July 30, 2015
The Children of Darkness, the first volume of David Litwack’s The Seekers series, is a classic quest story. Three young heroes embark upon a journey to uncover a secret that can save the world. Along the way they meet a wise guide and encounter daunting obstacles that test their courage and resolve. And they return very changed.
This YA novel follows the pattern, but it’s anything but run of the mill. The quality of its intelligence, imagination, and prose raises The Children of Darkness to the level of literature.
Orah, Nathaniel, and Thomas live in a theocracy. The Temple of Light came into existence a after a series of wars almost destroyed humankind, and for a millennium it has kept the peace. The Temple controls every aspect of peoples’ lives. The vicars of the Temple prescribe how many children a family may have, how people cook their food, what musical instruments they play, and, of course, what they’re allowed to think. The rules are enforced by bands of deacons and by “teaching” the young in a process that amounts to torture.
A vicar comes to the village of Little Pond and selects Thomas for a teaching. When he returns, he avoids Nathaniel and Orah because the vicars have forced him to betray his childhood friends. Next Orah is taken for teaching. Nathaniel follows her and the vicar to Temple City and offers to take her place. While he awaits the vicars’ decision in a dungeon, the old man in the adjacent cell tells him of the Keepers, a secret group who through the centuries have passed down coded directions to the Keep, a hidden place where the wonders of the ancient world are preserved. Everything forbidden by the Temple is there.
The old man appoints Nathaniel a Seeker, charged with finding the Keep, and gives him the first part of the code along with clues to the location and identity of the next Keeper. After Nathaniel returns to Little Pond, he and his friends set out to find the Keep.
At first their quest appears altogether noble and right. The Temple of Light is oppressive, cruel, and anti-intellectual. As the wise man explains to them, the aim of teaching is to extinguish the fire in human beings — the spirit that drives individuals to dream and achieve and aspire to greatness. Teaching almost destroys Thomas. But a thousand years ago, humankind almost destroyed itself and the world with the magic in the Keep. For all its shortcomings, the Temple makes it possible for human beings to live in harmony among themselves and with nature. The quest might open Pandora’s Box.
Litwack avoids the usual tropes of YA fantasy. There’s no simpleminded battle between good and evil, no sexual jealousy and tension between friends, and no adolescent bickering. The friends argue about things that matter — how they can best survive, whether the quest is worth the cost.
In The Children of Darkness Litwack has created a fully realized and altogether believable world. The characters, including the functionaries of the Temple, are complex and sympathetic. The conclusion is unexpected yet feels altogether right. Everything is set for the next volume of the series, which I very much look forward to reading.