Another cookie-cutter tale of a "Chosen One" informs this awkward mishmash of science fiction and fantasy. Max is a sickly, craven complainer just shy of his 12th birthday when he encounters the bossy and boastful Rose beneath the Owl Tree, where he secretly cares for an injured silver owl, possibly the last of its magical kind. Together the pair ferret out the dreadful secrets of the post-apocalyptic High Echelon and are forced to flee for their lives. Yet an ancient prophecy promises the coming of the Owl Keeper, who alone can stop the Absolute Dark. Overwritten prose wavers between a world of ill-defined magic (Good) and preposterous science (Evil) with clumsy info-dumps contradicting pedestrian descriptions that tell instead of show. While the heroes' implausible friendship is perhaps justified by their shared unpleasantness, their over-the-top enemies are at least entertaining in their cartoonish villainy. Any reader who manages to hang on until the heavily telegraphed climactic twist will be frustrated to find that the whole wearisome slog serves merely as setup to the big battle yet to come. Tedious. (Fantasy. 10-14)
Eleven-year-old Max lives in a post-apocalyptic future ruled by a faceless totalitarian government called the High Echelon. His beloved, deceased grandmother used to tell him stories about the Owl Keeper, who would appear in times of desperate need to unite owls and sages to defeat evil. Told he’s allergic to sunlight, Max sits alone under the “owl tree” each night, awaiting the Keeper, with no one to talk to except an injured silver owl—until a mysterious girl named Rose appears. A hidden message convinces them to venture into the derelict Frozen Zone to seek the Keeper before the government’s terrifying plan for Max’s future takes effect. Brodien-Jones (The Dreamkeepers) has created an uneasy splicing of science fiction and fantasy, where all science is evil and all magic is good. Her characters are likewise black and white, but also frustratingly limp. Max is timid and allows himself to be driven by circumstances and events, giving up time and time again. There are too many unanswered questions about the setting and too many coincidences in the story. Ages 10-up. (Apr.)
Children's Literature - Naomi Butler
Maxwell Unger loves the night and tramping through the forest. He used to do that with his Gran after dark. She told him about the silver owls and how the Owl Keeper would appear to unite owls and sages against the powers of the dark. She also told stories about nature and books and how the world used to be before the Destruction. But Gran is gone, and Max is no longer brave. The High Echelon bans people from being outside at night and says that silver owls are extinct. When a mysterious girl comes to town, she and Max they travel outside at night. The forest is dark and guarded by the High Echelon creatures. They experience many dangerous adventures but look out for the remaining silver owl. The time of the Owl Keeper is coming soon, as Gran would say. This story is a dark but fascinating to read. Reviewer: Naomi Butler
VOYA - Kathleen Beck
In the indeterminate future, the governing High Echelon has caused irreversible climate change by attempting to lengthen the growing season. Now they plan to move the population to domed cities and abandon the countryside. In the small town of Cavernstone Grey, Maxwell Unger approaches his twelfth birthday, when he will be assigned an apprenticeship. Max is a sickly, timid boy who supposedly suffers from an allergy to sunlight. Unbeknownst to his menacing guardian, Mrs. Crumlin, Max sneaks out at night to visit a rare, endangered silver owl found gravely injured. One night he arrives at the owl tree to find a wild-looking, imperious girl named Rose, who astonishes him with tales of the rebels who oppose the High Echelon. When Max makes a terrible discovery about his apprenticeship and Rose finds a copy of the long-suppressed "Silver Prophecy," it is clear that the authorities have been lying to them and the two are in danger. Led by the silver owl, they undertake a perilous journey to seek the Owl Keeper, prophesied leader of the mystical sages who will restore their country. This undemanding dystopian fantasy fails to generate the urgency that would convincingly draw in the reader. The author does not take her own story seriously. The tone is almost jocular, and Max is frankly a weepy wimp who needs a backbone transplant from Rose. The ending forecasts a sequel, with Max as the unlikely new Owl Keeper. Readers of Jeanne DuPrau or Susan Cooper will find this title unsatisfyingly thin. Reviewer: Kathleen Beck
School Library Journal
Gr 5–8—Allergic to sun particles, Max Unger is forced to stay inside during the day with his caregiver, Mrs. Crumlin. He loves the night, since it has pleasant memories of his beloved grandmother, so he sneaks out and visits a silver owl and his new friend, a spirited girl named Rose. He knows that if he is caught he will be in trouble, for silver owls are evil in the eyes of the High Echelon. When Max discovers that Mrs. Crumlin and the High Echelon are preparing him for a sinister job, he makes a daring escape, taking Rose with him. The two follow the words of "the Silver Prophesy" to find the Owl Keeper and hopefully destroy the evil High Echelon for good. While Brodien-Jones fills her dystopic fantasy with many striking images and ideas, she leaves more questions than answers about her world. The prophecy at the beginning of the book echoes the one found in Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising (S & S, 1986), but Brodien-Jones overuses it to push the plot along rather than letting events happen organically. The characters aren't fully fleshed out, especially Rose, who seems more annoying than lovable. By book's end, this appears to be the first in a series. Jeanne DuPrau's "Books of Ember" series (Random) offers a much better dystopic vision for this age group.—Necia Blundy, Marlborough Public Library, MA
Read an Excerpt
When Max first saw the girl that night, standing beneath the owl tree, he thought she was a ghost or a vision, or maybe a comic-book character come to life. It didn't occur to him that she might be real. As far as he knew, nobody real had ever come to the owl tree before.
