Thursday, April 8, 2010

Pope, Pope, Croggon, Mull

The Crow
by Alison Croggon
Recommended Ages: 13+

The third of four "Books of Pellinor" continues a fantasy epic conceived on the scale of The Lord of the Rings. It depicts a fantasy world so broad and diverse, a history and culture so deep and detailed, characters so complex, magic so marvelous, and danger so dreadful that it would invite comparisons to Tolkien even without the sensitivity and lyricism of its style. Anyone with the patience to focus on a large-scale novel will be amply rewarded with wonder, beauty, excitement, and horror. After it has moved your emotions, after it has surprised and delighted you, after you have squirmed in the ruthless, constricting grip of its suspense, this book will leave you hopping with impatience to read the fourth installment, titled The Singing.

The first two books, The Naming and The Riddle, focus on a young bard named Maerad as she grows from a musically-talented slave girl to a wielder of mighty magic. Maerad, you may remember, is the one promised by ancient prophecy to stop the dark lord Sharma (a.k.a. the Nameless One) in his last and greatest bid to rule the world. So far, these books have followed her long and perilous quest to find the Treesong, whatever that is. It seems to be some type of lore belonging to the Elementals of Maerad's world, immortal beings who are not concerned with human distinctions between good and evil. Somehow their song has been broken, fixed in written runes, and sent in two pieces to the far corners of Edil-Amarandh. Now Maerad has recovered one of them from the frozen wastes of the north. But what of the other part of the song?

In The Crow, the focus shifts to Maerad's younger brother Hem. He doesn't know it yet, but he has a part to play in the recovery of the Treesong. He also has a lot of growing up to do in not much time. After a bruising childhood in an orphanage, a terrifying ordeal at the hands of Hulls (evil sorcerers who serve the Nameless One), and a hard life among the gypsy-like Pilanel, Hem has only recently come into his bardic powers and been reunited with his sister. And now, in the charge of a heroic bard named Saliman, he has to leave Maerad and go to school in the southern city of Turbansk. He gets off to a rough start, quarreling with other students, chafing against authority, slow to learn the local language and the civilized ways of bards. But he has an open heart, which earns him an internship in the Houses of Healing and the friendship of a remarkable bird.

Irc is Hem's feathered friend: an intelligent crow with pure white feathers. At first an object of ridicule, the two friends become an object of wonder to the citizens as enemy forces besiege Turbansk. Their compassion, cleverness, and daring exploits change the teasing collective nickname of "White Crow" into a term of endearment. And as their adventures take them into ever darker and more diseased places, you too will grow to admire them, fear for them, and love them.

This book is so good that I hope nobody decides to make a movie out of it. There is no way a two- or three-hour film could improve the richness of its imagery, or do justice to the power of its story. I am no speed-reader. In the last half of this book I suffered through hour after hour of agonizing suspense, the type that makes you feel short of breath. I felt crushed by a weight of sorrow. I was elated by sudden hope. It was a rip-your-guts-out kind of emotional experience that no film could sustain for so long, or if it did, nobody would survive watching it. But in book form, it formed a vital part of a narrative journey that I would gladly walk again. A journey both epic and personal, across the lines of a war both military and moral, in a world both magical and cruelly, fascinatingly flawed.

The scenery is stunning. The company is unforgettable. And though, by the end of this third book, the final destination is only dimly in view, you'll be glad of that too. For then you can joyfully look forward to traveling with Hem and Maerad for another while.

Fablehaven: Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book Four in the awesome Fablehaven series is -- do I need to say it? -- awesome. It begins with Kendra Sorenson being kidnapped by a magical creature whose nature is so fiendish, the thought of it could keep you awake all night. How can you trust anybody in a world with stingbulbs in it? A stingbulb is a rare fruit covered in venomous spines. Once it pricks you, it turns into an exact clone of you, including most of your memories, and then it follows the first instructions given it until the bitter end.

