The World Above by Cameron Dokey
Target Audience: YA/Teen
Summary: Gen and her twin brother, Jack, were raised with their mother's tales of life in the World Above. Gen is skeptical, but adventureous Jack believes the stories--and trades the family cow for magical beans. Their mother rejoices, knowing they can finally return to their royal home.When Jack plants the beans and climbs the enchanted stalk, he is captured by the tyrant who now rules the land. Gen sets off to rescue her borther, but danger awaits her in the World Above. For finding Jack may mean losing her heart
Type of Adaptation: Retelling in combination with the legend of Robin Hood
As you might remember from my review of Winter’s Child, Cameron Dokey went through a short period where her contributions to this series were not as stellar as I had come to expect from her. Granted, it was only a two book slump, Winter’s Child and the one she wrote prior to that, Wild Orchid, falling short of the mark, but still, I was starting to worry. My favorites of hers were her first two, and I was starting to worry that maybe she’d peaked.
The World Above was the book that convinced me otherwise, because this remains one of my favorites of hrs. It’s also the book that sold me on combining two different fairy tales into one story because this book blends Jack and the Beanstalk and the legend of Robin Hood absolutely seamlessly.
So, first important point that we learn, this isn’t Jack’s story. Well, it is, technically, but he isn’t the storyteller. The storyteller is Jack’s twin sister Gen, and she isn’t surprised that you’ve never heard of her. She tends to get left out of the stories because she was never after an adventure.
One prologue in and I’m already in love. Cameron Dokey finds the most wonderful voices for her narrators.
But Gen goes on to share the bedtime story that started it all, the tale her mother told them every night before bedtime, of a magical land called the World Above that existed high above the clouds for any who could reach it. And in this land, there was a Duke whose wife died without giving him an heir. The plan had always been to marry a daughter to the son of the Duke of the neighboring estate, so merging the two and sealing their fortunes. But without an heir, it came to be understood that the son, Guy de Trabant, who inherit both dukedoms when the time came.
However, most unexpectedly, late in life, the old Duke fell in love and married again. Fearful that this new wife would produce heirs and ruin his chance at two kingdoms, Guy de Trabant hired an assassin to kill the Duke, and he then usurped the throne. His intention was also to kill the duke’s wife, but she had been away from the estate, and was warned to flee. Her situation was doubly dangerous, for not only was her head wanted, but she was pregnant with the Duke’s child, his true heir. So she did the only thing that could guarantee her safety.
She obtained a magic bean and threw it through the clouds. A beanstalk grew and down she climbed, to the World Below, taking with her only the clothes on her back and the promise that when the time had come to return, she would be given a sign.
Gen and Jack, then, are supposedly the children she bore, true heirs to a kingdom in the World Above. Jack has always believed this without question. Gen has always been more skeptical. After all, it’s just a bedtime story, told to help Jack feel special.
Because Gen and Jack are vastly different people. Gen is practical and no-nonsense, the planner of the family. But Jack is a dreamer, his head always in the clouds, leaping before he looks and getting into trouble. And their mother always sides with Jack. Gen never let this bother her, not really, but I felt for her, the only person in this home who doesn’t fully believe in the World Above, who is content to continue life in the World Below.
But their life below has become difficult. Drought has pushed their farm to the brink of failure, and it is going to take all of Gen’s careful planning to keep things from going under. And so, she comes up with the plan that necessitates selling their last cow. Jack stubbornly doesn’t want to, but on this matter, their mother sides with Gen. Gen knows she should be the one to take the cow to market, as she would get the best price, but Jack speaks first, and so their mother tells him to go. And instead of bringing home money, as well all know, he brings home beans.
And, just like in the tale, the mother weeps. But not for the reason so commonly believed. Not out of anger or despair, but joy, for the beans Jack has brought home are the same magical beans that took her down the beanstalk. This is their sign, and the time has come to go home.
Jack is all for throwing the bean, climbing the beanstalk, and going in swords blazing to reclaim their throne. Gen rightly points out that this won’t end well for him, and that they need a plan before anyone does anything. Jack makes fun of Gen’s plans, and that’s when Gen finally loses her cool with both brother and mom, to which I say, right on.
I mean, Gen’s our narrator, so when she says she understands she’s not the favorite child, you know that’s true. And she really does have remarkable patience in the beginning. But I was irritated with the way she was treated by her mother and brother just because she wasn’t as gung-ho about climbing a beanstalk to a magical world without a plan in place. So I was really glad to see her stand up for herself.