The girl tilted her head, peering sideways at him. That's no ghost, he told himself, pulling down the flaps of his woolen cap. He shivered, feeling feverish. This field of dry brown grasses was his territory, along with the owl tree that stood in the center. The river below was his too, with its muddy path and view of the forest on the other side. All this belonged to him.
Night after night, Max sat under the owl tree, to be alone to brood and think. He held a secret hope that the Owl Keeper might pass this way, but that had never happened--not yet, anyway--and for sure this girl wasn't the Owl Keeper. He wanted to say she had no right to be there, but the shivering went right through his lips and into his throat, locking the words inside.
He stared at the girl as she looked around in a defiant sort of way. She was tall--string-bean skinny, as Gran used to say--with an oval olive face. Hair fanned from her head in a burst of coppery orange, and leaves were tangled all through it. Max had never seen anyone so disorderly. She looked moody and self-centered. Where had she come from? She couldn't be a Misshapen--they never left the forest--yet she was utterly unlike anyone he had ever known.
Without a word she whipped around, glaring at him with a haughty expression.
Looking into those green eyes, too big for her face, Max could see that the girl was different in a scary kind of way. Those eyes had a lean, hungry look. Her woolly black coat hung to her ankles, a spider dangling from the hem. Sticking out from under it were long, bumpy toes. Nobody around here dressed in clothes like that, and nobody Max knew would dream of going barefoot in this damp climate.
Max had a nervous feeling in his chest. Clenching his teeth, he stepped forward, unsure of what to say. The girl drew herself up. Beneath the coat, her shoulders moved like frail wings. He noticed she was nearly a head taller than he was.
"You don't have any deathwatch beetles attached to your coat, do you?" he asked hesitantly. Didn't she see that spider hanging there? This girl, Max realized, was even more of an outsider than he was.
Her eyes flashed. "What's that supposed to mean?" She jutted out her sharp chin. Her coat smelled like wet leaves.
"Deathwatch beetles are bad luck. They foretell death--that's what my guardian, Mrs. Crumlin, says."
"Death doesn't scare me." The girl pointed to the top of the tree. Despite the cold air, she wasn't wearing mittens. "What's up there?" Her eyes traveled to a small silver-feathered owl, sitting on a high branch.
Max froze. No one knew about the owl. Since last winter he had kept her hidden in the owl tree, away from prying eyes. The problem was, silver owls didn't exist--not officially, at any rate. Silver owls had been declared extinct by the government. "It's just an ordinary barn owl," Max lied. He hoped his owl hadn't heard that remark; she'd be terribly insulted if she had. "She lives in this tree. I call it the owl tree." This girl is acting so uppity, he thought, you'd think the owl was the intruder,not her.
Max adored owls--they were his passion--and he was endlessly fascinated with silver owls. He'd learned volumes about them from his gran. To have this small silver owl appear out of nowhere, he knew, was nothing short of a miracle.
The girl scrunched up her eyes. "I never saw a silver owl before," she said, her voice thin and scratchy.
Neither had Max--not until this owl turned up with a message in her beak. Fearful of her at first, he quickly realized that she was unique, with her heart-shaped face and golden eyes. He didn't mind that she was small and scruffy--her feathers gave offlight, a luminescent glow that silver owls were famous for. It was the kind of light Max imagined at the center of the sun, if only he dared look at it.
"I told you, it's not a silver owl," he insisted. "It's a cousin or some distant relative."
The girl paid him no attention. She couldn't stop looking at the owl. Max wished he had a stronger voice. If his words boomed out, she might listen. She'd probably be impressed if he told her about the message; maybe she'd even help him decipher it.
But the message was his secret, and so was the mystery of his amazing silver owl. Telling this girl anything might be risky. What if the authorities had sent her to spy on him?
"Real silver owls don't exist," she said, her lips set in a fierce line. "That's what they want us to think anyway." She threw him an enigmatic smile.
Alarmed by her comment, Max looked away. How much, he wondered, did this girl know about silver owls? According to the textbooks, countless birds had perished during the Great Destruction. The books said that all the silver owls had.
But Gran had told Max that not every silver owl had been destroyed. Dispersed by the Dark Brigade, the silver owls had been weakened and were in hiding, waiting for the Owl Keeper to appear. One day, said Gran, they would fulfill an ancient Prophecy and bring their OwlSong back to the world. But as Max grew older he'd started to wonder if it was true--or had it just been one of Gran's made-up stories?
From the Hardcover edition.