Kendra being kidnapped is bad enough news for the good guys in the war to keep or destroy the world's magical preserves. But with a stingbulb spying for the enemy, they don't even know she's gone until a crucial secret has already been betrayed -- one that could enable the bad guys to open the demon prison of Zzyzx. Fortunately there are traitors on both sides, giving Kendra a chance to escape (though after her family thinks she is dead). But the joy of her return to Fablehaven is brief. For now the Sphinx knows where to find the key to unlock another secret preserve. It's only a matter of time before he and his very resourceful allies collect all five unique relics that, together, will unlock Zzyzx. And so Kendra and a crack team of magical tomb raiders must beat them to it.

It's like Mission: Impossible, only with dragons, centaurs, giants, and things that go bump in the night. The key they seek is hidden somewhere in a dragon sanctuary in the snowy north. Kendra has to be part of the team to find it, because only someone with her fairykind abilities can see through the enchantments that conceal the sanctuary and read the runes their next clue will be written in. Other obvious choices include Kendra's crush, a teenaged dragon-whisperer named Gavin; the potion expert Tanu; an animated wooden limberjack named Mendigo; and other Knights of the Dawn who are good with weapons and/or dragons. Coming along uninvited, in a wonderful knapsack that has a full-sized storeroom inside it, are a grumpy goblin and -- you guessed it -- Kendra's always mischievous brother Seth.

And it's a good thing, too. Seth's immunity to magical fear has saved the day before, but now he has come out as a full-fledged Shadow Charmer: someone with special powers to communicate with dark creatures, to resist emotional manipulation, and to see through concealment. With these skills, Seth could make even more trouble than he has before. But he could also do some good with them, as he immediately shows in his daring theft of a unicorn's horn that his sister will need for her mission. As always in this series, whenever the danger and intrigue threaten to grow too serious for comfort, Seth is always there to provide a laugh or an eye-popping exploit.

The current quest is at least as dangerous as any of those in the previous books. The dragons are ruthless, scary, and powerful, and they don't want their temple to be robbed. The giant Thronis, the only person who can help our friends, seems rather inclined to bake them in a pie. A demon prince in league with the Sphinx is closing in, making their mission all the more urgent. And that doesn't even begin to describe the barriers, traps, enemies, and betrayals that will endanger Kendra and Seth -- all so they can keep the world safe from demon hordes.

Do they succeed or fail? Do they survive or perish? Here's a clue: the series isn't over yet. It will conclude in Book Five, Keys to the Demon Prison. As much as I have enjoyed this series, I am not sure whether to be glad or sad that the end is in sight. I am glad to see it building so swiftly to a well-timed conclusion. But I will be sad to leave behind this excellent, kid-friendly series, packed as it is with action and mystery and a unique brand of magic. I can only trust that young Mr. Mull has only begun to create fantasy worlds to fascinate us.

Governor Ramage R.N.
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Age: 12+

I brought this book to a three-hour-long choir practice one evening. During the break, one of my fellow singers spotted me reading it and asked, "How does a Registered Nurse get to be a governor?" Not that R.N., silly! Can't you see there's a ship on the cover? It's the Royal Navy! The British navy, to be exact, at the time of Horatio Nelson. The "R.N." part may be a little confusing to Americans, unless they remember the 1951 Gregory Peck movie Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. The "Governor" part may come as a shock even to those who are following this series, because when we last met British naval officer Nicholas Ramage, he was a very young lieutenant who had never commanded anything bigger than a two-masted brig. How does he now get to be governor of anything? Ah! That's an interesting story!

A story and a half, even! The fourth Lord Ramage novel has almost enough naval adventure in it for two Jack Aubrey or Horatio Hornblower novels. Ramage and his crew go through so much that it's almost unbelievable, looking back, that it all happened in one book. Ironically, it starts with the brig Triton drawing one of the most boring assignments in the British navy: escorting a trade convoy across the Caribbean, from Barbados to Jamaica, along with several frigates and the admiral's flagship.

At first, the only hint of excitment to come is the fact that the admiral loathes Ramage, for complicated political reasons, and seems just the type to look for any excuse to ruin the lieutenant's career. But then thrills start flying thick and fast. Ramage finds friendship with a merchant captain and mutual attraction with a pretty young political refugee. A French privateer cons its way into the convoy and attempts to capture an especially precious cargo. An unseasonable hurricane puts Ramage and his men in a kind of danger they have never faced before.

