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Thief of Souls
Neal Shusterman
Tor Books, 253 pages

Thief of Souls
Neal Shusterman
Neal Shusterman is the author of the critically acclaimed Scorpion Shards (1995) which won a NY Public Library Best Book for the Teenaged award and was nominated as an ALA Best Book in 1997. His 1997 title The Dark Side of Nowhere was a 1998 ALA Best Book. His output includes non-fiction titles like Kid Heroes and Downsiders, and collections of horror/suspense short stories including Mindquakes, Mind Storms, Mind Twister, and Darkness Creeping I and II. As Easton Royce, he has collaborated in the X-Files novelizations Voltage, Bad Sign, and Dark Matter. He has also written for the TV series Goosebumps and Animorphs. He lives with his wife and three children in Irvine, California.

Neal Shusterman Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

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No need to put off the inevitable, let me tell you that I just couldn't "buy" the story in Shusterman's The Thief of Souls. The action wandered all over the western United States with no apparent logical sequence and didn't seem to be particularly tied in to the main characters' actions or motivations except in a purely random way. Individually, the characters had some interesting traits and personal problems, and interesting events occurred, but they were assembled in a way that left one wondering if the author loaded them all together into a musket and simply blasted them all over the novel's landscape.

The Thief of Souls is the second installment in the Star Shards Chronicles. In the previous title, Scorpion Shards, six young men and women receive special powers when the radiation from a distant supernova reaches them on Earth. However, they have to overthrow and rid themselves of nasty parasites that turn their powers to evil ends. One Star Shard dies and in this, the sequel, the remaining five are sought out by Prometheus (under the Native American alias Okoya), an evil character bent on taking over the world so he can satiate his vampiric taste for human souls and revenge himself on humanity. In the book, Prometheus breaks the adamantine chains that bind him to the Caucasian Mountains, vengefully slaughters the entire Greek pantheon in typical psycho-killer style, causes the sinking of Atlantis, and when, millennia later, for reasons unknown he escapes from being trapped on the bottom of the sea, he returns to Earth, possesses and fuses the bodies of a pair of Siamese twins into an asexual humanoid with a insane desire for revenge against the human race.

Mr Shusterman has certainly an extremely different interpretation of the Prometheus myth than any I have ever read. This might be all right if he presented some justification for his radical view, but he does not do this. My primary childhood source for Greek Myths was H.A. Guerber's The Myths of Greece and Rome: Their Stories, Signification and Origin (c. 1910), part of publisher G.G. Harrap's extensive Myths and Legends series published in the early part of this century. More recent sources I consulted, such as Edith Hamilton's Mythology (1942) and several online sites tell much the same story of Prometheus, albeit without some of Guerber's sanitization. Unlike Shusterman's villain, Prometheus himself never broke the bonds tying him to the Caucasus mountains, but was released by the combination of a centaur's self-sacrifice and the strength of Hercules, who, in exchange for information on the location of the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, broke the adamantine chains. At this time Prometheus doesn't appear to have any great hatred for the half-human Hercules, nor is there any account of him wiping out the Greek pantheon, or any of the "generations and generations of men blessing him for his gift".

Thus it seems highly inconsistent that Prometheus would turn on humans and start wanting to suck out their souls and destroy them. As for Prometheus' killing of the Greek pantheon leading to the sinking of Atlantis, neither Plato's account nor similar deluge myths quoted in Ignatius Donnelly's Atlantis, The Antediluvian World (1882) or L. Sprague DeCamp's Lost Continents mention any Prometheus-like catalyst. Lastly, why Prometheus, a male Titan, chooses to employ an asexual but humanoid body and a Native American persona aren't at all clear. Interestingly, while Shusterman sets part of his story and the presumed origin of the name Okoya among the Hualapai tribe of the American southwest, the Chinook, a tribe of the American northwest, have, in their myth of the Thunderer a nasty giant named Okulam who attacks five brothers.

This major miscasting of Prometheus was just one element that made me completely unable to "buy" the premise of the book. Surely there are plenty of nasty entities in Native American mythology that could have filled in. For that matter why was Prometheus chosen over some Assyrian or Egyptian deity? While I was unable to find any references to the name Okoya in my Native American mythology sources, I'm perfectly willing to assume that an evil Prometheus-like character occurs in Hualapai mythology, but, if so, the author would have done better to at least give one a hint that there was some basis behind the bizarre Greek-Native American cultural intersection that occurs.

Besides this, the two young women and three young men who make up the Star Shards individually have the ability to control entropy, heal, alter weather, control people's actions, and cause unrestricted growth of mainly plant lifeforms. It is pointed out early on that their powers are synergistic; however, it is only the entropy-controlling Dillon who is ultimately involved in defeating Prometheus. Thus this synergism, so popular in the endless list of Sailor Moon-like plots these days, has no point. Now while on the one hand one might argue that Okoya was doing the divide and conquer thing, why not attempt to control the enhanced combined powers of the Star Shards. Furthermore, while it was not at all clear what effect the absence of the missing (dead) Star Shard had on the group's power, apparently it did not afford a specific weak point for Okoya to attack.

The book recaps from their own point of view, the miserable wretches the Star Shards were before they were transformed, and how their defeat of their personal otherworldly parasites changed them from destructive and deadly pawns of evil into tools for good. Shusterman is quite good in portraying the psychology of these youngsters faced with "super-powers." However, while we don't need to go back to the previous book in the series to understand the characters' motivations, these don't always seem to tie in with either events outside the control of the Star Shards or their actions.

These inconsistencies, and the lack of coherence of the entire book preclude me from recommending this book to anyone, young or old. On his webpage the author states that his intention for this book is that, unlike many of his other titles, and the first book in the series, it be for the adult reading public. While the glaring flaws I perceive in the novel might be glossed over by a young adult, such work will not pass muster among adult readers.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.


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