Monday, July 6, 2009

The Voyage of the Artic Tern

Title: The Voyage of the Arctic Tern
Author: Hugh Montgomery
Illustrator: Nick Poullis
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Price: $16.99 (hardcover)
ISBN: 0763619027

The Voyage of the Arctic Tern is a far-flung tale of an ancient fisherman, Bruno, searching for redemption after he brings about the demise of his fellow villagers after a bargain gone bad with a vicious Viking, Mad Dog. Bruno is sentenced to a life of immortality to suffer the guilt of killing his friends, and he can’t be freed until he saves a life, rescues one betrayed, and finds and gives away great wealth. And while those may seem like daunting tasks for one man, Bruno receives help in these tasks. There is Stephen Hunter, a Lord and seaman, Christopher Edge, a physician with a specialty in poisons, and Adrian, a talented cook and barman. All three work with Bruno across time and sea to help him towards his goal of mortality.

The most engaging and interesting part of this book is the fact that it is entirely in verse—rather like an epic poem for kids. I was surprised to find a piece of YA fiction in verse, because that doesn’t strike me as something a kid would want to read. And while I was pretty worried about reading a sort of modern epic poem (especially after having spent a semester with Milton in a Renaissance Literature class), I was pleasantly surprised. The writing was neither too heavy nor too Dr. Seuss-y (I love Dr. Seuss, but there’s a time and a place). It was enjoyable and even more entertaining to read allowed. My one complaint is that the rhyme scheme did not always feel consistent, meaning you weren’t always positive how or what the author was trying to rhyme. While it doesn’t really affect the reading of the story, for those of us who have had various English epics thrust down our throats, it’s a bit disconcerting.

The story itself is as interesting as the mode it is presented in, however, it is very simple. There are no real big surprises or plot twists, but the endearingness of the story is enough to keep you interested, along with your investment with the characters. Bruno the fisherman is silent and somewhat brooding, but kind, and the reader isn’t aware of his sordid past until farther into the book. The other three main protagonists are the sort of people to be admired—noble, loyal, and intelligent. And the antagonist, Mad Dog, is someone to be despised and somehow seems to step out of the pages the most strongly out of all the characters (except perhaps Bruno). The characters strong admirable or despicable traits lend them well to a somewhat moralistic story about the triumph of good over evil, even if it takes two thousand years.

One of the best features of this story is how the author takes the time to bring the reader from the present into the past, giving parts of a story that could have happened yesterday as well as two hundred years ago. He also takes the time to point out locations that still exist, according to him, in Plymouth, England (where most of the story takes place). It adds a really pleasant air of truth to a story one would most likely never believe to be true. He is also just vague enough where, if you have the imagination for it, you could believe the written events just might have occurred.

Another very fun quality to the story are the sort of foggy and eerie illustrations. There are illustrations on nearly every page and they are done in such a way that they put you in the mind of mist and fog, which is often described, in the book. You can’t quite make out a character’s face or pick out distinct features on a building. It fits well with the vagueness the author features as he mentions certain figures (such as an unnamed queen of England in search of peace with Spain).

All in all, the book is a fun read, particularly enjoyable on a sunlit porch looking over the water. It intrigues the imagination and tickles the tongue.

Comparable Reads: It makes me think of the stories I read late in elementary school. There is something C. S. Lewis-esque about it, but not quite so morally driven and much less fantastical. It also made me think of a movie: Pirates of the Caribbean. While you don’t have Captain Jack Sparrow, the high adventure and conniving pirates sort of take you there.

Who this book is for: The age set for this book is definitely middle to late elementary school aged and into middle school. That’s not to say older children wouldn’t like it, or you couldn’t read it to your younger ones, though. In fact, I see this book best being used for rainy afternoon or nights with the family during summer break. Parents should enjoy reading this aloud to their kids, and I think the kids, at any age, would enjoy having it read to them. I think that kids could have a great time imagining the story to be true and spending a day at the ocean spotting the Arctic Tern among the waves, or searching for lost treasure.

Despite the thickness of the book, it is only 212 pages long, and I’d say only 20 to 25 lines per page, due to the fact that it’s in verse. I think the book could be managed quickly. I also think it’d be a useful opener for teachers to use to introduce epic poems. An elementary or middle school teacher could read this to her class, or have her students read it to give a taste of the parts of an epic poem and to bring about others, such as The Odyssey.

That said, this book is definitely not for everyone. The verse, I imagine, could make it unpalatable for more people than if it were just written in prose. For me, it makes the book, for others, I could the verse ruining the experience. It does rhyme, but as I mentioned before, I don’t feel as though it’s Dr. Seuss-y. I think it’s mostly a matter of personal taste.

Happy reading!