Dismasted, driven by winds and currents into enemy waters, shipwrecked on a hostile shore, Ramage takes charge of the survival of not one but two ships' companies. He captures a Spanish garrison, finds a Spanish treasure, commandeers a Spanish ship... all that and a court-martial too!

It's really a lot of fun, and it takes place in a special kind of fantasy world that I hope more kids will discover. It's a world that once existed, with strange customs and languages, a social structure now alien to us, all confined within a beautiful but terribly small wooden shell afloat on an enormous ocean; a world with titanic battles, exciting chases, complicated maneuvers, and even more complicated politics, each of which can be endlessly fascinating. To a landlubber like me, there is almost a kind of magic to the way men like Ramage harness the wind, command the loyalty of their men, and frustrate the enemy. This particular brand of magic boasts many books and series of books, few of them more satisfying than the Lord Ramage novels.

Ramage's Prize
by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

This fifth book in the Lord Ramage series is partly a naval adventure novel, and partly a mystery in which the victim is the late 18th-century British Post Office. That may not exactly sound like a top recommendation in the "if you love Harry Potter" line. But look at it another way: Lieutenant Nicholas Ramage is a young wizard when it comes to commanding a fighting and sailing crew. Since his first command he has lost every ship he has been given, but that never stopped him from foiling the enemy's plans and carrying out all-but-impossible orders.

His men love him. Women love him. You'll probably like him too. The only people who hate him aren't particularly likeable themselves. In this book, some of them will try to kill him. Nevertheless, he will rise from a mere passenger on a packet vessel to the commander of a naval ship, in spite of being captured by a French privateer in between. It's all part of Ramage's daring mission to find out why so many postal packets are getting captured lately. Communication between the British government and its fleet has all but ground to a standstill, while the General Post Office faces financially ruinous insurance claims. No one even has a plausible theory as to why the packets are dropping like flies, until Ramage does what only he would do: get captured with one of them, and then uncapture himself in time to make his report.

Ramage is joined by some of his faithful friends and followers, whom you will love almost as much as himself by this point in the series. There are his coolly efficient American coxswain Jackson, the resourceful cockney lock-picker Stafford, their friends Rossi and Maxton, the beautiful Marchesa Gianna, the Santa Claus-like sailing master Southwick, the chess-obsessed surgeon Bowen, and the friendly merchant Yorke. Together with an amusingly dull soldier and a conscience-stricken packet's mate, these folks help Ramage through a series of wild escapades that include fraud, mutiny, hostage-taking, attempted murder, and the taking and re-taking of one small, fragile ship.

Like the previous Ramage novels, this is a book in which more happens than seems possible between two covers. Some of it is funny, some romantic, some exciting, some mysterious. Complex politics, the deft application of force, and a good deal of guile and cunning go into the recipe. And when it's all over, you may still feel the impression of the single-paragraph Author's Note at the beginning of the book. It's amazing to think that the postal service in 1798 was actually twice as efficient as it is today, after over 200 years of advances!

If you ever considered reading a naval adventure or two, but didn't know where to start, this series may be it. As an honest critic who can recognize real quality, I'll admit that the Ramage novels don't come up to the same level of literary craftmanship as Aubrey or Hornblower. Dudley Pope has neither the psychological penetration of C. S. Forester nor the period authenticity of Patrick O'Brian. But he writes in a very clear, straightforward, approachable style. His characters speak in a modern idiom and reflect modern attitudes that, while technically anachronistic, make them easier for today's casual reader to understand. For example, I doubt that anyone in Ramage's era would have thrown himself down on a sofa and said, "I feel so depressed!" But the sentiment resonates with perfect clarity in the present-day mind's ear.

And if Ramage himself is a simpler and more idealized character than either Hornblower or Aubrey -- sometimes seeming to have been cut out of the same material as the hero of a romance novel -- he is also that much easier to sympathize with. To experience the long-simmering tension and explosive action of what, in my opinion, was the best and purest period of naval warfare, you can't come by a more easy-to-read, transparently written series. Perhaps this is faint praise, but I'm not damning this book or this series. I have enjoyed them very much so far, and expect to continue enjoying them.

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