Thursday, November 8, 2012

What Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt

This MG novel is a bit of a surprise, in that it's not straight contemporary fiction like Schmidt's other recent work, but a combination of contemporary and high fantasy. Many galaxies from the Milky Way, the peaceful world of the Valorim is about to be vanquished by the Lord Mondus and his minions. The evil one isn't just Lord Mondus, but "the Lord Mondus." (I loved that name for a villain.) Just moments before all is lost, the last survivor of the Valorim secretes all of  his people's art in a single forged chain that he sends out into the universe, so that the culture of the Valorim will not be utterly destroyed. The chain tumbles through galaxies until it happens to reach one that contains a certain solar system, which contains a certain blue planet, and completes its journey by landing inside the school lunchbox of twelve-year-old Tommy Pepper.

Tommy's life is steeped in the cares of this world, from the devastating to the trivial. It's his birthday, the lunchbox is a present from Grandma, it's an Ace Robotroid lunchbox, and he's WAY too old for Ace Robotroid. This is also the first birthday Tommy has had since his mom died 257 days ago in a car crash that he believes his bad attitude caused. His dad can't paint anymore, his sister doesn't speak anymore, and a nasty realtor is trying to take their home in historic Plymouth, MA, for an oceanfront condo development. Tommy has no time for a chain from outer space; in fact it takes him a while to even find it in the hated lunchbox. Really, though, it's more like the chain has found Tommy. He suddenly begins to understand words, concepts, and especially art that he has no background for, and he can make this art, too.

Back on the faraway planet, of course, the Lord Mondus and his minions want to know where the art has gone. They will eventually find out, invade Plymouth in order to capture it, and Tommy will have to defend his home, family, friends, school, and town against enemies that are way, way beyond the cares of this world.

The chapters alternate between Tommy's world and the fantasy world, and the language is starkly different from one to another. In Tommy's chapters it's well-written but down to earth; the high fantasy chapters have the majesty of Beowulf or the King James Bible about them. I loved when Tommy began to fight the evil intruders and the high-flown language of the mythical world began to invade Tommy's world. We even see that though he is still Tommy, he is also "Tommim," a boy with a much grander purpose--an intergalatic purpose--than most people would ever dare dream of.

The basic plots of both worlds are not terribly original, but I'm not sure how much this matters. First, the high fantasy chapters are not easy reading (and in my opinion the glossary at the back of the book should be in front so readers find it before they finish), so it helps that the plot is familiar. Second, good vs. evil is so foundational to all of existence. Third, the themes are what matter here. Both this book and his previous novel, Okay for Now, are about the importance of art to individuals and to culture. More prominent though, I think, are other ideas. That we can receive grand assignments from "way out there" (God, in my book) that we did not ask for, that seem way beyond us, but that we will be equipped to handle even if we have to step out in fear. And that the key to fixing the mess in our earthly lives is often found in embracing a realer, truer, purpose. Gary D. Schmidt is a professor at Calvin College in Michigan, and I'm sure the underlying Christian themes in this story are no accident.

A "wow" book, recommended for readers who wouldn't mind some high fantasy with their contemporary fiction.

21 comments:

Mirka Breen said...

Great review. That cover alone is as WOW as can be. I can't think of a cover that was more evocative in the most recent crop of books.

Marcia said...

Mirka -- I know! I love the way the sky is done; it almost has texture, and I adore the house. And the balance of everything. And the receptivity of that light on in the upstairs window.

Kim Van Sickler said...

I do like high fantasy with my contemporary fiction! Thanks for the suggestion.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

My 10 year might be interested in this book. Love the title. :D

Medeia Sharif said...

I'd love to read this. I haven't read Schmidt before. I believe I have one of his other books, though.

Marcia said...

Kim -- Then you might very well like this. It's a cool combination!

Stina -- There are several books with "stars" in the title recently. Must be something in the water, er, sky? :)

Medeia -- Oooh, I hope you'll enjoy GS! I think he's my favorite author currently writing.

Andrea Mack said...

This book sounds so interesting! I'm going to be looking for it. Thanks, Marcia.

Kelly Hashway said...

Great cover. I don't usually read high fantasy. I'm more into urban fantasy and paranormal but this sounds interesting.

Marcia said...

Andrea -- Hope you'll like it!

Kelly -- I'm not big into high fantasy either. I definitely like that this alternates between fantasy and not-fantasy.

Vijaya said...

A couple of people have talked about this book, perhaps it is GS's best book yet. I will definitely have to pick this up. Thanks for a great review.

Tammy Theriault said...

i haven't heard about it, now i want to go get it! thanks for the rec! new follower here...hi!

Tess said...

I was surprised by this one too -- as a long time fan of Gary Schmidt,I found it a fun departure from his usual fare.

Tess said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Marcia said...

Vijaya -- That was my thought: he just keeps getting better and better.

Tammy -- Hi and thanks for coming! Hope you enjoy it.

Tess -- I think the book helps show his range while not totally departing from his recent books.

Susan Fields said...

Great review! That sounds like a really fun story, and I love that name for a villain, too!

Marcia said...

Susan -- It was great how the stories tied together.

Scribbles From Jenn said...

I like Gary's books. This sounds like another great one. Thanks for sharing.

Christina Farley said...

What an interesting mix and a great storyline. Thanks for sharing.

Marcia said...

Thanks, Jen and Christina! :)

Barbara Watson said...

I adore Gary's work and am very excited to read this one! I just found it at my local library!

Marcia said...

Hope you love it, Barbara!