Kenneth Oppel, Firewing (Simon & Schuster, 2003)
Firewing is the story of Griffin, son of Shade and Marina (Silverwing and Sunwing), a young bat who tends to see too many sides to any question. He is not particularly brave, and like so many young people, when he does act, he often doesn't think it through.
The story begins with an attempt by Griffin and his friend Luna to steal fire from humans -- the owls have fire, which they also stole and keep in secret nests throughout the forest. Thinking that they will have a way to stay in Tree Haven, the nursery colony, throughout the winter and avoid the lengthy and dangerous migration to Hibernaculum, Griffin successfully sneaks fire away from a pair of campers on a stalk of grass, but the adventure ends in tragedy when the grass burns down too fast and Griffin drops it on Luna, who is flying beneath him. She is severely injured from her burns and the resultant fall, and Griffin, stricken with guilt, hides in the lowest reaches of the roost. There, he is trapped by an earthquake, which leaves him a fissure leading down as his only escape. As he begins to investigate the fissure, he is sucked down into the Underworld, the abode of Cama Zotz, the bat-god. Shade, coming to Tree Haven as one of the regular messengers, goes in search of his son, and, learning from his ability to trace sound patterns back in time that Griffin has been sucked through the fissure, follows in search of him.
Goth, villain of the first two stories, is there -- he was killed in the final confrontation in Sunwing, and the only way he can live again is to steal the life from one of the rare living who has been sucked into Zotz' realm. Frieda, the revered elder of the Silverwings, is also there, one of the Pilgrims who tries to lead the dead to the Tree and their new lives, who offers Griffin a path out of the Underworld. And Griffin meets Luna, who when he was trapped was hovering between life and death. There are many adventures as Griffin and his companions try to reach the Tree through a land which changes under them, pursued by Goth, who is intent on stealing Griffin's life for the god Cama Zotz, and in turn pursued by Shade, intent on finding Griffin and rescuing him.
The final confrontation is, ultimately, unsatisfying -- after three volumes of near misses and last-minutes saves, one can legitimately hope for a different resolution. The message is, however, ultimately one of joy and the value of life.
One of Oppel's overriding themes, in this book and the preceding duo, is the ways in which people deceive themselves and will follow a leader who speaks forcefully and definitely, even if not always wisely. This is true of the dead no less than the living -- many of them think they are alive, and not only avoid Griffin and Shade, who glow with the force of their lives, but try to drive away the Pilgrims. Even those who reside within sight of the Tree have decided that they are comfortable being dead, because it is known and safe. People like Shade and Griffin, who explore questions more deeply and are somewhat bolder in facing unpleasant truths, are likely to be unpopular -- but, as Oppel points out repeatedly, they have significant value aside from the size of their group of friends.
All in all, Firewing is a good read for juveniles, dealing honestly with issues that are important to them, all encapsulated in an absorbing adventure that doesn't pull any punches.