Goodreads: The Drowned Vault
Series: Ashtown Burials #2
A year ago Cyrus Smith lost the Dragon’s Tooth to the ruthless Dr. Phoenix–a man who dreams of resurrecting the dead and redefining what it means to be human. The tooth, however, while it can be used to raise the dead, is also the one thing that can kill the transmortals–men and women who would otherwise live forever. Now the transmortals, led by Gilgamesh of Uruk, are at the doors of Ashtown demanding the deaths of Cyrus and his sister Antigone, and the severing of the ancient treaties that keep their powers in check. With two enemies without and traitors within, the Smiths and their Keeper may have only one chance of staying alive–an alliance with one of the Order’s most notorious prisoners.
The Drowned Vault brings a new maturity to the Ashtown Burials series. The first book necessarily bore the weight of having to introduce readers to a new world full of new characters and new rules. Cyrus and Antigone were new, too, and though Dr. Phoenix and his monsters threatened the Order of Brendan, no one expected them to help; their job then was to pass their training and gain acceptance in the Order. Now, however, the pieces on the board have been set and the young Smiths, as full members of the O of B, have taken their place among them. They have entered an adult world and no one can shelter them from the dangers that await.
The Drowned Vault is a middle-grade book, but N. D. Wilson never uses that as an excuse to gloss over the darkness that exists in the world. The villains in this story will not stay their hands because they deal with children and they cannot be defeated by any cutesy high jinks or even by any roundabout methods that will allow the protagonists to feel some sort of mental distance from their actions. The characters engage in real, bloody battles with full knowledge that they are responsible for any attacks they make, any lives they take. The Smiths also increasingly come to realize that to triumph over darkness, they will be required to make sacrifices. Their own start out comparatively small–torn feet, bullet wounds, the costs of war that other books sometimes ignore. As they progress, however, they see the kinds of sacrifices others have made to stem the tide of evil, sacrifices that did not merely leave physical scars, but also emotional, mental, and spiritual ones. They also come to learn that even when facing obvious evil, there may be no right course to choose when combating it.
All this leads up to a finale in which the Smiths must face their own greatest sacrifice. This time at least they have no doubt about the right choice, but that does not make the choice easy and that does not mean they will choose it. Their family is at stake and there is perhaps nothing on earth more important to the Smiths than their family. The crisis comes at a moment of intense confusion–readers want action at the end of a book, right?– but Wilson inserts into the chaos a quiet image of everything the Smiths have to gain and everything they have to lose: a black hand on top of a white hand. In that image, the shared humanity of the characters comes together–all their love and hopes and dreams– contrasting with the warped sense of humanity envisioned by Dr. Phoenix. It is a moment of rare depth, at least for children’s books.
The Ashtown Burials series has continued to surprise me with its moving depictions of love, loss, and sacrifice. Other books talk about the power of love or about the importance of doing the right thing, but few so powerfully illustrate just what either of those things means. In this world, love is not simply fuzzy feelings and doing the right thing will not result in a gold star or public recognition. In this world, both love and doing right are a conscious choice to give of one’s self and to accept the bad with the good, whether or not anyone knows or cares. The Drowned Vault may be set in a world where Greek legends walk the streets and dragons are rumored to exist, but it feels more real than many a contemporary novel.