Jackie French Koller,
The Keepers #1:
A Wizard Named Nell

(Aladdin, 2003)

The best children's fantasy books, like Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth and Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, appeal to both children and readers well out of childhood. This is not the case with Jackie French Koller's undistinguished fantasy series, The Keepers.

Colorful, brisk, easy to follow and featuring a brave young heroine of just 11 years of age, A Wizard Named Nell has qualities that may recommend it to very young fantasy readers. However, reduced down to basics, it is the tale of a princess on a quest to save her world from an all powerful Dark Lord -- a tale that is very familiar and has been told, rather better, many times before. Originality never once rears its head in the tale of Nell's quest to become the next apprentice to the Keeper of the Light, whose job it is to hold the Dark Forces (capitals absolutely required) at bay.

The extent to which A Wizard Named Nell falls into fantasy cliches can be verified by looking at entries for "Dark Lord," "Missing Heirs" and "Minions of the Dark Lord" in Diana Wynne Jones's mercilessly satirical Tough Guide to Fantasyland, published in 1996. Nothing is actually wrong with using a few fantasy tropes, but Koller slaps these in her story without ever pausing to fully explore any of them.

Eldearth feels like a movie set rather than a fully realized world with its own history and rules. Incongruous bits of modernity in what is otherwise a generic, quasi-medieval fantasy world are particularly apparent in the dialogue. Raechel, the sweet, terminally ill child (see "Plague" in the Tough Guide) remarks of Nell's inevitable dragon sidekick, "She be so cute." Thankfully, the writing isn't always that bad, but some of it, combined with some very sloppy copyediting, is worth a cringe or two.

Good characterization might compensate for some of the book's other flaws, but Nell and her supporting cast possess little depth. Adults, as in the Harry Potter books, tend to be either totally ineffectual (if well intentioned) or narrow-minded, incompetent and ultimately obstructive to the execution of Good by the young protagonist. Nell herself is irritating in her perfection. She is alone in being progressive, compassionate and clear-sighted, but there is never any doubt that the conservative adults who surround her are uncomplicatedly wrong in their views. (Most of them, however, praise her bravery and kindness. Often.)

Koller's messages are perfectly sound, but the repeated emphasis on the need for social consciousness between different species, classes and genders comes across as heavy-handed and unnecessarily didactic. There is no reason why children's fantasy cannot be original, intelligent and profound, as well as entertaining. Unfortunately, the Keepers series, despite its attractive covers (kudos to artist Rebecca Guay), isn't really any of the above.

There are, however, plenty of books that are. Young fantasy readers are much better off with Sherwood Smith's Wren books, Tamora Pierce's Magic Circle quartet, or Diana Wynne Jones's Chrestomanci books, which all feature more interesting young protagonists and thoughtfully crafted magical worlds.

by Jennifer Mo
15 July 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.