Review of the Day: The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark
Imagine, if you will, what would have happened in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz if Dorothy had ditched the Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion and traipsed off with the Tin Man to defeat the corrupt Wizard and witches of the world. That’s not a perfect description of what you get with The Lock-Eater by Zack Loran Clark, but I also don’t think it’s the worst way to explain what’s going on here. It’s funny, but though the last Harry Potter book was released in 2007, the influence of that series pervades so much of contemporary middle grade fantasy novels. Look on any bookstore or library shelf of new titles and you’ll see “[First Name / Last Name] and the [Something] of the [Something]” as a standard title. So many of them involve a kid finding out their true powers just in time to defeat some dark evil. The Lock-Eater is no exception, but unlike those other books it skews the standard formula. It doesn’t follow the same beats as those other books, its storytelling is just a touch wilder, and the ultimate message says a lot about the changes infusing children’s literature today. That’s probably why I rather like it as much as I do. In those awkward little cavities, in its vibrant descriptions and skillfully wrought characters, this strange little book manages to become incredibly memorable. I’ll tell you this: Hand this work of fantasy over to the child that’s beginning to get bored with the Harry Potter knock-offs of the world. It’ll give them something to think about.
To be clear, being able to open any lock you encounter is NOT a normal trait at the Merrytrails Orphanage for Girls. Yet for whatever reason, foundling Melanie Gate has always had the gift. Labeled “lock-eater” by one of the other girls, the talent has never led to much of anything. That is, until the night she accidentally destroys all the windows and doors of the orphanage while trying to let out a particularly obnoxious cat. Not long thereafter a gearling comes to the home, seeking a girl with special abilities. It’s only when Melanie leaves with the automaton that she discovers that not only is it sentient but it’s lost its memory and is desperately in need of her help. Now girl and robot are on the run from the authorities who seek them both, but for very different reasons. It seems that these two are more than they first appear.
World building is not for the faint of heart, but when it comes to immersive fantasies like The Lock-Eater it is also wildly important. Read enough fantasies and you begin to find yourself critiquing how effectively an author embeds you in a world entirely of their own conjuring. Some authors try to do too much and make up for it with hundreds and hundreds of pages. Others zip so quickly through the storyline that you never get a sense of the space. A good author strikes a kind of balance. They have to give you the impression that there are more things to be discovered in their world if you just scratch below the surface of the storyline, but they keep everything moving as well. You need confidence that the author would know the answer to any question you lobbed at them about their creation, no matter how oblique. In this, I admire Clark’s panache. He carefully keeps everything pretty simple at the start. You’ve got a bunch of girls in an orphanage with just one magical element: Melanie’s lock eating. From that sturdy base and wellspring of emotional security (this may well be the most mentally grounded crew of orphans you’ve ever encountered on a page) Clark is able to start pulling out details about the world in which they live, the politics, the magics, and even the automations. He keeps the pace steady, never lingering too long or dwelling too deep, but also never sacrificing the smells, emotions, colors, and other pesky details that help make a story come to life. There’s logic to the decisions here, and also light, life, and beauty.
But let’s get back to that notion of how contemporary children’s fantasies still labor in the shadow of Harry Potter. The Potter books themselves took a wide array of already well-worn tropes in hopes of producing something original. Thus it’s a bit unfair to consider orphans, magical destinies, secret births, magic schools, and an autocratic magical regime intolerant of divergent opinions to be old hat. After all, when it comes to fantasy, it isn’t about whether or not you’ve seen a griffin before, but if the author you’re reading has brought their own particular panache and style to the griffin motif. In Mr. Clark’s case, he’s got a couple advantages on his side. For example, these days you can insert GLBTQIA+ themes in your children’s novels and still get published (something not quite as certain even a decade ago). As such, Melanie’s crush on a pretty young seamstress who returns her affections gives the book a special flavor. There’s also a lot here about finding your chosen family, which rings true. Clark also has a lot to say about the political advantages of keeping a nation at war for the warmongers as well as some deeper ponderings about the nature of self.
I am a 43-year-old woman reading books penned for twelve-year-olds. And while I might like to flatter myself that I can read like a child, that’s not really possible. Particularly when you take in account just how many books of this sort I’ve read over the course of my career. So when I can see where a book is going, like who a particular villain might be, it may be cute that I get a thrill figuring stuff out, but it actually makes it a bit difficult to determine whether or not a child reader will find the breadcrumbs laid out by the author too. In the case of The Lock-Eater I found myself positively delighted when Mr. Clark put out those breadcrumbs and then, just as I was certain I knew the big reveal, threw a curveball (for the record, this is one of my finer mixed metaphors and I’m keeping it here). I thought I had figured out Traveler’s deal. The twist, however, is not only more fun but makes a lot of sense when it’s revealed (much to my relief). There was another surprise when it came to Melanie’s origins that I also really didn’t see coming. In that particular case, Mr. Clark not only had to dot the book with clues but also foreground some deep philosophical ponderings on Melanie’s part on the nature of what does or does not constitute a life. Downright slick, it is.
I’d be amiss in not tipping my hat to the language on display here. The plotting is strong. The characters lovable or loathsome as required. But so much of what separates a truly great fantasy novel from the hundreds of simply okay ones depends on an author’s ability to twist language around his or her little finger. Mr. Clark, I am pleased to report, has that skill. Clearly honed in his previous fantasy novels for kids, he supplements his world building with delicious dives into depth and color. My favorite passages, in fact, were often the strangest and most evocative. A sumptuous dream involving an elaborate dinner plate and forbidden food, or a trip to the outer planets that literally takes you to the stars. Every time I encountered such writing I had to step back to admire it a little. A kid wouldn’t have this problem.
Time and again I hear that the current trend in children’s literature (and film, for that matter) is marked by a shift from duty to others to duty to the self. Harry Potter and others fight to save the world. Melanie fights for herself and her chosen family above all. When we reach the story’s close she has made a choice but you also get the sense that she could change her mind if she truly wanted to. Her journey is as much a search for self as it is a beatdown of the baddies. And while we’re not yet seeing how the pandemic has influenced our children’s literature, I can’t help but think that stories about young people desperate for getting out into the world, seeking adventure, may have a slightly different flavor today than they did a couple years ago. The Lock-Eater is a marvelous example of how you may render old ideas new, if only you’ve the ability to combine smart, timely writing with the current zeitgeist. Our kids are lucky they get to tap into books like this. Let’s hope for more of the same.
On shelves now.
Source: Reviewed from library copy.
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