The Cronus Chronicles: The Shadow Thieves and The Siren Song

By Anne Ursu [Book One: LibrarythingAmazon / Book Two: LibarythingAmazon]

The Shadow ThievesWhen Charlotte’s cousin Zee comes over from England to live with Charlotte for a semester, she hopes the novelty will inject a little excitement into her relentlessly boring life. Unfortunately, Zee may have brought a little too much excitement with him, for a few days after his arrival, Charlotte’s classmates begin to fall prey to a mysterious illness – the same illness that caused Zee’s parents to send him to America. But this is not just any old plague. Philonecron – half-god, half-demon, and Assistant Manager of the Department of Sanitation for the Greek Underworld – is stealing kids’ shadows, and he plans to use Zee to lead his new shadow army to overthrow Hades. Can Charlotte save her cousin and stop Philonecron before every dead person who has ever and will ever be is doomed to an eternity of torment?

The Siren SongEven though they’ve just saved the Underworld, Charlotte and Zee have been feeling pretty helpless. After all, the Dead are still drifting in eternal ennui, and Philonecron is out there somewhere, undoubtedly plotting revenge. And when Poseidon’s grandson is plotting revenge against you, the last place you want to be is out at sea on a cruise ship. But, of course, that’s just where Charlotte finds herself. Now she’s got to save Zee again, plus a cruise ship full of people, and go head to head with Poseidon himself. At least she’s got the cute new boy Jason Hart on her side…or does she?

Both Rebecca and I picked these books up several times in the store, read the first couple of pages, and put them right back. The narrative style hits you right between the eyes when you start one of these books, and not in a good way. It’s aggressively conversational and irreverent, like Lemony Snicket on uppers. Check out the first paragraph of The Shadow Thieves:

Pay attention. Watch carefully, now. Look at the sidewalk, there. See that girl – the one with the bright red hair, overstuffed backpack, and aura of grumpiness? That’s Charlotte Mielswetzski. (Say it with me: Meals-Wet-Ski. Got it? If not, say it again: Meals. Wet. Ski. There. You thought your name was bad?) And something extraordinary is about to happen to her.

Once you get past the hurdle of the first few pages, however, things start to happen, and the narrative style takes a merciful backseat to plot, for the most part. Every so often Ursu will ramble on for a chapter in this style about the villain or one of the gods, with variable success (the chapters about the gods are usually hits; the chapters about the villain are usually misses), but when it comes to Charlotte and Zee the narration generally works to serve them, as opposed to the other way around. It depends upon your level of tolerance for wacky narrative styles – I found the characters charming enough to get through the rocky bits, but your mileage may vary.

So let’s talk about the characters, shall we? Charlotte, the primary protagonist, is pretty standard as far as young adult fantasy goes. She’s petite, red-headed, and persnickety, with a love of reading and very few friends. Her one great skill, we learn early on, is talking her way out of anything:

To Charlotte, truth was a flexible instrument, one that could readily be shaped to fit her needs. Charlotte may not have been, in her own estimation, good for much else, but she could talk her way out of any situation. It was a useful skill in a world that was constantly expecting more out of you than you wanted to give. And usually a good story was so much more interesting than the truth.

However, Charlotte doesn’t really come alive all that much in The Shadow Thieves. There are brief flashes of personality, but for the most part she’s a bit of a cipher, the vehicle through which the plot moves. Towards the end of The Shadow Thieves, when she and Zee are separated and Charlotte must make her way on her own through the perils of the Underworld to warn Hades of Philonecron’s rebellion, she starts to become more fully realized, but it’s not until The Siren Song that she really becomes interesting. In The Shadow Thieves, she’s a collection of typical protagonistic traits; in The Siren Song she’s a believable thirteen-year-old girl who’s in over her head but still determined to do some good in the world.

If Charlotte has a tendency to have too much plot and not enough personality, Zee is her polar opposite. He is remarkably charming, with his self-effacement and British politeness. I fell in love with him from the first paragraph from his point of view, and his charm continues throughout The Siren Song:

He always felt so restless on the days he didn’t have soccer, like a hamster without his exercise wheel. Today, especially, he needed to be running back and forth down a field kicking things – but instead he had a long night of homework and angst ahead of him. Maybe he needed to get a human-size wheel installed in his room. It would fit in perfectly with the rest of his life – run fast, look absurd, go absolutely nowhere.

Zee is also biracial, which is a rarity in…well, almost all fiction, unfortunately. It’s handled well, too; Zee’s skin color isn’t merely lip service, but affects his life in a realistic way (for example, it contributes to the fact that he doesn’t fit in at his posh British prep school), but he never becomes a stereotype.

