Book Reviews: A Ton of Gold by James R. Callan and Defy by Sara B. Larson

A Ton of GoldA Ton of Gold
James R. Callan
Dark Oak Mysteries, January 2013
ISBN 978-1-61009-118-3
Trade Paperback

James Callan’s book, A Ton of Gold, is a fast-paced adventure story set in Texas between Dallas and a small rural community where people know their next door neighbor’s name and folk tales run rampant. How much of a folk tale is true and how much is fantasy? Some people don’t know the difference. When the tale of a wagon load of gold lost in a rural lake falls on the ears of dangerous men, their desperate measures to find the gold include intimidation, murder, kidnapping and firebombs.

Crystal Moore, a young computer programmer, is caught up in the actions of men who believe the tale and will stop at nothing to find the gold. Her life is turned upside down when her beloved Nana’s estate is attacked and Nana goes missing. With the help of Crystal’s handsome boss and loyal co-workers, they set out to find the men responsible and discover the truth of the tale.

Overcoming her own insecurities, Crystal must face challenging encounters with the killers. Encouraged by her courageous ability to deal with the killers, she gains the personal strength to stand up and defend her intellectual accomplishments in the workplace.

Discovering the truth behind the folk tale is the major plot of the story, but I found the subplot of how Crystal deals with a bitter and crushing defeat in her personal life the most interesting part of the novel.

James Callan’s novel, A Ton of Gold, is well-written, has a compelling storyline and believable characters. Highly recommended reading for adventure readers.

Reviewed by Elaine Faber, January 2014.
Review originally posted on Amazon.

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DefyDefy
Sara B. Larson
Scholastic Press, January 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-59758-6
Hardcover

I very much wanted to like Defy, a Young Adult fantasy debut from author Sara B. Larson. The premise recalls some of my favorite books, from modern classics like Tamora Pierce’s Alanna to recent bestsellers in the vein of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling. Orphaned in the brutal war that is consuming her country, teenager Alexa Hollen is forced to disguise herself as a boy. “Alex” turns out to be an exceptional swordfighter, and rises to a place on the palace guard. Tasked with protecting the arrogant Prince Damian from a conspiracy of powerful sorcerers, Alex is drawn into a dangerous plot that just might save the kingdom.

Unfortunately, Defy didn’t work for me. The chief problem is the conception of the protagonist and the conflicts that she faces. Alex may be intended as a “strong female character,” in the sense that she is a skilled fighter who learns to be even better over the course of the book. However, physical prowess isn’t enough to make a main character effective when she is never in the position to make any important choices or to drive the direction of the story in any meaningful way.

Throughout Defy, Alex reacts to choices made by others. Most of the suspense in the novel comes about because other characters refuse to tell the protagonist what is really going on. Alex repeatedly comments within the narration that no one will answer her questions, and as a reader I understood how she felt.

Usually when an author plays this kind of game, I assume they are covering for the fact that the answer to the mystery isn’t very interesting. However, in this case, it turns out there’s a lot of compelling stuff going on behind the scenes. This makes the choice to withhold the truth from Alex (and the reader) for most of the book puzzling. There’s a good story hiding in Defy. First-time novelist Larson may just not have found the best way to share it, yet.

As it is, the only thing Alex has to focus on for most of the book is whether she loves Prince Damian (the guy who keeps lying to her) or her comrade-in-arms Rylan (the guy whose seduction strategy consists of whining because she isn’t his girlfriend already). There’s nothing wrong with having romance in a fantasy novel, but it’s a good idea to give some sense of what the characters see in each other. In this case, Alex seems to like both boys solely because they’re physically attractive. That’s better than the guys, who instantly fall for Alex as soon as they find out she is biologically female. I’m not being facetious. “I realized you were a girl” is literally the only reason that either of them gives for liking her.

It is possible that Alex may actually be the only girl that Rylan and Damian know, and this leads to a note about some extremely disturbing content in the book. (Consider this a warning for discussion of sexual assault). You see, Alex’s main motivation for joining the guard is not that she wants to be a soldier, but that girls are routinely sent to “breeding houses” where they will be systematically raped. This is bluntly stated several times in the book, and while there aren’t any graphic scenes, several very young girls are depicted being prepared for sexual slavery.

I’m not here to police what makes appropriate reading material for Young Adults. Still, Defy‘s use of systematic rape as a plot device strikes a particularly sour note in light of the types of content that are missing from the book. Alex laments that she can’t be with the prince because he couldn’t marry her. It never crosses this teenage girl’s mind that sex might occur outside of marriage. Likewise we are repeatedly told that Alex’s male suitors didn’t start liking her until they knew she was a girl. Despite the gender-bending premise, nary a hint of homosexual attraction is presented as a possibility.

I’m not saying that this novel needs to contain gay romance or premarital sex, but it seems a little ludicrous that neither idea ever occurs to Alex, even in passing. I don’t know if the author, editor, or publisher makes these decisions, but the idea of rape being more acceptable content for a teen audience than consensual sex is a value judgment that ought to be reconsidered.

The writing in Defy does show some promise: Alex’s voice is strong, and the basic plot is well-constructed in a way that kept me turning pages. Furthermore, there is a lot of possibility in the world that Larson has created, which makes me interested in what kind of stories she will be able to tell in the future. Overall, though, Defy doesn’t live up to its potential, and I can’t recommend it.

Reviewed by Caroline Pruett, January 2014.