Dark Whispers (Unicorn Chronicles) Mass Market Paperback – 1 Feb 2010
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I want to say first that I've been a long-time fan of Bruce Coville and his works, especially the Unicorn Chronicles. I love the first two; they're some of my favorite books, with tightly-plotted stories and memorable characters. Though the books are YA novels and I'm a teenager, the language in the descriptions and the cadence of the poetry and songs always caught my heart. So, like many others, I was waiting eagerly for the day when the third book of the beautiful Unicorn Chronicles came out. As soon as I could find it (I live in Asia) I checked it out and devoured it over a weekend...
And, unfortunately, I was rather disappointed. "Dark Whispers" is nearly four times the size of "Into the Land of the Unicorns", and has about a fourth of the excitement. To list the major problems I had with the book:
1. The plot(s) built up into nothing. As noted below, there were many subplots in the book, and the buildup came out into nothing. Just the premise that the final hunt of the unicorns has begun - like we knew that wasn't going to happen. I think it would have meant more if Mr. Coville had stuck with one or two plots and really fleshed them out.
2. Unlike the first two books, "Dark Whispers" splits itself into more than seven different viewpoints, all of which are constantly switching in such a way that it's both annoying and a little hard to track. As soon as one character learns something or begins to find something interesting, Coville moves onto another character.
3. Too many plot coupons - by which I mean there are too many quests going on, too many things to find and finish. The protagonist, Cara, has to find out about a mysterious "Whisperer", a being that has never been mentioned before; her father has to travel across the world to find his wife. Even smaller characters such as M'Gama were sent out on myriad quests for objects that had no real significance in this book.
4. Too much telling, not enough showing. I understand that the demographic for this book is between elementary school and middle school, but even they can understand the difference between showing a character's emotions instead of telling them, e.g. "Anna felt angry" versus "Anna gritted her teeth and glared at Bobby." There was such an abundance of telling in this book that it detracted from the story in some parts. It may be simply because I love writing, but Coville's style felt almost contrived with such a lack of emotion.
5. Description. They weren't bad, per se, but they were recycled: one character was described with "thin limbs with corded muscles" (or something to that extent) in one viewpoint and then described almost the same way in another viewpoint two chapters later. Variety is the spice of life, even in writing, and sometimes it felt like this prose needed some. (Sorry for the bad metaphor; it's cliche, but it works.)
6. Language. And by language, I mean swearing. This might sound ironic coming from a teenager, but I was really shocked by the fact that Coville thought it would be a good idea to include swearing in a CHILDREN'S BOOK. To be fair, the character that cursed was an adult man (Ian Hunter) and it could be argued that he simply did this to be realistic, but seeing the words "What the hell?" in an otherwise tame fantasy put a bad feeling in my stomach. Mr. Coville, if you're reading this (and judging by the one other negative review, you will) why did you think that was a good idea? Surely a seasoned author like yourself could find some way of expressing Ian's anger in a better (and more appropriate) way. Take it from a teen reader - adult language does not make your book more adult.
In short, this book suffers heavily from the "midquel" syndrome - like the second book of a trilogy, it mostly focuses on wrapping up plotlines and setting everything up for the final book. And unlike the other books, it doesn't do it that well. Overall, it doesn't seem like a full book - the cliffhanger is so obvious I almost wish that the last two books had been combined into one. Like another reviewer said, this book has a lot of subplots running around that build into nothing, with a simple epilogue that tells us to wait until the next book of the Unicorn Chronicles.
I can emphasize with Mr. Coville on a point; it took him eight years to write this, and the more time that passed, the more pressure he probably felt to make it a good story. But adding in last-minute plot ideas and swearwords is not the way to do it.
Part of me really hates having to write a negative review for one of my favorite childhood authors, but I hope that perhaps Mr. Coville's final book might be a little bit better for it. I'll read the "The Last Hunt", but I'm going to be warier with it than I was with this one. I'm truly sorry, Mr. Coville. You're still and always will be one of my favorite authors and some of my biggest writing inspiration, but I feel that you really dropped the ball with this book.
Book three explains a lot, but introduces new characters, new twists, new angles, which all build up to ... nothing. The building-up was done very well, but give me a break! The story races along until you hit the brick wall (the "epilogue" which in its essence is this, "everything you thought that this book was supposed to resolve, as well as the new tensions just introduced, is another story altogether. See ya.")
I guess Bruce ran out of space. Whether this disappiontment was the author's decision or the publisher's, my hope is that Book 4 comes out after 9 weeks, and not the 9 years it took for book 3. It's a near-fabulous series, but it needs more frequent installments.
BTW, the "cliffhanger" was so egregious that I was tempted to give only one star. The build-up however, and the entire series, was 4 or 5.