LitStack Review: Hero by Alethea Kontis

Hero (The Woodcutter Sisters)Hero
Alethea Kontis
Harcourt Children’s Books
Release Date:  October 1, 2013
ISBN 0-5440-5677-9

Finally!  A book with a girl – well, young woman, she’s at least 16 –  who is the hero, who isn’t confused about the fact that she’s the hero.  Who doesn’t normally wear skirts and doesn’t particularly like dresses but doesn’t make a big deal about it when she needs to wear one.  Who has a magical sword that is bonded to her, but she’s still not that good of a swordsman – but she’s getting better!  And who doesn’t really see herself as a hero, but knows she has a destiny and is anxious to find and fulfill that destiny, and if that means being a hero, then so be it.  No big whoop.

Saturday Woodcutter knows she is special – everyone in her family is – but she is the only one in her family who does not have some sort of magical talent.  Her sister, Monday, turns heads and gathers hearts with her ethereal beauty.  Her eldest brother, Jack, was a famous adventurer, of whom many stories were told – at least before he was cursed into the body of a dog and never seen again.  Her fey foster brother, Trix, is aided by all the animals.  And her mother only speaks the truth, so whenever she tells someone to do something, they are compelled to do it.  Great if you’re the mother – not so great if you’re the teen-aged daughter!

But Saturday is only special when she’s wielding her name gift (given to her at birth from her Fairy Godmother, Joy) – a sword that gives her energy and allows her to heal from any wound taken.  Well, at first her gift had been a plain, ordinary ax, until it was used to chop down a monstrous, giant-bearing bean stalk; that’s when it turned into a sword.  Without the sword, Saturday is mundanely normal, just an “overly tall girl with overly large hands and an overly loud mouth.”

Or is she?

Saturday yearns for adventure, but when she is unexpectedly spirited away (quite literally!) to the mountain at the Top of the World, she learns that adventures are not always full of action and derring do.  Sometimes they are just plain confusing, trading one monotonous existence for another, especially when the only options for escaping the clutches of the evil witch who has imprisoned her (in a rather amazing instance of mistaken identity) involve either unleashing a dragon or destroying the world.

The witch (and her iridescent raven familiar) is not the only creature Saturday encounters in the caves  deep in the mountain.  Young Peregrine, son of the Earl of Starburn, had lost track of how long he had been trapped in the caves, tricked and then cursed into trading places with Leila, the witch’s beautiful daughter (made possible by the fact that the witch’s eyes had been gouged out years ago by none other than dashing Jack Woodcutter).  Accompanying Peregrine is the chimera, Betwixt, so named because over the years of imprisonment he had lost control over when or what form he would change into, but he was “always some creature betwixt one animal and another”.  The two – man and critter – had become friends and allies over the years.

It is only when Saturday and Peregrine put aside their fears -and egos – that they are able to come up with a plan to escape the witch’s lair.  But when a strategy goes terribly wrong, their hand is forced and hard decisions need to be made.  Will Saturday be able to find within herself the strength to use the powers she never even knew she possessed?

Hero is a fantastically engaging story that weaves fairy tale, folklore and all sorts of magical reference into a wild literary ride that can be enjoyed by all ages, including youngsters.  The second installment of what appears to be a Woodcutter Sisters series (Hero is touted as the “companion” to 2012’s Enchanted, which was about the youngest Woodcutter sister, Sunday, and Friday’s story is to be recounted in Beloved, set to be released in 2014), Hero takes elements of so much of our wonderland type of culture and makes them the foundation of the realm of Arilland, where Saturday’s family dwells, and all the kingdoms that surround it (including when one crosses over to the fairy realm).

Unfortunately, the book does have some shortcomings, especially at the onset.  Saturday’s immediate and distant family is so huge that it’s hard to keep track of everyone, what with the seven sisters (named after the days of the week, ala the “Monday’s Child” poem) and seven maternal sisters (inexplicably named One through Seven, with all but Seven – Saturday’s mother – giving themselves different names, such as Sorrow and Joy and Rose Red), a father, two brothers, a foster-brother, and a few key household assistants.  Many of these characters also have specific talents, attached magics, a unique history (also involving other referenced characters) and magical talismans.  There is virtually no exposition regarding these characters and relationships and items, and very little in way of introduction, leaving the reader to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of these disparate aspects without a good template of what the original picture is supposed to look like.  If explanations are made, they are often given after the fact, once the action is already underway, which is somewhat off-putting.

Then there are the blithe hints and innuendo and out and out references to various fairy tales and folklore, as part of the family history or world environment; they fly by without a strong and consistent framework, leaving the reader to make sense of those hints and references on their own.  While flights of fancy can be fun, without a good frame of reference they can turn frantic and unbalanced.  For much of this book, I felt unbalanced.  Charmed by the story but often confused; it took over half the book before I was confident enough to completely lose myself in the tale.

Still and all, Hero is very imaginative, something I appreciated even with the narrative weaknesses.  I felt no lack from it being appropriate for all ages; nothing was stilted from being too naive nor overtly sensational merely to be “different”.  As the story progressed, it became stronger, more involving and engaging.  It was entertaining.  It was ultimately refreshing.

Heck, it was fun.  And in the end, isn’t that what a good story is all about?