I love the way she went about it, too. Because Jack was talking about going and reclaiming his throne, and his mother was talking about how to get the people to recognize him as their true leader, and Gen rightfully (and like a badass) points out that as she is five minutes older than Jack, technically she would be the true heir, something both mother and son had completely neglected to factor in.
Of course, Gen doesn’t actually have any interest in the throne, but she wanted to remind her mother and brother that she’s a part of this family, too, even if she views the world a bit differently. It’s a well done moment, and I liked seeing Gen’s assertiveness. It sets up her character really nicely.
Chagrined, Jack and their mother let Gen do her planning, and she comes up with a good one. There were three symbols of the duke’s reign: a goose that laid golden eggs, a sack of gold coins that never ran dry, and a harp that sings truth. If Jack can obtain these items, they can be used to help prove Jack’s lineage. But he isn’t to tell anyone who he really is. And he needs to gather information about what’s going on up in the world.
So he grows a beanstalk, and he climbs it. And a day later, he comes back, goose and sack in hand, spinning tales about the World Above and the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Lovesick he may be, but he also has a story to tell.
At the top of the beanstalk, he found the castle of the Duke, just as he expected. But Guy de Trabant was not in residence. Guy de Trabant rules both dukedoms from his own home across the border, and the Duke’s old castle is currently in the hands of the children of the giant Guy hired to guard it. Their names are Shannon and Sean. Sean is a giant like his father. Shannon is not. But she s the most beautiful woman Jack has ever seen. So beautiful, in fact, that Jack told her exactly who he was and what he was trying to accomplish.
Jack. You had one job, man.
But it turns out it wasn’t a horrible mistake, as Shannon and Sean’s loyalties like not with Guy, but to the people who live on the castle’s land. And the people are not being treated well by Guy. So Shannon and Sean give Jack the goose and the sack, left in the castle, but they cannot give him the harp, for that was taken by Guy to the dukedom on the other side of the forest. It is his most treasured and closely guarded possession.
Jack also learns that Guy de Trabant’s rule is in a bit of trouble. He has not ruled well, and the people are restless. Rumors fly about the old Duke’s long lost heirs, though no one knew for certain that they existed. A rebellion is brewing. And to add to Guy’s trouble, the rebellion is being headed by his own son Robert, going by the name of Robin and living with his men in the forest.
Armed with this knowledge, Jack and Gen create a new plan. Jack will climb a new beanstalk from a new bean (as they chop each one down once the climber is up, for safety). He and Sean will make their way to Guy’s castle for the public assizes, the only times when Guy lets the harp out of its vault. They will try to come up with a way to steal it, for it will help identify Jack as the rightful heir. Jack has four weeks to make this happen and return to the World Below. If he does not return with the harp, then Gen must throw a bean and climb up to rescue him.
Gen ends up having to throw a bean and climb up to rescue him, but you could have guessed that, right?
Gen meets up with Shannon to find out what has happened, and learns that Jack and Sean went out to find the harp, but she hasn’t heard from them since, and believes they probably got captured. Both sisters are terrified for their brothers, and need to get to Guy’s palace as quickly as possible, and so they decide to journey through the forest rather than around, a risk because, as mentioned earlier, this is the forest full of the Merry Men.
And sure enough, the girls are met by Robin and his Little John, in this novel called Steel. At first, they have a little fun with the lonely travelers, but then Steel sees Gen’s face, and it so happens that she’s the spitting image of her mother. Steel worked for the old Duke, and blames himself for the man’s death, and so he immediately recognizes Gen and lets Robin know exactly who they have with them.
Robin’s demeanor changes after that, treating Gen and Shannon with new respect and allowing them to come to the hideout and tell their story and what it is they’re trying to do. Since it fits in rather well with the goal of the rebellion, they join forces.
And Robin is a marvelous character here, honestly more interesting to me than the original Robin Hood figure. Robin Hood of legend is just . . . too perfect. He’s the perfect figure of morality, always doing right by the people, standing up for the little guy, and while that’s all great, he’s never really been characterized beyond that in a way that I connected with. I have no real problem with him, I just don’t find him interesting.
This Robin, though? Him I find incredibly interesting because where he comes from is so much more interesting. He loves his father, but he hates what his father has become. He hates the way that his father treats his people, he hates that his father won his throne through deceit, and he hates that things ended between them the way that they did.
