5 stars out of 5
After I read all of J.K. Rowling's beyond-wonderful Harry Potter books, I said to myself, "Self, no one could possibly top these as young-adult fiction, at least not in the fantasy realm."
T-h-h-hat's my story and I'm stickin' to it. But tell you what: John Connolly gives her a darned good run for the money. This, the first in a fantasy thriller series featuring 11-year old Samuel Johnson, conjures up visions of things almost more frightening than He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named or any of the other obstacles Harry and his pals ever encountered. And, it's written with lots of humor (mostly around the 6th- or 7th-grade level, to be sure, but then that's right about where my funny bone got stuck a long time ago so I can relate). Really.
The plot centers on young Samuel, who through no fault of his own runs into supernatural elements while he's out trick-or-treating (a couple of days early to get a head start) in his hometown of Biddlecombe, England. Some kind of portal, it seems, inexplicably has opened up that allows very nasty dead folks - the kind who live in Hades, if such a place exists - to return to the present. Of course, they aren't here just to see all the new technology; no, they're hell-bent, so to speak, on destroying the world as Samuel, his family, friends and loyal dog Boswell, know it (Boswell: Samuel's dog. Get it)? Thrown in the mix is Nurd, a surprisingly likable demon lord who got through the portal by no fault of his own and, also by no fault of his own, befriends Samuel.
Needless to say, Samuel has a tough time trying to convince the adults about what he knows is happening - that is, until they start seeing it for themselves. But then, what's a mother (or a cousin or a Vicar or a scientist) to do? Lots of mayhem, mangling and heads coming out of places no head should ever be ensues, with creatures both human and not losing their lives and dozens of limbs until a solution is found (thanks, of course, to the ingenuity of Samuel and a couple of his young human friends).
Interspersed throughout are links to footnotes, and while I didn't bother checking them until I'd finished the book, I'll advise readers not to miss reading them at the end. They, too, are humorous, but perhaps more important (at least to parents and teachers), they have considerable educational value, to-wit:
"Because atoms are so small, and are constantly recycled, every breath you take contains atoms that were once breathed by Julius Caesar and Elvis Presley. So, a little bit of you formerly ruled Rome, and sang "Blue Suede Shoes."
"Whenever someone uses the word 'glitch,' which means a fault of some kind in a system, you should immediately be suspicious, because it means they don't know what it is."
The Gates by John Connolly (Atria Books, October 2009); 308 pp.