The problem with Zee is that he doesn’t actually do much of anything. This is partially because of the way the plot works – Philonecron uses some of Zee’s blood to lead him to the children Zee hangs out with, so as to steal their shadows, and his familiarity with Zee’s blood makes him able to control Zee, so Zee spends a lot of time in both books zonked out or fruitlessly fighting Philonecron’s control. Still, while Charlotte carries the weight of the books on her shoulders, Zee has nothing to do but stand in the corner and look pretty. While I do like the way Ursu has subverted the standard “boy rescues girl,” as Charlotte rescues Zee quite a lot, it makes the dynamic between the two of them rather uneven.

This is not helped by the bizarre pacing of the books. Each one begins with a long lead-up to the adventure from Charlotte’s point of view, followed by an equally long lead-up to the adventure from Zee’s point of view. Not only is the plot thus unnecessarily rehashed, it means the book is half over before anything even starts to happen. The second halves of the books are concerned with Charlotte on her adventures (and a little bit of Zee) and work much better, but the drawn-out beginning is totally superfluous.

Then there’s the fact that certain elements of The Shadow Thieves seem to have been lifted directly from previous fantasy works (The Siren Song doesn’t have this problem). Philonecron’s tall, thin, pale, suit-clad henchmen are almost identical to the Gentlemen from the Buffy episode “Hush” as they go about harvesting children’s shadows. The whole idea of taking children’s shadows in particular seems derivative as well, as the reason said shadows are available is because they are still loose; they haven’t achieved the permanence that an adult shadow has. Shades of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials!

The derivative villainous schemery would have been salvaged if only Philonecron had been an effective villain. He’s not. Sure, he’s creepy, and he seems to fall somewhere between wanting to be a parent to Zee and wanting to molest him, but he’s not scary. It’s hard to create a villain who’s both comic and scary, and Ursu spends too much time poking fun at Philonecron’s vanity to let him be the latter. Fortunately, the gods are done extremely well, especially Hades and Poseidon. Hades isn’t really a villain, just sort of useless (in a good way; Ursu intends him to be useless), but the temperamental Poseidon makes for a much more compelling threat than the series’ ostensible villain. The minor gods work well, too, especially the hapless Triton and the very creepy Proteus.

Despite these flaws, The Cronus Chronicles get three and a half cupcakes. They were an enjoyable read, and I liked Charlotte and Zee a lot. I will definitely be picking up the final book in the trilogy, The Promethean Flame, where the cousins take on Mount Olympus, this fall.

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    4 Responses to “The Cronus Chronicles: The Shadow Thieves and The Siren Song”

    1. Hannah says:

      I love these books!! But I can see how you got the whole Zee dosn’t really do anything. I was thinking about that the last time i read the book. I liked the way Ursu wrote the begining of the book. I liked Mew the cat too even though I thought it was a bit obvious that Mew was Zee’s grandma. I like Philonecron, he’s one of those classy villians. I agree that he’s not scary. Maybe the reason he’s not scary is becuase he’s tried so many times to get out of the Underworld that he just sorta gave up on being scary and just focesed on trying to get out. There I go talking like he’s a real person!

    2. Jessica says:

      Yeah, I love Zee, but he has absolutely nothing to do. And you caught the snap far quicker than I did with Mew – I had no idea she was the grandmother.

    3. Hannah says:

      At least Zee did one thing in the second book.

    4. Nikki says:

      I started to read the first book last fall but I didn’t finish it. It was just a bit too creepy for me. (Which is one reason I don’t really enjoy many greek myths; they’re often depressing and macabre, if you know what I mean. That is, the gods, even the supposedly good ones, are often cruel or devious or unfaithful or all of the above. And I just don’t want to read about theives, cheats and liars.) But while the book was a bit too slow, I did kind of like Charlotte and Zee and I thought the book was kind of funny. I sort of liked the way it started and I kind of like it when books make fun of Greek myths: like the scene where Hades is having dinner with Persephone. I liked that she wasn’t loving and submissive to him, as was the impression I got of her from the myth. Afterall, he kidnapped her and made her stay with him for six months out each year. I think it makes much more sense that she didn’t speak to him at all, as she did in this book. But you were right about the way the plot played out. It made it kind of boring and the characters were just slightly boring, too. So I had no real incentive to keep reading when it got creepy. Otherwise I might have finished it.
      The kitty was Zee’s grandmother?! I had no idea. I guess it kind of makes sense but I don’t get how she could be. Oh, well.

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