Spirals of Destiny
Book One: Rider
by Jim Bernheimer
Recommended Ages: 12+
Book One of "Spirals of Destiny" came to me courtesy of the author, along with two of his other books. Fresh off its first printing with a little-known publisher (Gryphonwood), it has the excitingly risky look of a self-publishing venture - though the author's dedication names a publisher who is not himself. And though this first printing is peppered with irritating cosmetic errors that any decent editor should have caught, it is at the same time a tightly-written, well-thought-out, solidly entertaining first installment in what promises to be an unputdownable series. In fact, Mr. Bernheimer could be in serious danger of breaking through into the big time.
The first thing you notice as you begin reading this fantasy is that its world is a unique mixture of the outlandish and the weirdly familiar. For example, in a kingdom sporting magical portals, trolls, cockatrices, and above all unicorns, there are also girls with such next-door names as Annabeth Welsh, Rebekah Morgenstern, and Kayleigh Reese. Go figure.
The setting is an empire kept in order by a High King who is himself a sorcerer, and who is served by sorcerers, wizards, and butt-kicking battle maidens each of whom is magically bonded to her unicorn mount. The unicorns have their own culture, intelligence, and form of communication, but their purpose in life is to form a bond with a girl (starting around age 13) and become a fighting unit, matching martial skill with magical power.
Rarely does a unicorn survive the loss of its rider. In fact, the only known unicorn to do so is Majherri: a fiercely proud, battle-scarred veteran who cannot remember exactly what happened to his first rider. Instead of withering and dying, as most riderless unicorns do, Majherri bounces back and forms a new bond with 16-year-old Kayleigh. This gives the lonely girl a ticket out of one awkward situation, but puts her in another. Sent to a special school for battle maids, Kayleigh is forced by her age either to take a leadership role in her beginning class, or to fall hopelessly behind the third-years. Her squad captain has a personal vendetta against her. One of her classmates is determined to ruin things for her. Her unicorn is an outcast among his own kind. And together they wield a wild, uncontrollable power that no one understands.
Soon Kayleigh and Majherri are ready to run away from school and find their own way together. But what begins as an opportunity to escape turns into something else: the beginning of a war, the shocking solution to a long-standing mystery, the discovery of unheard-of powers for both good and evil, and the "Aaargh! I can't wait until Book Two!" type of cliff-hanger that leaves Kayleigh at the start of a quest to redeem a broken bond and save an endangered world.
Mr. Bernheimer, do get yourself an editor. Your book is so close to being explosively fun to read that it's a shame to see a few misplaced commas and apostrophes, and more than a few verbal slips (such as "there" for "their"), slow it down. For the fear the true bad guy inspires, for the characters who come vividly to life, for the magical conceits that the reader eagerly accepts, this book cannot be mistaken for an amateur job. It's the work of a born talent. And when the world knows it, I'll be proud to have a first-edition copy with a personal note from the author saying: "Thanks for taking a chance on my novel." Don't mention it. Just keep them coming!
A Curse Dark as Gold
by Elizabeth C. Bunce
Recommended Ages: 13+
Anyone who aspires to write fiction, but who worries that all the good stories have already been told, needs to experience a book like this. Like many of the novels I have enjoyed over the years, it doesn't attempt to break new ground. It simply combines a retelling of a fairy-tale classic with the trappings of an authentic historical novel and the atmosphere of a gothic mystery. It's a shepherd's-pie of savory old favorites, or rather a worsted skillfully woven and dyed with a love for the people, place, and way of life around which the story is set.
My reviews have covered re-tellings of "Beauty and the Beast," "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," "The Sleeping Beauty," and other nursery favorites. This book happens to be a grown-up version of "Rumpelstiltskin," but instead of a king, it is a bank that demands a room full of spun gold. Instead of a medieval kingdom haunted by gnomes with unguessable names, it is set in a just-barely pre-Industrial England haunted by--oh, I don't know--a ghost, or maybe a curse? And instead of the miller's daughter being handed over like chattel by her greedy and boastful father, this book's Charlotte Miller is a strong, independent young beauty who is fighting to save her mill, her family, and her community from the grasp of an unscrupulous competitor.
It's a chilling, romantic, and at times strangely believable tale. It features a local witch who doesn't do magic, a wool mill with a mind of its own, a dandified uncle you'll want to strangle, a long-forgotten injustice that will make your flesh crawl, and a romance seemingly threatened by such inevitable tragedy that your heart will ache. This book, or rather this author, faces brave and unashamed the problem of how to tell an old story and make it feel new. Read it and you will agree that it is possible, after all, to spin an original yarn out of well-worn material. When it's done just right, even though you know where the thread is going, you can get caught in it anyway. And yes, this book's Kansas City-based author does it right.
by Arthur Ransome
Recommended Ages: 10+
Here is the second book in the "Swallows and Amazons" series... Or is it the third? It's embarrassing to be brought to a halt so early in a review, but frankly I'm confused. This book was published in 1931, after Swallows and Amazons (1930) and before Peter Duck (1932). Yet it makes several backwards references to events that happen in the latter book, which (according to the time-line on this Wiki page, took place between the events of the first two books. Holy Hornblower! It's another one of those series!
All the same, I didn't have any trouble following this story while reading through the series in publication order. And although it doesn't have the high historical drama and gruelling action of, say, a book about pirates or the naval warfare of the Napoleonic era, it is a spanking good series. Ransome's books about a circle of siblings and friends messing around in boats, beginning in England's Lake Country, are some of the original "school holidays novels" that have, throughout the past eighty years, given endless pleasure during the holidays (in case it rains and you're stuck indoors with nothing to do but read), between the holidays (so you can enjoy a kind of outdoors adventure while you're stuck in school), and after you reach the point in life where you don't get school holidays any more. (If any American readers are be confused by the British lingo I'm borrowing from the books, by "school holidays" I mean "summer vacation.")
Arthur Ransome blazed the trail, and countless authors followed--and continue to follow. And though there is very little real mystery, conflict, or serious danger in them, his books hold much more enjoyment than you might expect of an account of how two brothers and two sisters passed their summer holidays. For these Walker children are such lucky kids. I wish I could rewind my life so that I could live my childhood years the way they do. They spend it sailing the dinghy Swallow up and down a fictionalized lake in the north of England, camping first on an island and then in the hidden valley that gives this book its name.
They don't have magicians or pirates or bandits chasing them, but they make up for this deficit by using their imagination and making adventures for themselves. They have an honest-to-gosh shipwreck. They discover a secret cave. They climb to the peak of Kanchenjunga (or its nearest local counterpart). They got lost on a foggy moor. They wage a cold war against a terrible Great Aunt. They take part in an exciting sailing race. They make friends with a colorful collection of farmers, woodsmen, charcoal burners, and shipbuilders - none, however, so colorful as their own bright personalities and adventure-loving outlook on life.
Books like this make me want to rise up off my soft couch and go back to being a 12-year-old, sunburned, active, and carefree British youth in the year my Grandpa F. turned one year old. Obviously, that isn't going to happen to me. But with ten of this series's twelve books still to go, I can at least look forward to living that life vicariously.