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The Boxes
William Sleator
Dutton Children's Books, 189 pages

The Boxes
William Sleator
William Sleator is the bestselling author of The Beasties, The Night the Heads Came, Interstellar Pig, and many other popular novels combining horror and science fiction. Mr. Sleator divides his time between homes in Boston, Massachusetts, and rural Thailand.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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When I was a kid, my favourite books were those told entirely from a kids'-eye perspective, in which young protagonists faced adventures and solved problems on their own, and adults intruded on the action only in the form of nefarious villains or magical benefactors. William Sleator's books all have this kids'-eye quality, which perhaps -- along with their complicated, fantastic, and frequently gruesome plots -- explains why they are so popular among young readers.

Annie, the heroine of The Boxes, has one favourite person in the world: her Uncle Marco, who is constantly travelling on exciting secret adventures, and looks and acts far younger than his actual age. When the book opens he's about to depart again, but this time he leaves Annie with a responsibility: to take care of two mysterious boxes, one made of wood, one made of metal. The boxes, he tells Annie, must be kept separate, and no one must know about them. On absolutely no account can they be opened.

Naturally, Annie is consumed with curiosity, and after a while opening the boxes is all she can think about. Eventually she pries open the wooden box, which she has stowed in the root cellar of the big old Victorian house where she lives with her fat, mean, miserly Aunt Ruth. A tiny crablike creature comes scuttling out, and disappears into the darkness of the basement. The metal box, hidden in Annie's closet, turns out to contain a strange clocklike device, marked with odd hieroglyphics. Somehow, opening the second box activates the clock, which now seems to be measuring time, though not in any way Annie can understand. Meanwhile, in the basement, the crablike creature has begun to reproduce. The resulting tribe of beings is able to communicate telepathically; they inform Annie that by opening the boxes she has become the "nervous system," a link of communication between them and the clock, which they appear to worship as a kind of god.

Annie and her friend Henry, in whom she has confided, discover that the clock, if asked in a certain way (and provided with sacrifices) can actually slow time. But the evil Crutchley Development, a construction company that wants to tear down the old neighbourhood where Annie lives and build a huge mall in its place, has hatched a plot to steal the clock and use its time-slowing power for their own greedy ends. Annie and Henry must find a way to prevent this from happening, foiling the company and saving the neighbourhood.

The Boxes is a fast-paced, vividly imagined book. We aren't talking realism here: the twists and turns of the plot are contrived, and the adult characters are entirely two-dimensional. But young readers will love the fascinatingly creepy details of the creatures and the clock, and identify with Henry and Annie, who are as appealingly brave and resourceful as the various grownups they must outwit -- from miserly Aunt Ruth, who can't resist Crutchley Development's huge financial offer, to the evil Mr. Crutchley, who wants to slow time so that he can build malls faster than anyone else -- are satisfyingly slimy. There are some lessons to be learned: Annie, a girl who spends far too much time trying to keep others happy, discovers how to stand up for herself. There is even some food for thought: Crutchley Development stands for all the greedy companies in the world who try to gobble up everything old and wild.

The book's ending, which resolves the Crutchley plot but provides no explanation of the box-creatures, the clock, or the connection between them, takes the characters off on what appears to be the beginning of another adventure. I'm assuming a sequel is in the works. I hope so -- I'd really like to know where those creatures come from.

Copyright © 1998 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Arm of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her Web site.


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