I love an intense experience: a rich cup of espresso, a fine Malbec, a taut and well-played game of baseball. Intensity is a state the occurs when a stimulus is powerful enough to remove you from current time and place and immerse you in an alternative world where senses, emotions and thoughts become more vivid and alive.
That pretty much describes what it’s like to read Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift.
The second installment in the Cassidy Jones Adventures series does not let up for a moment, from the exceptionally well-written prologue to the end of the book. Even the relatively quiet and “normal” parts (when superhero Cassidy exists in the context of teenage reality) turn out to be fascinating vignettes of the teenage experience, with all the wild-card emotions coming into play. Plot development is tight, the story is well-told and the characters surprisingly authentic for a fantasy adventure.
As I pointed out in my review of Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula, Cassidy is an exceptional character who would still be exceptional if she were cured of her super powers. At times mature and perceptive, at other times hopelessly adolescent, Elise Stokes has developed a character that is anything but a caricature. This foundational strength is even more apparent in this second book as Cassidy becomes more comfortable with her accidental capabilities while becoming less comfortable with the simmering conflict inside her. She is a very competent superhero but also a teenager with shaky confidence, and it is this combination of strength and vulnerability that makes you want to cheer her on. We never forget that Cassidy, albeit in the exaggerated transformation to superhero, is a young girl always in danger of losing control, which also happens to be what it feels like to be a teenager.
Ms. Stokes has also strengthened the supporting cast, with Emery Phillips (Cassidy’s partner in adventure) also serving as something of a role model who tries to temper Cassidy’s typically teenage tendency to unfairly judge other people. We see this as Emery enlists the help of a chain-smoking layabout named Jason, whom Cassidy immediately rejects as a colleague and whom Emery calmly defends for his virtues and unique moral code. Emery’s dispassionate and open-minded view of human nature contrasts nicely with the labeling tendency we all have in our teenage years (and which some of us cling to through adulthood).
Cassidy also befriends a homeless fellow named (appropriately) Joe, the kind of person who rarely appears on anyone’s radar, much less that of a fourteen-year old girl. Her defense of Joe, who is being attacked by the typical gang of teenagers looking for kicks, tells us a lot about Cassidy’s fundamental sense of decency and fair play. The only problem I had with the book was that there was no final scene with Joe, as I think he could serve as a good friend and mentor for Cassidy; sort of an ironic version of Dumbledore.
I should also mention the forces of evil against whom Cassidy and Emery do battle. The initial encounter with Metal Man was so well-written that I felt like I was there. The final battle against the evil Lily White (a perfect name if there ever was one!) is more tightly-written than the climax in the first book. Ms. Stokes has not spent much time developing the characters on the dark side, which I feel at this stage of the series is a good choice (Voldemort was hardly real until the end of Book 4). However, at some point in the series, we will have to have a better understanding of Cassidy’s definition of evil so that we better understand Cassidy herself.
In my earlier review, I compared the first installment to Ms. Rowling’s efforts and certainly felt that Cassidy Jones held up well. In this second installment, Cassidy takes the lead. I never felt that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets added much to the series; Rowling really didn’t get moving until Book 3. With Cassidy Jones and Vulcan’s Gift, Ms. Stokes has taken the series to a higher level and the path forward is full of intriguing possibilities.
I will now exist in that exquisitely agonizing space of having to wait a whole year for those possibilities to play out in the next installment.
See the Cassidy Jones Adventures website for more information about the books and the author.