While Thomas Wharton is more famous for award-winning adult novels like Icefields (1995) and Salamander (2001), readers of his latest project will recognize immediately that his Perilous Realm trilogy of fantasy novels for young adults is a true passion for the Edmonton author. Within only a few pages of The Shadow of Malabron (the first book in the trilogy), the central character Will Lightfoot is thrust into a wild alternative universe called the Perilous Realm. Despite Will's claims that he's got to get back to the "real world," it's obvious that he (and Wharton, for that matter) absolutely revels in the magic of the Realm.
While Wharton's trilogy is a wholesome family affair, the books are also quite romantic due to Rowen, a powerful, beautiful young girl who rescues Will upon his fall into the Perilous Realm and who makes it her project to help Will find his way home. Rowen is certainly well-connected: Her grandfather, Master Pembrake, is the national loremaster. Since the Perilous Realm is a place where stories hold the key to understanding everything the loremaster can, and does, help Will return home by the end of the first book. On the way, however, Will falls hard for the colourful, often strangely spiritual country, and for Rowen.
The recently released second book in the trilogy, The Fathomless Fire, dubiously begins with Will's father allowing him to go back to the Realm, chasing an ominous prediction given to him by a shadow on his bedroom wall. Once there, Will finds out two surprising things: One, that while only a few weeks have passed in his world, a year has gone by in the Realm; and two, that Will's adventures have made him into something of a local celebrity.The mythology behind the Perilous Realm trilogy is complicated and sometimes mystifying. In the first book, Wharton relied too heavily on symbolism. However, The Fathomless Fire shows Wharton getting comfortable as a fantasy writer. When Will returns to the Realm, we see its landscape of rising forests and desert plains in full colour. The publisher provides no map within the book's pages, but there are enough rich sensory details to make the Realm feel close at hand. Readers also begin to make sense of the logistical concerns of the books, such as what it means when the characters talk of going into a Tapestry or how certain tokens provide assistance for Will and Rowen on their quests, and this allows readers to more fully trust their author in weaving a true story of his own. Wharton's love of lore – those steadfast bits of narrative that manage to stick to us until it seems unclear where story ends and reader begins – was an unwieldy theme in the first book, something he kept going back to, but never quite harnessed. The stakes of The Fathomless Fire boil this theme down to something clearer and simpler: the right for multiple stories to exist. To a cynical adult reader, this seems like a pluralism metaphor, and of course it is. But to young readers of about 8 to 12, this will make for intoxicating, breathless fantasy.
It might take an especially patient child to sift through the many layers of meaning and symbol in the Perilous Realm books. Wharton's poetic language – lovely from the outset in his gifted naming of Realm terminology such as "Nightbane," "werefire," "Storyfolk" and "the Ironwise" – make this a natural pick for reading aloud. It called to my memory afternoons in my Grade 5 classroom, where our teacher would read to us to calm us down after lunch. Do teachers still spend such large swaths of time reading aloud to their classes, acting out the voices, explaining hairy plot points, and giving the students a few minutes to wonder amongst themselves what will happen next? If not, these books may inspire them to.
Lucy Silag is the author of the Beautiful Americans novels for young adults.