Liam McKenzie is a 12-year old superhero. When he overhears fighting from the home of a beautiful young woman in his neighbourhood, and notices how sad she looks, he decides he will step up from his usual fodder of flat tyres and crooked gates, and save her. Liam is the protagonist of Craig Silvey’s The Amber Amulet and the book is told through his superhero-charged personae. We learn from the start that he derives his power from the trapped potential energy that is all around us – in the minerals of his Amazing Powerbelt, and perhaps, though this is implicit rather than explicit, in the kindness we do for others.
This hardback book is beautifully illustrated by Sonia Martinez, with scrapbook style pictures, drawings, handwritten notes from Liam, and a very retro feel that puts you directly into Liam’s world. Of course Liam himself is a retro kind of kid, saving his neighbours instead of playing on an Xbox or PC, and using his powers of observation to do good. With his trusty dog Richie the Power Beagle, Liam, aka The Masked Avenger, makes it his business to help Joan, but it takes him several attempts to build up the courage, and when he finally does, he learns some difficult lessons about the way in which energy is distributed, about his own sense of self, and about the world around him.
It’s a lovely story, full of subtle and rich characterisation amidst the fun and bravado. Martinez’s illustrations are vivid and strange and further adds to the character of Liam, as one almost feels as though we’re privy to some kind of journal, with bits and pieces that he’s culled to create his fringe physics (what he calls his geo-alchemy) and his superhero ethic. Though the book is written in the third person, one gets a strong sense of Liam’s voice throughout – the perspective and intensity of the precociously gifted but solitary only child:
“The Masked Avenger paces restlessly into the night. In replying to his Important Questionnaire, she has entrusted him with her care. She is now his civic responsibility. He has inherited her unhappiness. Overturning it has become his duty.
But how? He bounces ideas off Richie, who listens intently but seems ultimately unimpressed. It’s a difficult problem to solve without being privy to the origins of her complaint. For all his expertise in the fields of mineralogy and metallurgy, he can’t be sure that there is a gem that cures unhappiness outright.” (31)
In the end, this small, easy-to-read novel goes deeper than its pulp fiction presentation might suggest. Liam’s impact on the world around him and his own subtle transformation is as much a coming-of-age as that of the teenager Charlie Bucktin in Jasper Jones. The Masked Avenger has a sad edge, both in the very adult problems of Joan – something that Liam intuits rather than gets, and also in the underlying loneliness of Liam.
Younger children may well enjoy the fun action, the simplicity and imagery of the book, and the appealing character of Liam, his alter ego, and his clever dog, but older readers will pick up on the emotional growth through the soft ache below the surface. The Amber Amulet is an appealing offering from a writer whose fresh perspective on youth has already created such an impact in the literary world.