A Lesson in Writing Hidden in a Mystery
Owen Connors wakes up in the library beside fictional character Kiel Gnomenfoot with no memory of how he got there. What he does know is that the library is on fire, someone has framed him and Kiel for the crime, and his half-fictional friend Bethenny has been kidnapped. Owen is told that he has two hours two find Bethenny or he will have lost her forever. But how can Owen find her when he has no clues to go on, no powers (Kiel has magic and Bethenny can jump in and out of storybooks), and police hunting him down for arson?
In book two of James Riley’s Story Thief series, the adventure is taken to a whole new level. The villain, Doyle Holmes, is out for revenge because Bethenny and Owen accidentally disgraced his grandfather Sherlock Holmes in one of their book-hopping adventures.
What makes the Story Thieves series so clever is that it uses typical storytelling techniques while also serving as a sort of instruction manual for those techniques. The story uses flashbacks as a major method of conveying information, even as Owen bemoans the technique, pointing out that there was no tension in them: obviously the main characters survived or they couldn’t be flashing back to it.” With a Holmes at the heart of the mystery, Owen thinks about the way mysteries tend to have twists within twists and builds this into his plan to save the day. There’s something very meta and clever about the way Riley does this. He manages to teach readers how to write while not seeming to.
He also manages to set up and further the bigger mysteries of the Story Thief series. While in the fictional world of Doyle Holmes’s books, they discover that someone named James Riley wrote a book about their first adventures into the fictional world. But who is James Riley and how does he know what happened to them? And who is the seemingly omniscient Nobody, who keeps showing up at mysterious times to give words of warning to our heroes?
My only real complaint about the book was that it was hard to remember what role Nobody had played in the first book, so when he showed up again in the second, I was a little confused. I would have liked maybe a little more of a refresher of the first book to fill in some of the pieces. It’s a hard thing to balance when writing books in a series—how much do you recap, at what point do you bore your returning readers by telling them what they already know? But in this case, I think it could have just a little bit more.
Even so, Owen’s journey is a compelling one. He may not be magical like his friends, but he proves that he can contribute and be a hero too. This story shows something that most fantasy books for kids don’t—you don’t need powers and you certainly don’t need to be “the chosen one” to save the day.