The Underworld Anne Ursu depicts in "The Shadow Thieves" is overrun by bureaucracy. The god Hades is tired of running the Realm of the Dead. He's left the job to a vast network of department managers.
"It's pretty crowded," she explains. "Hades has got a lot to deal with because people move in, but they never move out. One reviewer described it as something between hell and Microsoft, and I like that quite a bit."
The bloated bureaucracy and Hades' complacency make the Underworld ripe for a coup. A power-hungry, half-demon/half-god working in the Department of Sanitation tries to overthrow Hades. He creates an army by stealing children's shadows and enchanting them. A 13-year-old girl named Charlotte Mielswetski and her cousin Zee discover the evil scheme and journey to the Underworld to stop it.
"The Shadow Thieves" is Anne Ursu's third book. Her debut was the adult novel, "Spilling Clarence," which received a 2003 Minnesota Book Award in the New Voice category. She says she didn't intend to follow her first two books with a fantasy for young adults. But she suffered a relapse of chronic fatigue syndrome and that made it difficult for her to research the book she'd started.
"At the time I started reading kids books for fun," she says. "I thought, 'Why don't I try to do this and just have fun and tell a story?' This was the result and it was one of the most fun writing experiences of my life."
Ursu has written "The Shadow Thieves" in a light, breezy, irreverent style. This approach is unusual in fantasy; it could undermine the heroic battle between good and evil. But Ursu says that's just the way the voice developed when she started working on the book.
"The main character Charlotte, who is very attitudinal and very sassy, just came out," Ursu says. "I think part of it was where I was at the time. I wanted to write something that was funny, but I wasn't interested in it being this huge, gothic scary thing. I wanted it to be fun and entertaining. I didn't want to give anybody nightmares, especially me."
In combining the classical Greek Underworld with the modern life of American middle school kids, Anne Ursu has created some imaginative juxtapositions. One of the doors in and out of the Underworld is located in the Mall of America. When the main character Charlotte needs a ferry ride across the river Styx, she bribes the mythical figure Charon with Fruit Roll-Ups.
Mary Harris Russell, professor of English at Indiana University Northwest and a free-lance reviewer of children's books for The Chicago Tribune, says Ursu's voice is funny and interesting.
"What's good and different about Ursu's book is the consistent comedy of it, tied along with the very fast plot," Russell says. "It has parts that are very, very serious. But the Underworld scenes are exciting, but also hilarious. Ursu takes things that sometimes seem a little dull when taught in the wrong way in an English class and brings them to life."
The publicity material for Anne Ursu's "Shadow Thieves" describes the book as "first in a magnificent series." Mary Harris Russell says that's an overused marketing approach in post-Harry-Potter publishing, but she believes readers will definitely want to read what Ursu comes up with next.
Ursu credits the Harry Potter books for reviving interest in young adult fantasy. However, she says publishers aren't looking for rehashes of the Potter story.
"There are so many books that they want to be different from that formula of young boy discovers magical thing about him, goes to magical place and fights great evil," she says. "I think that it helped that this was different than that, but it also helped that the appetite for fantasy in kids and adults has really, really gone up. It certainly has for me. I love reading them and I can't get enough of them."
Anne Ursu says she's just finished the second book in her series. It's about the realm of Poseidon and is scheduled to come out in the summer of '07.
She'll be reading from "The Shadow Thieves" at the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul Saturday afternoon, April 8.