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Random House Books for Young Readers

Review: Ashtown Burials II: The Drowned Vault

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Picture Gilgamesh of Uruk in white pants and a turquoise polo. Now add Capt. John Smith, guns that shoot fire, and a whole lot of transmortal mayhem taking place on the shores of Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.

Author N.D. Wilson grew up thinking that magical adventures could only begin in England. The Drowned Vault (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2012) is the second volume of a projected seven-volume schoolboy fantasy series that proves otherwise. Wilson’s fantastically fertile conception of the Order of Brendan—“the National Geographic Society with paranormal powers” is how Wilson’s father, Douglas, describes it—is the backdrop for two siblings’ quest to become full members of the Order and find out what happened to their father and mother. And that’s just the first chapter.

Drowned Vault works remarkably well. The concept of a sorcerer chained on a platform floating several miles above New York City admittedly stretches the reader’s credulity—but only if he can force himself to put the book down and to think about probability. But besides that, Wilson blends the everyday and the mythical so seamlessly that readers may find themselves wondering whether Lake Michigan is real or Capt. John Smith is really dead.

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The publisher says the book is for 9- to 13-year-olds, but the truly creepy (and evil) supervillain Phoenix and the deathless horrors that otherwise crowd the story’s pages make Drowned Vault more suitable for older teens and adults. As squeaky-clean escapist fantasy that sings the praises of duty, responsibility, honor, and chivalry, Wilson’s work is unequalled. It is emphatically not a naturalistic Tellurian story of ordinary people doing ordinary things. In Wilson’s pages, “Long, long desired, the Unearthly waits” (C.S. Lewis, “Against Too Many Writers of Science Fiction”). Here are real men and real children growing up to manhood—and fighting Gilgamesh in their spare time.

Caleb Nelson
Caleb Nelson

Caleb grew up on a ranch in northern Colorado and is currently pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church in America. He lives in Greenville, S.C.

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