Book One of The Morus Chronicles, The Hunter Awakens, provides a middle grade fantasy centered around the experiences of thirteen-year-old Ethan Morus, who uncovers a family legend while staying at his grandparents' old farm.
But where other similar-sounding fantasies evolve predictable paths, The Hunter Awakens is just ramping up; because events that unfold aren't entirely fueled by Ethan's evolving curiosity and investigations, but evolve from the fact that he's being watched by sorcerers who know, better than he, the extent of his latent abilities and their importance in a bigger picture.
Few young readers can resist a good treasure hunt story; and while many a middle grade read might attempt to include this in their plots, it's rare to see such a hunt actually driving events. But without motivation and the glitter and lure of actual riches, many an adventure falls apart - and that's just one facet that keeps The Hunter Awakens a compelling middle school read: promised riches are always just around the corner.
It takes a solid, talented storyteller to bring to life what sounds like a too-familiar scenario: Roper is such a talent. It takes an attention to detail to build a young protagonist who is not a one-dimensional, singular figure or a hero, but a living, breathing boy faced with social and ethical issues along the way who is always challenged to make the best choice. And it takes a pragmatic approach to build a story line that begins with a seemingly-normal boy's concerns and evolve it so that he begins to recognize and accept his unique skills and make decisions on their applications.
As chapters unwind with the grace and power of an epic, middle school readers will find themselves swept away by a wave of intrigue, fantasy, mystery, and most of all, by Ethan's believable dilemmas as he faces a world he never knew existed.
Part of the reason why Roper achieves this so easily is that his scenarios juxtapose psychological insight with the touch, feel, and smell of place and setting. Thus, a few deft sentences may build such a character ("Ethan strode toward his mother’s bedroom, the one place he wasn’t allowed. With Mom, being sneaky got you caught. Act normal and she was blind to mischief.") while the next few capture Ethan's daily world ("He lifted the heavy lid and inhaled the cedar that accompanied the worn leather journal. He tucked the journal beneath his shirt and walked out. Around the corner, the living room was clear. To the right, the kitchen TV buzzed with the evening news. Herbs and garlic hung in the air. Italian food tonight.")
Later on, as he moves among friends, his sleuthing skills haven't ended: if anything, they have become well honed and especially suited for probing relatives' secrets: "He crouched as he entered the porch. The surrounding windows would give him away if Uncle Nero came to the house…At the bottom was a large piece of black cloth that had been wrapped around something hard. He stretched out the cloth like a kite opening in the wind, and out slipped a small black book. As he flipped through tattered pages, he realized it was a diary. Wondering if it were Dad’s, he looked inside the front cover."
Especially with teen writing, characterization is the key. As a savvy creative writing teacher once said: if the reader doesn't care what happens to the character, he won't care what happens in the story. Roper creates this sense of intimacy and, as a result, readers follow Ethan's movements and decisions with bated breath.
The plot may sound predictable: all the elements are there for formula writing - a treasure hunt, latent powers awakened, a journey, sorcerers, good and evil - but it's what an author chooses to do with these elements that makes the difference between sub-par, acceptable and superior writing.
Everyone is involved in the outcome, from Ethan's savvy grandparents to Mel, who has a vested interest in manipulating Ethan because she's long ago given her powers to the dark side. And there's a reason why Ethan's treasure hunt becomes more than just a search for riches. The rest lies buried in the pages of The Hunter Awakens, just waiting to be discovered.
I am happy to say that The Hunter Awakens won Best Children's Book 2014 at the Preditors & Editors Readers' Poll.