Book Review: “City of Ruins” – “Danger Boy” series, #4, by Mark London Williams

Recently, in those nanotech & multiverse-rich intersections of science fiction, reality, and pop culture reporting, there’s been a lot of talk about the cable series “Battlestar Galactica,” many articles calling it  “the best show you’re not watching,” and then praising its astute mix of politics, alternate worlds, and raw human emotion.

Using many of these same criteria then, it’s safe to call “Danger Boy” the best children’s book series you’re not reading.  They’re written by Mark London Williams, and published by Candlewick Press, perhaps the most “it” of kidlit publishing houses at the moment, being home base for Newberry-nabbing writer Kate DiCamillo, and just now grabbing a National Book Award for the in fact astonishing (and lengthily titled) “The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party,” by M.T. Anderson).

The series tells of the adventures a young time traveler from circa 2020, named Eli Sands (“Sands of time,” get it?  Though the author swears that wasn’t his conscious thought when picking character names out of the ether).Eli hooks up with a girl named Thea – daughter of the last librarian in Alexandria – in the first, Egyptian-set book, and they find themselves in the company of Clyne, a teenage dinosaur-ish fellow from a planet where lizard evolution was never shut down by a visiting meteor.

In the series, the three are torn between their “present” in the near future- —  where a panicky government is trying to use time travel as a kind of ultimate “black ops” (code name – that’s right – “Danger Boy”) to bail itself out after years of mishandling its responses to global warming, spreading disease, terrorism, etc. –and whichever “past” they’re visiting in the given stories. 

Previously, that’s included WWII-era San Francisco and the Lewis & Clark trail (with the surprising addition of Tom Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and a somewhat circumspect examination of their relationship – and American race politics) and now, as the earlier books find re-release in paperback, comes the new hardcover: “City of Ruins.”In this fourth Danger Boy adventure, Williams decides to tempt fate, or at least, censors, by sending his characters straight back into the Old Testament, the titular “Ruins,” which turn out to be Jerusalem after the Babylonians have invaded and sacked the city, and forcibly removed most  of the inhabitants to serve as slaves.

But a remnant is left behind, including two prophets – the notoriously glum Jeremiah, and the lesser known Huldah.  And if that latter name sounds female to you, well, you’re right.Williams has joked – half-joked – that this book would be a “’Da Vinci Code’ for kids.” 

In other words, though the surface reason for the trip back to ancient Israel is to find an old cure for a modern disease, the time-tripping trio also come face-to-face with some of the Ur-concepts of Western religion, including the degree to which female contributions may have been deliberately played down.

That’s a lot to chew on right there, but Williams’ adds his usual stew of baseball history (Satchel Paige makes a cameo appearance! This is indeed the only novel anywhere with both Paige and Huldah), renegade time-traveling Nazis (another government black op – an offshoot of the very real “Operation Paperclip”), environmental ruminations, and philosophical observations from Clyne, the dinosaur, who finds human behavior, which he tends to call “mammal dancing,” beyond the ken of known galactic scientific precepts.

There’s also the twist that Eli and Thea are growing older with each book, and the hormones are kicking in, though Eli, being essentially “home schooled” by virtue of always time-traveling or being held prisoner for “observation” by the government, is kind of naïve in terms of knowing what to do with this very smart young “renaissance woman” (Pre-Renaissance, actually) in whose company he keeps finding himself.

They are both missing their parents, though Eli still has a father “back” in 2020.  And like too many young people today, they find it’s their task to try and rebuild – create – a “family” that’s been taken away from them.There’s even a traveling carnival, and a weeping bat. Hmm, maybe this isn’t sci-fi at all, but magical realism.Either way, the narratives tend to be dense; this isn’t namby-pamby “Magic Treehouse” stuff. 

This is the real deal, on a par with all those Brit-lit offerings (or faux Brit-lit, like Lemony Snicket) that seem to have crowded the market on novel series with serious chops, and interesting arcs. That said, and metaphor continued, it may not be everybody’s cup of tea.   And even if it’s yours, you may do well to pick up an earlier book first, if you haven’t read one of these “Danger” tales previously. 

This one Williams has likened to writing a “season finale” for television, in that he wanted to wrap up a lot of previous loose threads, and maybe start some new ones, so it’s probably the least immediately accessible of any of the books, as a stand-alone.But working your way through the series so you can pick up this book (or use the excuse of buying them for a young reader near and dear to you) ain’t such a bad thing.  It is, after all, the best kids’ series you’re not currently reading.Though that, hopefully, will soon change. 

On which note, as much as I’m looking forward to the “Eragon” movie this holiday season, while there are distant rumblings of a “Danger Boy” film project, why hasn’t this been in active development all along? After all, there’s even a character who looks a little dragonish.  It’s just that he’s prone to taking field notes.

Hollywood, are you listening?

“City of Ruins” the latest in the Danger Boy series written by Mark London Williams, published by Candlewick Press

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Product Details    * Reading level: Ages 8-13    * Hardcover: 288 pages    *Publisher: Candlewick (January 9, 2007)    * Language: English   

* ISBN: 0763628719 

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.