Speaking alongside bookshelves filled with science fiction and fantasy novels in her family’s Lewes home, Melanie Wilkinson describes her 16-year-old son Cailan’s first book as a natural progression in a life filled with exploration and reflection.
“We didn’t have a television until a few years ago, but I started reading to all of my kids when they were just toddlers,” she said. “I started with chapter books but moved on to the Narnia series when Cailan was 7. We’d walk and read, and would go through two or three great books by the fire during the winter. I knew he was a natural storyteller when I saw him go outside with his stack of books to read to Aiden [Cailan’s younger brother].”
Soon, both boys were reading to their little sister, Olivia, who’s now 4.
“And the other day,” Melanie said, “I heard Olivia reading to Addy.”
Addy is the family’s playful hound dog, who shares outdoor space with their chickens alongside gardens tended by both boys with their parents. When that work is done, Cailan can be seen riding his bike all over town, listening to his specially curated playlists, enjoying the scenic vistas around Blockhouse Pond and gathering storytelling material on walks through the graveyard across from Lloyd’s Market, where both he and Aiden have offered the family’s home-grown produce off and on over the past few years.
It's all part of a peaceful physical world that contrasts sharply with the mystical place Cailan brings to life in “The Elementalist: Book One: Darkfire.” Driving the story is Jack, who’s avenging the murders of his parents and grandparents by developing his ability to use fire and intuition to defeat all kinds of creatures in a trial dungeon. The confrontations are terrifying because Jack is continuously outmatched by the creatures’ abilities and menace, and the stakes are intensified by his dreadful knowledge that only 1 percent of those who enter the dungeon survive.
While fans of the genre will enjoy the action sequences and nightmarish setting, many will be surprised to learn the story was written by a teenager. From the beginning, the rapid-paced narrative is filled with vivid and sophisticated imagery, and it ends with an authentic resolution that beckons readers toward the next adventure in the series.
Cailan’s response to praise tends to be muted and coupled with gratitude for the influences of his family and the richness of his childhood experiences. But he also offers practical reasons for his talents. One influence has been his extensive involvement in the Role Playing Group at the Lewes Public Library, where local teens become characters in a storytelling game patterned on experiences from Dungeons and Dragons and “The Lord of the Rings.” Although there are a handful of rules, the game’s open-ended, fantastical complexity has nurtured his imagination while fueling his sense of adventure.
“The game mechanics are helpful in terms of structure,” he said, but the most intense satisfaction for him comes from the adventurous feeling that every story is a writer’s journey. “I usually have a point A, B and C, but everything in between is about surprises. Even though I have a vague idea of what I’m going to write, there are things that just happen.”
As an example, he said, “In one chapter halfway through book two, I see a stone room with angels standing around a throne ... I envision it through a camera, the way it would look in a movie. I know how all of the characters look and how it sounds.”
And although he’s fully immersed in the mystical universe where the series takes place, the characters are grounded by true-to-life details.
“I never have a main villain in my books, because I want the stories to be the way things are in the real world. No one has just one enemy, and all of the characters have gray areas, without any pure villains or pure heroes. Sometimes you like what they do and sometimes you don’t,” he said.
“The Elementalist: Book One: Darkfire” is available as an e-book from Amazon, and in print at the Lewes Public Library and King’s Ice Cream in Lewes.