Saturday, March 7, 2009

Three Book Reviews

The Dragon of Never-Was
by Ann Downer
Recommended Ages: 12+

Further to Hatching Magic, this book reunites a young wyvern (try to picture a catlike dragon) with a similarly young wizard. Vyrna (the wyvern) and Theodora (the wizard) have been separated by an ocean since the Events of Last Summer - when they put a stop to the plans of an evil wizard that involved time travel, demon possession, and the summoning of a Chinese dragon in the middle of present-day Boston, USA - but one gathers they are still destined to be together.

Since the Events of Last Summer, Theodora has been coping by writing a journal, taking art lessons, and trying to hook up her nanny with her widower dad. But now a power she did not look for or ask for is blooming inside her. Partly to protect that power, partly to exploit it, and partly to decide whether or not to take it away from her, a magical organization called the O.I.G. has seen to it that Theodora and her father arrive in Scotland in time to investigate the discovery of a mysterious scale, belonging to a creature unknown to science.

But more is afoot on the Isle of Scornsay than a nondescript species of fish or reptile. An evil genius is pulling mysterious strings. A wild man, possibly connected to a decades-old missing-persons case, wanders the island searching for something. The tale of a treasure cut out of a dragon's eye crosses threads with rumors about an ancient, forbidden book of magic. The boundary between our world and a strange, nether realm is about to rip open. And with her friends and loved ones in danger, Theodora must quickly learn to accept the changes happening in herself.

Written with fast-paced charm and zest by the author of the Spellkeys trilogy, this is a magical mystery showcasing a growing magical talent that should go right to the heart of Harry Potter fans. Though this book came out way back in 2006, I sense that there are more adventures in store for Theodora and Vyrna.

The Whim of the Dragon
by Pamela Dean
Recommended Ages: 12+

In The Secret Country and its sequel The Hidden Land, a pair of magic swords transported five cousins into a world of magic and adventure - the very world, in fact, that they had invented together over several summers of make-believe games. They found the real version of their fantasy world full of disturbing deviations from what they had dreamed up; yet in its most tragic details, they could not divert their well-rehearsed plot line from its course.

They could not prevent the king's favorite counselor from poisoning the king. They could not spare Ted the terror of battle and a descent to the Land of the Dead. Rather than face the final act of the story - in which Ted must fight a duel with his best friend - the children fled back to their world, leaving behind a letter confessing that they were imposters standing in for the real princes and princesses of the Secret Land, who had been murdered by the evil sorceress Claudia.

Having reached the end of The Hidden Land, you may find yourself caught in one of fantasy lit's most excruciating cliffhangers. Heightening your discomfort, the third book of the trilogy is out of print - though new copies of the first two installments are widely available. This has to be one of the strangest mischances in the publishing world; for not only does The Hidden Land leave the story incomplete, but it leaves the reader in almost physical pain.

We have just learned that Claudia has been pulling strings on both sides of the portal between our world and the Secret Country. She has used the history of the hidden land to influence the imaginings of Ted, Laura, Patrick, Ruth, and Ellen. She has then used their imaginings to change things in her own world. Even with her house of mirrors burnt down, Claudia is still at large, the children's adventure incomplete. Yet with so much still at stake, they have gone back to their normal lives in Illinois and New South Wales! How can one possibly stop there? How can one come this far and not see it through to the end?

Thanks to the internet's resources for buying used books, there is still hope of getting one's sweaty fingers on The Whim of the Dragon. I only had to wait one maddening week for my well-thumbed copy to arrive. And the reward is a rich, complex, deeply textured final act of a great modern classic. It combines fascinatingly original concepts and minutely-observed character details with an elaborate embroidery of classic poetry, songs, and literary references. And by the way, if someone were to put out an album of the songs in this book, I would buy it.

What becomes of the Carroll children? Why, they must go back to the Hidden Land, of course. This time, however, they will face the wizard Fence and certain other royal counselors knowing who the children really are. They will have to contend with Randolph's guilty death-wish, Andrew's plots and suspicions, the wiles of the defeated but still dangerous Dragon King, and a party of shape-changers masquerading as themselves. One half of the party travels north to seek answers from a library of magical lore; the other heads toward the Dragon King's court, stopping along the way to visit Claudia's sorcerous stalking-grounds.

