame clothes and listening to bad music), which makes me qualified, I think, to pronounce on whether a fantasy book is a hit or a miss.  And What Came from the Stars is a hit-or-miss.

There are a few cardinal rules (I think) of fantasy:

  • Include a map of your fantasy world.  Check.
  • This otherworldly race is not going to speak English.  So make sure you create a language.  Check!
  • You may want to use formal-sounding Epic Language.  (I don’t know why this is a rule, but Tolkein did it, and a lot of other writers seem to have followed suit.  I find this style very annoying).  Check.
  • Please, for the love of all that is holy, make the names readable and pronounce-able.  Big fail.

I know it’s an alternate fantasy world/universe and that if it was a real alternate-fantasy-world/universe (whatever that is), it would be silly to expect the real otherworldly race to speak a language that can be pronounced by English-speakers.  After all, there are plenty of languages spoken right here on Earth that are not pronounceable by English-speakers.  And I agree that it’s silly if the language spoken by otherworldly beings just looks like Gaelic patois.  But when the reader (i.e. me) has to constantly flip to the “dictionary” at the back of the book to remind herself of what is going on, it’s a bit much.  Or perhaps I was put off by the first two sentences:

So the Valorim came to know that their last days were upon them.  The Reced was doomed, and the Ethelim they had loved well and guarded long would fall under the sharp trunco of the faceless O’Mondim and the traitors who led them.

…which were completely opaque because of my lack of fluency in fantastical language.

And, let me tell you, that first chapter did not get better.  I kept having to stop short and reread sentences to see if I could make out what the something of the something something meant.  Was it a deliberate ploy by the author to get readers to feel like we have been suddenly faced with an alien race with magical powers that we could not hope to understand?  If so, it works…but it’s damn frustrating.

Thankfully, the something something only goes on for seven pages and Chapter Two brings us back to sweet, familiar, Earth.  More specifically, to Plymouth, Massachusetts (for which a map is thoughtfully provided, right next to the map of Weoruld Ethelim), where 12-year-old Tommy Pepper, his father, and his little sister, live.  Tommy and his family are grieving the sudden death of Tommy’s mother, celebrating Tommy’s 12th birthday, and trying to save the beachfront from condo-ization, when something comes from the stars and falls in his lunchbox: the Chain of the Valorim Art that holds their Song.

And thus begins our tale, shuttling between Tommy Pepper’s life and the war being fought with the Ethelim and Valorim (protectors of the Ethelim) against the traitor Lord Mondus and the O’Mondim who are at his command.  Eventually, of course, worlds collide when Lord Mondus’ followers come to Plymouth to take back the Chain and Ealger, a young boy of the Ethelim is sent by the Valorim to also retrieve it.  Trunco are wielded by gumena weardas on the shores of Plymouth.  It’s all very exciting.

And if that last paragraph confuses you, just imagine how I felt while writing it.  I had to go back to the book and check the glossary to make sure it was correct.  Maybe I’m turning into a crank before my time, but it seems like, when I was young, fantasy books had names and titles and loyalties that were easier to keep track of (then again, I haven’t been reading Game of Thrones, so I may just be a crank).

I ended up reading all of the bits of the book that take place in Plymouth and the bits that didn’t include too much confusing language that I don’t understand (easy to do, because the parts with the Ethelim/Valorim/O’Mondim stuff are very kindly printed in italics).  And you know what?  It’s well written.  Some parts of it are even beautifully (illil) written.  Gary Schmidt can write people – real people, complex people, with real feelings: Tommy’s embarrassment at his childish lunchbox, his growing wonder as he discovers the Chain, his love for his dad and sister, his (and their) loss and grief over his mother’s death, his confusion and fear when faced with alien powers, his despair, and eventual peace.

I wish I could write people the way Gary Schmidt does.  His ability to make people real is what saves this book.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for his ability to make fantastical aliens with mystical powers real.  I ended up not being able to care for them or their war.  Perhaps I’m just biased towards humans, but somehow, I think not.

Reading Ages: I would ballpark it at 12.  It includes mature themes, like death, war, and betrayal.  But my guess is that a child could read it as young as 10, if they enjoyed fantasy, didn’t mind reading italicized script, and were avid readers.  My sister read The Hobbit at around 12, and it is much more difficult (length and language and plot-wise) than this book.

Rating: B-.  I still have faith in Mr. Schmidt.  For sure, he could do fantasy really well if he chose.  He just has to read some of the greats and get a better feel for how to make it work.

Why I think this is Fantasy and not Sci-Fi: Yes, the mystical people are actually  just aliens, so technically speaking this is a science fiction book, not a fantasy book.  But, actually, there is very little technology (ahem: science) to be seen.  It’s as if the aliens are distinguished from earthlings by their magical ability to fly across universes and do other mystical things.  So I would argue very strongly that this books fits in the fantasy genre.

Fantasy books and authors I recommend (not necessarily for children):  Neil Gaiman (Good Omens, with Terry Pratchett), Charles deLint, Jane Yolen, Guy Gavriel Kay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip Pullman, Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn), The Princess Bride (William Goldman)…I have packed up a great deal of books owing to lack of shelf space and not reading them very often, so I am a bit blank at the moment, but these are a good start.

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