Ring of Fire
by Pierdomenico Baccalario
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The Ring of Fire / 978-0-37-585895-6
The difficulty with reviewing books for children is that, well, I'm not a child, and I can only rely on my admittedly imperfect memory to decide whether a book I don't like *now* could, perhaps, have been more likable when I was younger. With "Ring of Fire", however, I am fairly confident that I would find this book tedious and tiresome regardless of my age.
"Ring of Fire" starts out well enough. A string of coincidences (or are they? *cue suspenseful music*) end with four children, all born on February 29th, sharing a room on New Year's Eve. It's hinted that each child has an unusual or supernatural ability, but we really only learn that the quasi-main character, Elettra, has the "ability" to see her reflection when she closes her eyes and cannot use mirrors too often or they "get dull". Also, electronic things sometimes go haywire whenever she's around - your basic Magic Child syndrome symptoms, basically.
When a mysterious blackout covers the city, ostensibly caused by Elettra's issues with electricity and technology, the children spill out curiously onto the streets of Rome, and here is where we hit the biggest obstacle with this book - the Psychic Scavenger Hunt. Every event from here on in the book is driven by the children going to a specific location (the professor's favorite cafe, the professor's library office, the professor's secret apartment flat, etc.) in order to find a clue (a map! a business card! a ringing phone with an old acquaintance on the other end!) to propel them to the NEXT location. Half the time, the impetus that sends the children to their next scheduled stop is nothing more than a "feeling" that they need to go to such-and-so place, or a mysterious "feeling" that they need to *leave* the current place.
This may seem like a small point, but these random and unlikely "feelings" and "clues" drive the entire book from beginning to end, and it's terrible story telling. All drama or exposition is tossed aside in favor of a direct phone line to the author, with him telling the characters which tourist spot in Rome he wants them to shuffle off to next, in order for them to "find" the next clue. It's particularly annoying when the "finding" of the clue is something else equally unlikely, like a map pasted under a diner table that the kids find immediately ('Finding' scenes generally go something like: "Here's the professor's usual table. Let's look under it and see if there's anything there. Hey, there's a map!" How dramatic.) or a phone ringing for their attention when they walk into an apartment.
Coincidence and authorial inserts can drive a plot, though, when there's something else there to compensate and hold the readers interest. All the basic elements are lacking, though - the "villain" is amusingly non-frightening, in spite of the author's insistent attempts to paint him as a scary, urbanite murderer. I swear I am not making this up: the villain in "Ring of Fire" kills people by slitting their throats with a violin bow. Which he also uses to pick locks. And he can play magical music on his violin that hypnotizes people.
As for the MacGuffin itself, the Ring of Fire that the children hunt for, the attempts to shroud the origins (and indeed the point) of the bloody thing fall flat and rather than being intrigued, the reader is just annoyed and bored. Much of the exposition in this area comes off as ridiculous name-dropping as the author attempts to Show His Work and drop in every famous name ever. You see, there's this Magic Map (a wooden thing with grooves in it) and you use it by overlaying a real map (like, say, of Rome) on top of it, and then you locate objects by - I swear this is true - spinning four wooden tops over the map. The tops follow the grooves and come to rest at their magically correct locations. The name-dropping comes into play when the author insert character starts insisting that this map has been used (and signed!!!) by Alexander the Great, the Magi (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus (possibly the oddest one of all because he wouldn't have had a map to lay over the magic one - if he'd HAD a map, he wouldn't have needed the magic map and tops routine), Plato (to find Atlantic, of course), and about 20+ other famous names. Oh, and here are a few more names we're going to drop into the narrative: "Nero", "Seneca", "Aristotle", "Socrates". They don't really have anything to do with the story, per se, but the author looked them up at one point or another when writing this story, so by gum he's going to include them.
When we do get to the 'climax' (such as it is), the entire affair feels rushed and badly done, and the final ending is such a set-up for a proper sequel that it feels like this entire book has been a very long, tedious, and unnecessary introduction to 'the real story'. This is NOT how series should start - the first book should stand on its own as a decent tale, even if it's a decent tale with a cliff-hanger. The first book should not feel (as this book does) like an intro sequence that we finally waded through so that the actual story can begin.
A final note on this book: I'm all about books written in other languages and cultures, but they need to be well-translated and this book is not. Sentences are often unnaturally short and clipped and the tense changes frequently from past tense ("Elettra walked across the room,") to present (",and she picks up the map.") often in the same sentence. I'm not the Grammar Police, but I found the style to be very jerky and un-immersive. Also, I will note here - without prejudice - that the American child of the trio comes off regularly as the most annoying and useless, commonly complaining that the random magic events don't make sense and he just wants to forget all this nonsense and go get a pizza (well, I found the advice rather prudent, but he's supposed to be annoying and it shows). All the other parents (Italian, French, Chinese) are confident and laid-back and allow their kids to solve mysteries all over Rome, but the American parents screech and whine when their teenage son isn't within eyesight and they frequently threaten to sue people whenever they're annoyed. I'll leave it to the reader whether or not this behavior is amusingly-close-to-home or stereotypically-offensive - mileage is going to vary on this one.
I will note that this book made me laugh exactly once - albeit probably not in the way the author intended. When the American boy refuses to follow the magic map saying that "9 times out of 10" it will be wrong, the author insert character snaps back, completely seriously (paraphrase), "So? Nine times out of ten your horoscope will be wrong, but that's no reason not to follow it!!"
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll
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