What if the prophecy about the “The Chosen One” wasn’t about a school boy with a weird scar and foster parents who don’t love him…and was instead about a genetically engineered teenager raised in an underground bunker by a robot who does love her, who emerges into a post-apocalyptic Earth populated entirely by aliens? Embed a load of Frank L. Baum references and take the whole thing and just give it beautiful illustrations all throughout that are reminiscent of The Dark Crystal crossed with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. There. That ought to give you an idea what Tony DiTerlizzi’s WondLa series is like. The second volume, A Hero for WondLa, came out this year, and it is filled with all the middle grade post-apocalyptic space opera you could shake a stick at.
I’d had A Hero for WondLa on my shelf for a while, as I’d read and enjoyed The Search for WondLa when it came out, but I tucked it away safe and sound and sort of forgot about it for a while. Maybe I remembered it because I was talking about Mister DiTerrlizzi’s work on Planescape in my speculative post on D&D cosmology? Then again, it could have popped into my head when I was talking about roleplaying game artists who go on to write novels when I read Brom’s book, The Krampus. It actually probably stems back to the growing awareness that I’d forgotten something after I reviewed The Manual of Aeronautics and talked about the gorgeous and apocryphal Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You.
The world of WondLa is Earth, or well, Orbona, more precisely. It takes our protagonist, Eva Nine, a little while to figure things out, because Eva Nine is really EVA-9, Earth In-Vitro Alpha, ninth generation, a human crawling out of a buried vault into the bright sunlight of a new world. If you’ve played Fallout or Portal, the milieu should be familiar to you, as should the suspicions. Multi-Utility Task Helper Robot, or Muthr? Should Eva trust the robot who raised her, or is there something more nefarious afoot? Or well, not so much afoot as “a-track,” as Muthr is about as nimble as a Dalek.
Outside of the vaults, where Eva has lived her whole life, the world is a riot of life—strange, alien life. Tardigrades the size of elephants, skywhales, insectoid predators: Orbona is like Avatar’s Pandora, complete with bright colours and odd silhouettes. Eva has spent her life training for survival in the outside world, but book learning—or well, Omnipod learning, as the ubiquitous iPhone analogue is called—isn’t the same as real world experience. Along the way, Eva meets—you guessed it—aliens who are both friends, foes and…something in between. Moral quandaries aren’t easily answered, and right and wrong is often a matter of perspective.
One of the features of the WondLa books are their “WondLa-Vision” augmented reality “added content.” For the first book, there is an “interactive” map—only vaguely interactive—and for the second, there is a webcam based “game”—only vaguely playable. Frankly, the online content doesn’t really…work. You have to download specialized plug-ins, restart your browsers, turn thrice widdershins, add eye of newt…and you end up with something that…is sort of…non-functional. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is some kernel of an idea here, something for the future, something worth developing, but it doesn’t really work out, here. Not yet, anyway. Maybe next book?
The second book in the series really takes things into the grey areas of morality. I’m going to just go ahead and speak openly about them, so be aware that there are some spoilers to follow. First and most notably, we find the other humans left on Orbana—well, I suppose they still think it is “Earth"—and we get to see just how dystopian they are. You know they have to be at least a little bit dystopian, but are they going to go Full Orwell? Along the way, we meet the most promising new character of the book…Eva Eight. That is, Eva’s sister, the EVA generation eight. There are secrets to be unspooled, and she is a great vehicle for that.
Everyone in the last great human city of New Attica speaks in a slang—a detail I can’t help but note, since my first introduction to DiTerlizzi was Planescape—full of Art-Deco Sci-Fi lingo like “rem” for sleep and “rocket” as an enthusiastic exclamation. Also filling the city are robots, which gives DiTerlizzi a chance to diverge from the very organic style of Orbana into a sleek metallic motiff. The conflict evolves—never quite becoming what you think it is going to become—until things have well and truly spiraled out of control. Eva’s quest takes her to the heart of the mysteries at the center of the trilogy, and character arcs resolve in some…surprising ways.
A new villain is introduced in the eleventh hour—hinted at and foreshadowed for some time—and everything leading up to the third book has really whetted my appetite. I’m ready to see Eva embrace her destiny—I admire that Tony DiTerlizzi has refrained from the usual self-doubt and responsibility avoidance so ubiquitous in young adult fiction—and I can’t wait to see how the series wraps up. Actually, “wraps up” sounds a bit too pat; more like “accelerates to a climax.” Sounds more like what I’m expecting….