Tuesday, August 26, 2008

4 More Book Reviews

Beyond the Deepwoods
by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell
Recommended Age: 10+

This book is the first in "The Twig Trilogy," which itself is part of "The Edge Chronicles," an ongoing series by the Brighton, England-based team of author Stewart and illustrator Riddell. It's interesting to see more than one current series of kids' books giving equal credit to a writer and an artist for creating a fantasy world together; the hottest American example is the Spiderwick series. Impossible as it may seem, The Edge is even more creatively far-out.

The Edge, as the identical introduction to all three books of this trilogy points out, is the type of place where one really could fall off the end of the world. Descending from the dense, dark highlands of the Deepwoods to the hypnotic Twilight Woods, the bleak Mire, the squalid bustle of Undertown, and the floating city of Sanctaphrax (secured to terra firma by a heavy chain), the known world finally comes to a point at the end of the Stone Gardens, where lighter-than-air rocks slowly grow out of the ground. The Edgwater River runs through it all, and finally plunges off the very tip of this bizarre country into the unknown mists, where anyone who falls off the edge might fall forever. It is a land of many mysteries and dangers, populated by a variety of trolls, elves, goblins, gnomes, and other creatures so strange that I haven't room to describe them. It is a fantasy world exploding with curiosties, whimsies, and horrors, many of them with names that suggest that its creators' favorite author might be Lewis Carroll.

Twig is a slim youngster with matted hair who looks and thinks quite differently from the woodtrolls who raised him. The day finally comes when his "mother-mine" admits that he isn't a woodtroll at all, but a foundling that she raised as one of her own children. When Twig set out to visit some woodtroll relatives, he inadvertently wanders from the path (a very un-woodtroll thing to do), and so strikes out to make his own fortune. Along the way he meets all kinds of creatures, some of them friendly, some deadly - from huge, shaggy, fanged banderbears that howl to each other across lonely distances, to the man-eating blood oak and the cult of "termagant trogs" that worship it; from the dangerously stupid gyle goblins to the diabolically clever gloamglozer. Eventually Twig finds out where he came from and gets the first whiff of his destiny as a great sky pirate captain . . . but not before he must face great fears, griefs, shame, and despair.

This is a hugely promising beginning to an original fantasy series. Though it has enough strange and wonderful flights of imagination to make your head swim, it is firmly anchored in a story we can all recognize, a journey we are willing to join and follow. Though Twig has his not-so-sympathetic moments, he is basically a hero to cheer for - and, in the narrower spots, to wring one's hands over. Save yourself some hand-wringing now and get the whole trilogy, which continues in Stormchaser and Midnight Over Sanctaphrax.

by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell
Recommended Age: 10+

Book Two in both "The Twig Trilogy" and "The Edge Chronicles," this lavishly illustrated volume continues the adventures of a young sky-pirate captain in a strange world where certain kinds of wood and stone are lighter than air, and where lightning bolts form a solid substance when they strike the ground - a substance that is immensely heavy in darkness, unmanageably weightless in bright light, dangerously explosive, and that can only be handled in twilight conditions.

This substance, known as Stormphrax, is a hot commodity. For one thing, it is very rare. No one remembers the last time a sky-pirate ship returned from a quest to bring stormphrax back - back to the floating city of scholars called Sanctaphrax and the earthy Undertown that serves it. Only a quantity of stormphrax in its darkened treasury can keep Sanctaphrax from breaking its anchor chain and flying off into the sky. But since the current Most High Academe discovered that phraxdust - powdered stormphrax - can also purify water, nearly all of the stormphrax supply has gone into futile (not to say fatal) attempts to repeat the experiment. Now both stormphrax and phraxdust are in short supply, and conditions are growing desperate. The local economy revolves around the forging of additional chains to hold down the increasingly unstable city. This means more water pollution, increasing the desperation of the poor people of Undertown, who can no longer afford enough phraxdust to obtain drinkable water; while there will soon be nothing left with which to pay the merchant guilds who supply the chains.

Into this desperate moment steps Cloud Wolf, a great pirate captain who is willing to chase a great storm out over the Twilight Woods, hoping to bring back the stormphrax his city needs. Unfortunately, one of Cloud Wolf's crew is a traitor - a sneaking spy from the Merchant Guild, who dupes Cloud Wolf's son Twig into stowing away on board, only to use him as a hostage. The resulting fracas has tragic results, and forces Twig to exercise his natural leadership skills in a desperate attempt to save his crew and redeem their failed mission. The perils of the Twilight Woods and the adjacent Mire turn out to be an unexpectedly gruelling (and gruesome) challenge to survival.

