by Angie Sage
Recommended Ages: 12+
Book Four of the Septimus Heap series finds Princess Jenna, wizard's apprentice Septimus, and family patriarch Silas Heap all torn up about the disappearance of Sep's brother Nicko through a portal in time. Silas has resolved to go out searching for Nicko, and not to return until he is found. Sep, meanwhile, enlists the aid of a centuries-old alchemist, a rat-man who restores and preserves documents, and a friendly manuscriptorium clerk in the hope that a long-forgotten map will lead them to Nicko.
Meanwhile, an old enemy has recruited a Darke Thing in a bid to darken Sep's destiny. An evil ghost joins the plot to force Septimus to go on the Queste that has claimed the lives of twenty apprentices before him. Originally meant as a reward, the Queste has become a curse as every apprentice who has gone on it was lost forever. And now, even though Sep is only in the third of his seven years of study, he is supposed to face a peril that has befallen fully-trained wizards until now.
Septimus takes the better part of valor, running away with Jenna and his friend Beetle. He has a quest of his own, after all: a quest for the House of Foryx, a place where All Times Do Meet. For only there can they hope to bring Nicko and his friend Snorri back from their exile in the distant past. But this quest and the deadly Queste converge into a single adventure filled with magic, betrayal, and danger.
Here is another opportunity to bring more young fantasy fans into Septimus Heap's remarkable world. It is a world of wizards, witches, dragons, ghosts, and shape-changing cats. A world where a single doorway can lead from one forest near the Castle to another one thousands of miles away. A world where a fortress surrounded by a bottomless pit has its door answered by a hunchback who talks with a lisp, where a family's heartbreak over their ne'er-do-well eldest son (Simon Heap) seems to have no remedy, and where the apprentice to the 776th Extra-Ordinary Wizard gets to hold a conversation with the very first one.
I'm not sure where the overall shape of this series is leading. Sometimes I have doubts about its author's sense of structure - particularly at the end of each book, where she attaches a series of vignettes that unfortunately didn't work their way into the main body of the book. It's sort of like a "deleted scenes" reel at the end of a movie, except that in a book it seems more like a hasty regathering of dropped threads than a hint of what might have been. Still and all, I liked the camaraderie of the main characters, the swift pacing of the story, the complex interweaving of quirky fantasy concepts, the warmth and humor that glowed throughout. So I do plan to read the upcoming fifth book in the series, titled Syren.
Dragon and Liberator
by Timothy Zahn
Recommended Ages: 12+
The Dragonback series concludes with this sixth book featuring the symbiotic pair of Jack Morgan (a 14-year-old orphan raised to be a thief) and Draycos (a K'da poet-warrior who can survive for up to six hours as a flesh-and-blood dragon, before having to "recharge" as a living tattoo on Jack's skin). These strange, er, skinfellows continue to make fresh discoveries about each other and the unique way they work together. But they will have to make a quick study of it, for the arrival of the K'da refugee fleet is at hand - as is the deadly ambush being arranged by certain human and Brummga villains, together with Draycos's Valahgua enemies.
The Valahgua have a weapon whose name, the Death, says it all. You'll get to see it in action in this book, proving that the purple cone of energy snuffs out human life as efficiently as any other. Rogue mercenary Col. Frost, working with evil tycoon Arthur Neverlin, has assembled a fleet of human and Brummga fighters to engage the K'da fleet until the Death weapons are within range. A captured ship from the annihilated vanguard squadron will serve as bait. The entire operation is shrouded in secrecy and fanatically tight security. And Jack can't think of anyone he can trust enough to help him with this. But what can one human boy and his scaly symbiont do against all this?
The answer is: not enough. But they aren't entirely alone. Another human-K'da pair lies hidden aboard Neverlin's ship. But one doesn't really know who Alison Kayna is, or what drives her agenda. And her symby Taneem has only just awakened from a state of brute insensibility. They can scarcely move a muscle without being caught. Then there are a couple men who might be on Draycos and Jack's side, but who knows? As the net around them tightens more and more, the two friends haunt the crawlspaces and uncharted regions of the captured K'da ship, looking for increasingly risky opportunities to sabotage the Death modules. And they finally realize that, before they can disarm the last one, it will be aimed at them.
I'm not giving away another word about what happens in this story. It's simply a terrific conclusion to a roaring good series. It hasn't quite made a sci-fi convert of me. But it offers every incentive for fantasy fans to cross over. It's got spaceships, yes; but it also has dragons. It's got ray guns, talking computers, communication devices, and several cleverly imagined alien races; but it also has battle tactics, character development, textural details, and a growing throb of suspense.
You've been waiting for five whole books to see the Valahgua in the flesh: it's worth the wait. You've plowed through five action-packed, intriguing adventures for this payoff. Haven't you? Well, you should have. If you take my advice, you will have. And then, take my word for it: this book does not disappoint. Except - well, for the fact that it's over.
Order it if you must. That's how I got hold of this book, since Borders carries it only on their dot-com. It won't kill you to wait a few days. Better that than to miss out altogether!