They bandy riddles with unicorns, dragons, and creatures whose nature can only be guessed; they gradually find out the stunning truth about what is going on; they cope with visions, dreams, disembodied voices, and encounters with the unquiet dead; and caught between several equally dangerous powers, they struggle not for their own survival but for the future of the Hidden Land itself. In the end, their quest is about the future. Who must surrender to death, and who may return from the dead? Who goes back to the world the Carroll children came from, and who remains to rule the Secret Country? How can family love, romantic love, duty, and honor be served?

When I try to express how well this trilogy pleases me, I find my usual flow of words strangely blocked. I am ashamed to repeat superlatives I have too often used before. What can I say, then, to convince you of my strong feelings? Of course, no one book in this trilogy is perfect in itself. But taken as a whole, as a single sweep from the first line of The Secret Country to the last of this book, it is something better than perfect. In its eccentric wit, its flawless shape, its visionary poetry, its heart-stabbing drama, and the fleshy realism of its characters, it is nothing short of transcendent. It glows, it shines, it twinkles in the firmament of young adult fantasy. It is an apotheosis of the imagination.

Now I must disclose one last thing. It is possible that I am biased toward this book and its trilogy for personal reasons. When I was a bookish kid around the age of this story's Patrick, I joined several of my own cousins in one or two summers of acting out games of sci-fi/make-believe on the family farm. I relish the memory of those games, though I might die of embarrassment if forced to relive them in detail. The idea of a group of literate, cultured kids mining the Classics to forge their own fantasy world is not merely fantasy to me; it is nostalgia. So though the book had some hard bits in it, the hardest bit was taking leave of it. I must therefore trust to the phrase often repeated in it: "All may yet be very well."

Tales from Shakespeare
by Charles & Mary Lamb
Recommended Ages: 12+

Charles Lamb, alone and in partnership with his older sister Mary, published many works across a broad range of styles and genres, but he is best remembered for his eloquent essays and for this book, in which selections from the plays of William Shakespeare are distilled into the form of short stories. Really, that's a respectable legacy for a bipolar stammerer (Charles) and a convicted murderess (Mary)!

Preserving somewhat of the language and even some literal, or nearly literal, quotes of the best speeches, the Lamb siblings did much to bring those rarified, dramatic masterpieces to a wider reading audience. Convoluted plots, difficult language, muddy questions of interpretation, and matters that in those Victorian times were considered inappropriate for children and young women, suddenly became simple, clear, family-safe, and accessible. Today the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare is rightly regarded as a classic in its own right; attempts to surpass it have been numerous but unsuccessful.

Not all of the Shakespeare plays are here. For whatever reasons, Charles and Mary passed over such important plays as Henry V, Richard III, and other historical plays upon the theme of English royalty. They also skipped such tragedies of the Roman Empire as Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. You may also look, in vain, for quotes of your favorite soliloquies, such as "Out, out, brief candle" and "To be or not to be." Nevertheless you will feel as if you had read Shakespeare almost in his own words - only without half the difficulties that bard poses for the modern reader. The language is old-fashioned, in the manner of the age in which the Lambs lived; but it can still be readily followed, and its formal cadences have their own kind of charm.

What tales will you find here? You will find, of course, great tragedy in King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Othello. You will find romance, often happy - as in The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night (or, What You Will) - but sometimes deliciously sad, as in Romeo and Juliet. There is outrageous humor, as in The Comedy of Errors and Much Ado About Nothing; tales of faerie, as in The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream; reworkings of ancient legends, such as The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre; and also thought-provoking plays that examine serious problems, such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Timon of Athens, and Measure for Measure.

Several of the plays, including As You Like It, feature characters who go about disguised as members of the opposite sex - with hilarious, romantic, and possibly scandalous results. Some of the plays, like The Merchant of Venice, would probably now be considered "politically incorrect" if they weren't mortared into the cornerstone of English literature. And many of them, like All's Well That Ends Well, have a strong ethical message that comes across loud and clear, even when (often in the "comedies") their endings are too tidy for their own good.

I have a large, heavy, one-volume edition of Shakespeare's complete works. I have enjoyed reading the parts of it I have read. But they take time and work to get through. In this lightweight little book you will find quick and easy synopses that will at least get the main points of some 20 Shakespearean plays into your head. They're good reading. I myself found only one of them dull (Timon of Athens), and the Lambs may not be entirely to blame for that. Rather, they excel at making difficult material easy to understand, doing for the bard what Roger Lancelyn Green did for Greek mythology. To start you on your journey of discovery in the works of Shakespeare, I heartily recommend this book.

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