Brace yourself for some shocking nasties, loads of weird creatures, gut-shredding losses, and high-tension battles against man, machine, and nature in this most strange and inventive fantasy world. But don't worry about the time or effort of reading a trilogy. The richness of the imagery, both in word and in picture, will beguile you - though not in the nasty way the Twilight Woods beguiles people. It might help to read Beyond the Deepwoods before this book, and of course you'll want to read Midnight Over Sanctaphrax after it. But I think you will find this such a strong, solid story in its own right, that everyone in the family will want a turn.

Midnight Over Sanctaphrax
by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell
Recommended Age: 10+

If you read Stormchaser, the previous book in "The Edge Chronicles" as well as "The Twig Trilogy," you will already know that Twig's first command as a sky pirate captain didn't end happily for most of his crew. Nevertheless, he brought home the stormphrax that saved the scholars' floating city of Sanctaphrax and guaranteed clean water for all the poor goblins, trolls, elves, and whatnot of the industrialized Undertown. Things turned out so well that Twig got a new skyship, a new crew, and a new mission: to find his father, lost in a storm. But this means going where no one has ever gone and returned: over the Edge, into the infinite mists beyond.

You'll want to read what I said about Beyond the Deepwoods and Stormchaser to get most of that. But once you've read those books, it's a gimme that you'll read this too. Paul Stewart's writing is crammed with inventive imagery and tightly-wound urgency; Chris Riddell's illustrations are simultaneously charming, weird, scary, and expressive; and when Twig's new mission and crew are blown to pieces even faster than the last time, you'll know you are in for a thrilling quest into the heart of a highly original fantasy world. This chapter offers all the sensory noise of a busy slave market and its cruel games, a wide-open menagerie of threatening and fascinating creatures, the unlikely friendship between a swashbuckling hero and a scholarly apprentice, and the suspense of knowing that a whole world depends on the hero's getting to one end of his world by a given date while he travels, ignorant of what fate holds in store, all the way to the other end. And it weaves all these things into a mythopoeic account of a unique world's cycle of death and rebirth.

It would be awesome enough without Riddell's irreplaceable pictures. The frontispiece's map of the Edge alone is certain to inspire wonder and fanciful contemplation. It is no wonder the Stewart-Riddell team can't seem to stop crafting new stories about this world, including The Curse of the Gloamglozer, The Last of the Sky Pirates, Clash of the Sky Galleons, and others. Plus, they are also the creators of the "Far-Flung Adventures," beginning with the book Fergus Crane. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for the paperbacks. You'll hear more from me about these terrific ink-and-paper entertainers.

The Pictish Child
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Age: 10+

The entire "Tartan Magic Trilogy" seems to squeeze its happenings into one family vacation, a visit by the American twins Jennifer and Peter, their kid sister Molly, and their parents to relatives in Scotland. In this second installment, they have scarcely recovered from their first battle against an ancient, evil, Scottish wizard when a girl from far in the past suddenly turns up in their lives. Ninia belongs to the pre-Christian race of Picts, and has been snatched out of her time at a moment when her life and the future of her people were in jeopardy.

Now Ninia's story is mixed up with the present-day affairs of three children who are still coming to terms with the existence of magic. What would they do without a witchy grandma, a talking dog and a talking horse who, like the girl, belongs to the time of the Picts? They certainly wouldn't stand much chance against a vaporous darkness that could seep under doors and windows, if the sills hadn't been salted. How long can the kids stay indoors with a horse, a dog, and a wild child whose life story is carved on enormous stones in the town museum? How can they change history while stopping an evil plot to steal the magical powers from Gran and her friends? And how will they have time for a third adventure and before their vacation ends?

This could be a cautionary tale against blowing your vacation in a rainy country full of narrow streets where they drive on the wrong side of the road. Or, it could be a delightful adventure in Scottish magic, tailor-made for young American readers. If you're a kid who yearns for a break from the modern and mundane, here is a quick-reading romp for you, complete with twins who complete each other's sentences and a glossary of Scottish lingo, so you will ken what everyone is havering aboot. If you missed Book 1, it is titled The Wizard's Map. The third and final book is The Bagpiper's Ghost.

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