This Robin is fighting for the people, yes, but he’s also doing his best to truly unite them. He lacks the arrogance and cockiness of Robin Hood of legend, I think is the key here for me. He’s not after a throne; he makes that very clear. He’s not after a throne. He just wants to see a just and righteous ruler returned to the throne.
Gen impresses him, and vice versa, and I love this introduction between the two of them, because here you have highly practical Gen, who rolled her eyes at her brother for falling in love at first sight, and she meets this man and learns who he is and almost literally has a conversation with herself along the lines of, “Hey. Heart. Listen up. We’re not gonna do that. We’re not gonna go there. Not a good time. Understand?”
It works about as well as you’d expect.
While they’re trying to figure out a plan to move forward, Sean finds them, and confirms their worst fears – Jack was caught trying to steal the harp, and he’s been thrown into the dungeons, awaiting execution. He has also been recognized as the old Duke’s heir, courtesy of the harp.
However, Guy de Trabant has announced a loophole. There is a tournament approaching, and a contest has been added to it. An archery contest. If a challenger can best the Duke’s archer in the competition, then that challenger will determine what happens to Jack. Of course, only one person has ever beaten the Duke’s archer. Yeah, that’d be Robin.
I love this. I really do. In the original legend, Robin goes because he can’t resist the challenge. But here, he has a real reason; there’s a man’s life at stake. The contest was specifically designed by his father to draw Robin out. There’s a bounty on his head, but the people love Robin too much for anyone to actually claim it. Robin tells Gen this when he tells her that of course he’s going to go free her brother. Gen asks what the bounty is. And Robin tells her. And that’s when Gen comes up with her plan.
See, anyone who turns in Robin wins the right to ask three questions of any person in the presence of the harp, so the questions must be answered truthfully. So here’s how it goes down:
The band head to the tournament, disguised. The archery contest closes things off. It comes down to Robin and the Duke’s archer. Robin wins. Gen steps forward, also disguised, and claims the bounty, identifying him as Robert de Trabant. Guy de Trabant declares that as Robin is also wanted by law, he can’t declare Jack’s freedom. Steel, who hasn’t heard the plan and wants to avenge the wrong he feels he did the old Duke, steps forward to kill Guy. Robin stops him. Robin claims a debt of his father for saving his life, and uses it to force him to give Gen her bounty. He does, and the person she chooses to question is Guy himself. After, of course, she reveals herself as the daughter of the old Duke.
And then she asks Guy her questions, reaching the part of the plan that no one entirely knows about. She asks if he has achieved his heart’s desire. He says no. She asks if he still loves his son. He says yes. And finally, she asks that if she can suggest a way to give back his son and restore his honor in Robin’s eyes, would he accept the bargain? He says yes.
Gen tells him that he has not won his heart’s desire because his throne was taken through bloodshed and deceit, a fact she has rightly guessed has eaten away at him over time. He agonizes over it, guilty and full of regret, but with no way to make amends that he can see. Her bargain, then, is this: marry his son to the old Duke’s heir. Unite the kingdoms the right way, through love. Guy points out that this would be a pretty solution, except that he cannot possibly wed his son to Jack, and that’s when Gen has to point out yet again that, hey, she’s actually the heir, guys.
Guy asks Robin if he would accept this plan. He says yes immediately, though because Gen is a bit thick-headed about some things, she doesn’t know if he’s saying yes because he wants to marry her or because it’s the only choice he has. She’s silly. He points this out later. It’s adorable.
Anyway, Guy renounces his throne, accepts a magic bean, and goes willingly into exile in the world below. Jack and Gen marry their partners and bring their mother up to her rightful land, and all is well and good in the world once more.
Define Jack? Yes, but even more importantly, we defined Gen, and I love that they are the two halves of this character. You have the dreamer, but also the planner. The doer, but also the thinker. It’s lovely.
Tie in the mysterious man? Not really applicable, the way the story was told. I do have my questions about where those beans came from and how they got to the World Below, but while I do think it’s a point not fully explored, it doesn’t bother me enough to gripe about it.
Explore the implications of the giant’s world? I love how fully realized the World Above is. It’s the best of any books we’ve read this month. And I love that it isn’t really a giant’s world. I mean, yeah, a giant happens to live there, but really, it’s just another land up above where magic is real.
Make the ending matter? As I said earlier, I adore the way these two tales are woven together. It is seamless and it is masterful. And the ending is the perfect blend of them, plus doing what needed to be done to make the story its own as well. Definitely one of my favorites, and I’m glad this is how we wrapped up the month.