June 4, 2010


by Patrick Carman
330 pages, Little, Brown and Company

Review by Melissa Conway

I’m always interested in hearing why a person chose a particular book, especially if they’ve never read the author before and no one recommended it. Was it the cover that attracted them? Did the first page draw them into the story? In the case of my choosing The House of Power, it was because the author blurb at the back of the book said Patrick Carman lives in Walla Walla, Washington, a stone’s throw from me.

Walla Walla, aside from having a name that rolls off the tongue in a satisfying manner (wallawallawallawalla), is not so much a happenin’ town. 30,000-plus-change people live in this agricultural community (where they grow mostly sweet onions and wine grapes). It’s the perfect place to live if you enjoy a cup of solitude with your isolation. The nearest zoo, significant museum, or theme park is a day-trip away. I’m not suggesting Walla Walla is a cultural wasteland. Like any town where the word ‘traffic’ is relevant only when someone hit a deer on the highway with their truck, time passes differently there.

In Walla Walla, Patrick Carman probably has plenty of time to contemplate life; more than contemplate, in fact, he has clearly found the time to invent entire worlds with their own unique cultures, politics, and life forms.

The House of Power is book one of the Atherton series, written for middle grade readers. Right off I’ll tell you it’s one of those books where the story isn’t neatly wrapped with a bow on top by the end. There are two kinds of series,’ the kind where each book can stand on its own (like Star Wars), and the kind that leaves off rather abruptly, requiring you to purchase the next (and probably the next) in the series to find out how it all ends. Some people are put off by this if they are taken unaware and *really* need to know what happens. So, heads up.

Although The House of Power doesn’t delve too deeply into the series’ underlying theme until the end, there are similarities to The Lord of the Flies (an experiment wherein the defects of society are shown to be a result of the defects in human nature).

Scattered throughout the pages of The House of Power are pencil-drawn pictures depicting the elements that make up Atherton. As soon as the astute reader sees the shape of this world, they begin to suspect what’s going to happen. The publisher has put the drawings here in case you’re wondering.

The denizens of Atherton don’t know it, but they live in a very small world. In the Highlands, there is a castle and horses and most important, water. Far below, down a vast and unscalable cliff, lies Tabletop, where they grow figs in one village, rabbits in another, and sheep in the third. Beyond Tabletop, down another immense cliff, are the flatlands, which as far as anyone knows, is devoid of all life. And that pretty much sums up the world of Atherton.

People in the Highlands are the elite. They rule on high over Tabletop because they control the only source of water. One waterfall per village, guarded day and night by Highland thugs. Lord Phineus is the high mucky-muck in the House of Power and he’s not a benevolent ruler. Tabletop must pay for their water with the best and most of their three commodities. The folk in the Highlands are educated; Tabletop has never seen a book. Lord Phineus’ lackey, Mr. Ratikan, is the abusive overseer of the fig orchards in Tabletop. It is he who controls the workers, including the children, by denying them water and food. When the earthquakes begin, no one suspects that ordered life as they know it on Atherton is about to get a whole lot more complicated.

Little Edgar of the grove is our hero. He’s been obsessed with climbing since a man he barely remembers told him to look for something hidden on the cliff. One day he finds a mysterious journal wedged in a crevice, but of course can’t read it. Although Tabletoppers are forbidden access to the Highlands, Edgar’s solution is to climb up to find someone to tell him what it says. Young Samuel turns out to be just the ticket, a kid who lives in the House of Power and knows many of its secrets.

Samuel doesn’t read very far when evil Sir Emerick shows up, gets his grubbies on the book and gives it to Lord Phineus. Edgar doesn’t find out (yet) that Atherton is a man-made world, and the people living there have only done so for a short while, with no memory of their previous lives on what’s left of the earth. But the book doesn’t tell them that the mad-scientist who created this specialized, super-sized eco-system has some surprises in store for them.

Because it turns out Edgar didn’t need to climb up to the Highlands. If he’d only waited a few days, Tabletop would have come down to him.

Carman’s characterizations are meant for grade-school readers, so adults have to forgive him for personality simplification. The baddies are one-dimensionally bad (we don’t have any idea why, in this idyllic world, they got so twisted, but perhaps book 2 or 3 explains it. I vote for it being the direct result of our mad-scientist world-builder tossing a few psychopaths in the mix), and the innocent are very much so. There is no grey area until the Highlands come down with a thump, leaving Lord Phineus determined to keep control, and spurring the simple folk of Tabletop to decide they just might be able to wrest it from him. Although the end of the book gives glimpses into the political and sociological upheaval to come (don’t forget the flatlands!), the one thing Carman doesn’t touch upon is the one thing a wicked guy like Lord Phineus would most assuredly be concerned with: sex. Phineus kicks just about everyone out of the House of Power to wait out the expected siege—even the women! He knows what’s coming (from the flatlands!) and expects to be pretty much the only survivor. Which is crazy, since the world only has, what? A thousand or so people?

Lord Phineus’ necessary (to maintain the grade-school aspect) asexuality aside, I can see the next installments will get into the nitty gritty of what happens sociologically when a group of schoolboys crash-land on an uninhabited island – oh, whoops! That’s The Lord of the Flies—my bad. All kidding aside (this book is nothing like LotF), House of Power is fast-paced and smart and if it kept me reading, the target audience will probably love it. The one thing it lacked was humor, but that’s a personal preference of mine, and its absence didn’t detract from the story.

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