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Yesterday I picked up Lauren Oliver's Spindlers from the library. As I could tell from the cover, it involves a brave girl descending into darkness to rescue someone she loves from creepy monsters. I always have loved stories of girls going underground, the modern Urtext of which is that book that people today think is Alice in Wonderland, but is really Alice's Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll. [Sidebar: the ancient Urtext is that possibly of Persephone or maybe even Inanna.] Anyway, such a basic story of transformation is very difficult to do justice to, and, unfortunately, The Spindlers fails.

The Spindlers follows protagonist Liza as she goes underground to save her younger brother from arachnid creatures that have stolen his soul to eat. Oliver writes well, even beautifully at times, but she can't plot, can't pace and can't tie anything together. Guided by a large nervous talking rat, Liza trudges from event to event. There's a market of lost things, a seductive palace dance, a ridiculous kangaroo court, a river of knowledge, a forest of evil trees, a rickety bridge guarded by a keeper who demands a fee, a drugged smorgasbord, a threat of being devoured, a helper who turns traitor, a distraction of monsters by throwing rocks to set them upon one another, a hall of misleading mirrors, an invitation to stay in the dream forever, a traitor turning back into a helper in the nick of time, a showdown in which the ruler falls to pieces along with the castle, blah blah blah. 

I can handle threadbare elements if they're well executed, but these here ain't. Modern tales of girls going underground tend to be about the messiness of perspective, the slipperiness of life and the challenge of maintaining one of the few constants -- love, affection, loyalty, family, one's own moral compass  -- in such a promising, threatening morass. I, however, have no idea what The Spindlers is about, but it's not that. Why does Liza have these particular experiences? Instead of being Liza's own psychological landscape, the underground functions as a vacuous adventure dispenser. There are no unifying concepts or themes, just a serialized circus of oddity without significance. The Spindlers takes a nifty concept and runs it into the ground with triviality.

It's really a Labyrinth ripoff. It's like Oliver discarded all the good parts of the movie [the context provided by Sarah's room's contents, wonderfully designed puppets, the odd, very British flashes of humor, that dude with the balls] and, for some reason, decided to run with the concept of a whiny kid fighting some royal villain for custody of her little brother. The Spindlers really jumped the shark when Oliver, for no particular reason, gave Liza a penchant for saying, "That's not fair!" -- which is, of course, Sarah's refrain in Labyrinth. I then became distracted, imagining Liza's words in young Jennifer Connelly's petulant whine. Ugh.

This is not a book that pisses me off. This is just a book that disappoints me. Clearly it's time to cleanse my mind by reading all of Alice's adventures. 

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