Thursday, October 30, 2008


The Crystal Cave
by Mary Stewart
Recommended Age: 14+

Of the writing of many books about Arthur, Merlin, and the knights of Camelot there is seemingly no end. Of their beginning, of the real people and events that inspired them, we know little for sure. But tales of that romantic age, drawn from the legends of Britain and Brittany, hold such a fascination for readers today that we could lose ourselves in them, and many happily do so. If you filled a swimming-pool with such books and jumped in, you would probably plunge past this book or one of its companions floating near the surface among the leading entries in recent Arthurian fiction.

The Crystal Cave unfolds as an elegant, candid memoir of the childhood and early maturity of Merlin. The mage behind the throne of Camelot begins life as the illegitimate grandson of the king of South Wales. His early talent for seeing the future blossoms under the tutelage of a cave-dwelling hermit, until the deadly treachery of his uncle forces Merlin to flee. He finds his way across the Channel to Brittany, joining forces with the rightful high king of all Britain, who is preparing an invasion to take back his throne.

You'll gape in astonishment at what Merlin learns under the guidance of Aurelius Ambrosius, at how he uses his strange powers to aid in the latter's campaigns, and at the costly bargain with magic Merlin makes to arrange the birth of the Once and Future King. You'll squirm with suspense when the vile tyrant Vortimer takes him captive, and later when Merlin helps Uther take the Cornish fortress of Tintagel. Your flesh will creep as Merlin visits Stonehenge and other sacred places, and your blood will race as armies clash on the battlefield.

Readers and parents concerned about occult & adult content, take note: this wizard's chronicle summons power from several strange, historic religions, and has some sexual content including one particularly steamy scene. The book also has deaths that some sensitive, younger readers might find disturbing. Merlin's narrative surrounds his most impressive deeds with a cloud of ambiguity. You're never sure - perhaps because he isn't, either - how he did them, who or what gave him the power. Even told from Merlin's point of view, the book remains unclear as to whether Merlin's choices are right or wrong, wise or foolish. I suppose you'll have to read further in the series to find out.

For this is Book One of the Arthurian Saga, written 1970-1995 by a British writer mostly known for romance-mystery novels with a paranormal twist. Inspired by the Legend of Merlin as told by medieval historian-cum-romanticist Geoffrey of Monmouth, it comes complete with an informative Author's Note and the text of the original Legend. Other titles in this series include The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, The Wicked Day, and The Prince and the Pilgrim.

The Shadow Thieves
by Anne Ursu
Recommended Age: 12+

In this first book of The Cronus Chronicles, Minnesota-based author Anne Ursu poses the question: "What if Greek myths were real?" I know what you're going to say. You've read Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, so you've already covered this ground. Well, surprise! You haven't. Not like this. For this twist on the "today's teens meet Greek gods" premise isn't at all like Riordan's rollicking adventure of teens with demigod powers and cute, goat-footed sidekicks. It's a darker, spookier fantasy - though with its own witty, engaging style and its own touch of perverse humor. To be honest, I wasn't always sure that witty, engaging style agreed with me. Sometimes I thought Ursu laid it on too thick. But by and by it grew on me until I was completely won over. As for her perverse humor... Well, I've been to the Mall of which she writes, and the idea that it contains an entrance to the Underworld was so perfect that I had to pause for breath.

Charlotte Mielswetzki - all together now: Meals-Wet-Ski - lives in a city near that Mall, and unlike your typical hero of a Percy-Jackson-like adventure, there isn't anything special about her. She is, in fact, excruciatingly average in spite of the best efforts of her parents, who are a high school teacher and a child psychologist. Charlotte has a bit of an attitude problem, actually. The word "prickly" comes to mind.

Things start looking up when a stray kitten adopts her. But then her cousin from England comes to stay with the Mielswetzkis, and the bubble slips back the other way. Zachary - Zee to his friends - seems to have all the ingredients for popularity in one handsome, athletic, kitten-stealing package. Horrible, yellow-eyed men in inappropriate tuxedos start haunting Charlotte's dreams. But before she can settle down to enjoy a really bad mood about it all, kids at their school start getting sick. Really sick. And not getting better, either. It's as if a plague is sweeping through everyone in their age group who has come into contact with Zee. And since the same thing happened before, back in England, Zee thinks it's because of him.

