Friday, March 28, 2014

The Secret Journeys of Jack London, Book Two: The Sea Wolves by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

A chilling, thrilling tribute to London’s Sea-Wolf
As a middle-aged reader, I don’t make a habit out of reading so-called “young adult” fiction, but how can I resist when it pays homage to one of my favorite authors? The Secret Journeys of Jack London series is a delightfully clever tribute to the great American storyteller. Ostensibly these are the writer’s most unbelievable adventures—stories so bizarre that London himself was too scared to tell them. Authors Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon combine scenes, settings, and characters from London’s life and literature with fantasy and horror elements aimed at today’s young readers. The result could have been a nightmare, but surprisingly, this series really works. Book Two: The Sea Wolves, isn’t quite as smart and captivating as its predecessor, Book One: The Wild, but it’s still a great read for fans of London or anyone who appreciates a good adventure story.

Book Two picks up right where Book One left off. On his way back from the Yukon, London’s steamer is boarded by a brutal band of pirates hunting for gold. The invaders kill many of the ship’s passengers and take several others captive, among them young Jack London. While the rest of the prisoners are locked up in the pirate ship’s hold, London is given special treatment. The sadistic captain takes a special interest in young Jack, appoints him ship’s cook, and occasionally engages him in intellectual conversations about literature and ethics. The parallels between this book and London’s novel The Sea-Wolf are intentional and obvious. The tale that Golden and Lebbon present here purports to be the experience that inspired London to write that famous work. While Book One did a great job of alluding to London’s works while creating something entirely new, Book Two at times clings a little too closely to its source material. These books should encourage young readers to seek out works like The Sea-Wolf, not render them redundant.

Because this second installment makes frequent references to the series debut, you really must read Book One first in order to understand what’s going on here. London uses certain “powers” that he acquired in the first volume. If the authors had just let the past go and allowed this second volume to stand on its own two feet, the result would have been a stronger book. Instead the novel is somewhat overpowered by its series. The ending of Book Two feels partially unresolved, as it segues into book three, which was recently published under the title White Fangs.

The plot of the book is as exciting and action-packed as any Hollywood horror thriller, but also just as predictable. The novel’s only big surprise is given away by the title and the cover illustration. What really saves the book and elevates it above mediocre genre trash is its well-crafted prose. Golden and Lebbon don’t dumb down the vocabulary or syntax for their young audience. There are plenty of “grown-up” novelists who can’t put a paragraph together nearly as well as these guys can. They are also quite adept at creating situations fraught with edge-of-your-seat suspense, even when the outcome of such situations may be a foregone conclusion.

Despite the fact that this second installment is a step down from the first, it’s still quite entertaining and certainly worth its cover price. I look forward to seeing where the authors take London next. If only there were a big enough young audience interested in London and his works, the Secret Journeys would make a great TV series.

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