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I sing baritone in a community chorus. I may have mentioned this in a past review of books that I found at New York City’s Books of Wonder – the children’s book equivalent of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. I owe some of those reviews to this chorus, which was in New York for a date at Carnegie Hall. Apropos to this book: when I brought The Lighthouse Land to a recent rehearsal, to read during a break, one of the veteran members of the chorus saw it and was struck by the paperback’s beautiful cover art. “When you’re done with that book,” he said, “bring it to me. It looks like something I would like to read.”
Once again, behold! The power of a book’s first, visual impression. My copy of The Lighthouse Land depicts a massive, cylindrical lighthouse rising up out of an icy sea, and a tiny sailboat slipping between two massive ships made entirely of ice. It’s a chilling, awesome scene of alien-world wonder, and that’s where this story is about to take you. But it begins in…heh…New York City.
Jamie O’Neill is a New York boy who doesn’t speak. This has nothing to do with the fact that his parents are happily divorced. It doesn’t even directly result from his trauma of nearly dying of cancer. Jamie thinks it has more to do with the fact that the doctors had to cut his hand off to save his life. He isn’t whole, and for that reason, on some deep level, he has decided to shut down oral communication with the outside world.
Then, suddenly, Jamie’s mother inherits a tiny island called Muck, off the coast of Northern Ireland, complete with a house and a fortune of money. Very unwillingly, he goes with her to their new home and starts school in the Belfast suburb of Carrickfergus, where the author was born and raised. Perhaps the author also knew a boy like Ramsay McDonald, the fearless, charismatic, mathematical genius who shares Jamie’s school-bus stop, and who immediately takes him under his wing. I like the way Ramsay sums up Jamie’s predicament…
“You used to speak and now you don’t because you don’t want to. In the Xbox of life you’ve deliberately selected Degree of Difficulty: Hard. Hmmm. you’re a bit mental, aren’t you?”
…Ramsay is refreshingly candid and talkative, in contrast to Jamie’s inwardness and silence. The two make an interesting pair. What is remarkable is how their relationship changes, and yet stays the same, when they travel together through an interdimensional wormhole and arrive in an icy world halfway across the universe – a world where Jamie has both his hand and his voice, and where his destiny as the Laird of Muck (a minor title that came with the island and the house) is to save a strange, alien people from a barbarian invasion. Suddenly Jamie is the dominant one, the leader, and Ramsay is his faithful squire. Funny how that works.
Is Jamie up to the task that his fully-grown, heroic ancestors performed before him? Of course not. He makes a complete mess of things, as only an American kid going through two simultaneous loads of culture shock can. But can he still save the world, the girl, and his mom? Aha! You’ll have to peel back that pretty cover and find out for yourself. But don’t worry too much. This is a trilogy, after all; the next book is called The Lighthouse War.