Then the tuxedo men attack Charlotte and Zee for real, and the adventure veers into the world of Greek mythology. It turns out somebody has been building an army to invade the realm of Hades, King of the Underworld where people go when they die. And that somebody - a low-ranking immortal named Philonecron - is stealing children's shadows to do it. If the shadows are not returned, the children will remain sick; if their shadows are killed, the children will die. It is now up to Charlotte and Zee to infiltrate (shudder) the Mall... and then (double shudder) the world of the dead... in order to stop Philonecron's dastardly plan, restore the stolen shadows to their rightful owners, and save the whole world from eternal torment.

That might not sound like much to you. But to do it, they'll have to survive an ingenious trap, cross the River Styx, get past countless monsters and dangers, and encounter very real (but not very bright) gods. Zee will have to find something locked up inside himself, a courage and strength he doesn't know is there. And Charlotte - prickly, attitude-challenged Charlotte - will be just as important. It's a dark, dangerous, menacing mission for two misfit cousins who, to start with, don't think much of each other. By the end, you'll be grateful for the quirky style and the sly wit; and, if you're like me, you'll be on the lookout for Book Two, titled The Siren Song.

The Bagpiper's Ghost
by Jane Yolen
Recommended Age: 10+

In this third installment in the "Tartan Magic" trilogy, twins Jennifer and Peter squeeze one more creepy, magical adventure into the first week of a family vacation in Scotland. This time Peter foolishly invites the magic to find them, and the magical dog they met in The Wizard's Map leads them into the middle of a ghostly love story. Before you can say "By my fegs!" Peter is possessed by the spirit of an 18th-century minister.

Andrew McFadden's selfish meddling in affairs of the heart led to his twin sister's early death. Even in the afterlife, old Andrew refuses to let the ghosts of his sister and her bagpipe-playing lover settle down in happiness. Jennifer and her witchy Gran know that they must somehow settle this family feud, and soon, if they ever want their own Peter back.

With a chilling yet romantic twist on the legend of the "lady in white," this book ties up a lot of Scottish folklore and magic into a package young American readers can open and enjoy. Plus, it has a glossary that will help them live their fantasy of talking like a Scotsman. Complete in three slender, quickly-read books, this trilogy about magic in the land of Hogwarts should bring joy to many younger Harry Potter fans.

Dragon and Judge
by Timothy Zahn
Recommended Age: 12+

This is the fifth book in an excellent sci-fi series for younger readers. And yet it remains, by and large, unnoticed by the major booksellers. Neither Barnes & Noble nor Borders carries the Dragonback novels; I have looked for them, many times and at many branches. The story is always the same: "We can order this for you..." Order, shmorder! These are books kids need to see, so they can think about buying and reading them. I can't recommend them strongly enough!

I didn't have to order this book, as it turns out. After hunting in vain for it at any number of bookstores, I found it by accident at the grocer's, of all places. I was blowing time while having my car repaired at an adjacent shop, and as I mooched along an aisle of magazines and paperbacks, my eye fell upon Dragon and Judge peeking out of a small display of children's books. God bless the grocer!

In Books 1-4 of Dragonback, one gets acquainted with Jack Morgan and his symbiotic partner Draycos. Jack is an orphan being raised by a starship whose computer is programmed with the personality of his con-artist Uncle Virgil. Draycos is a K'da poet-warrior, an alien rather like a dragon, only he needs to spend some time in two-dimensional form, like a living tattoo on Jack's skin. Together they are trying to stop a bunch of shadowy villains from ambushing a Battlestar Galactica-like convoy of refugees from Draycos's part of the galaxy - refugees fleeing from the sinister Valahgua and their weapon simply, but aptly, called the Death.

In this fifth book, Jack and Draycos have been joined by another symbiotic pair: Alison Kayna and a female dragon named Taneem. It's hard to rely on them, though. Jack knows very little about Alison, and suspects her of having her own agenda. Taneem, meanwhile, is new at being a poet-warrior, and a bit mentally delayed - like a child in an adult's body. Nevertheless, a lot is going to ride on these uneasy partners. For as soon as Jack sets foot on the backwater world of Semaline, he is kidnapped by a bunch of canyon-dwelling aliens and forced to act as a dispute-resolving, crime-solving Judge-Paladin.

While Jack slowly works out what all this has to do with the identity and fate of his parents, Alison falls prey to a second kidnapping. Captured by the very villains who want to wipe out all the K'da, she ends up back on the planet Brum-a-dum, on the same plantation from which Jack escaped in Dragon and Slave. There are still slaves on the plantation, waiting for another liberator like Jack, and expecting Alison to be it. Only this time, the Brummgas are prepared for a slave uprising. And the only chance Alison has of staying alive is to crack the safe containing the coordinates where the K'da fleet plans to rendezvous - and the ambush where the fate of Draycos's people will play out in the sixth and final book, Dragon and Liberator.

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