Friday, September 23, 2011

Heitz, Skye, Wilson, Yancey

The Dwarves
by Markus Heitz
Recommended Ages: 14+

Girdlegard: a world within a world, cut off from whatever lies outside its encircling mountain barrier by vast wastes swarming with dark creatures. Within that perimeter is a complex map divided between several human kingdoms, overlapped by six enchanted realms under the rule of powerful magi, plus here and there an elven enclave, and around the edges five kingdoms ruled by the dwarves. These folks live together in an uneasy peace, made all the more uneasy by the powers of evil encroaching against them. Already the Fifthlings (one of the dwarf kingdoms) have been conquered by the powers of the Perished Land, which withers everything it touches and which turns all the dead into soulless zombie slaves. Reinforced with armies of orcs, ogres, and älfar (like evil, empty-eyed elves), and joined by an evil magus possessed by more than ambition, the Perished Land is about to make its move to bring all of Girdlegard under the dark.

Little does Tungdil the dwarf know it, but he is his world's only hope for survival. Tungdil is a foundling brought up by humans, especially the good magus Lot-Ionan. After trying without success to teach him magic, Lot-Ionan let Tungdil follow the calling of the blacksmith's forge. But only for a little while. Just before things start to get really nasty, Lot-Ionan sends Tungdil on a wizardly errand, supposedly to deliver a pouch of magical artifacts to one of his former apprentices. How much this errand owes to the magus's far-seeing wisdom is hard to tell, seeing that before very long, Lot-Ionan himself has fallen victim to the loathesome power of Nod'onn. Soon Tungdil is joined by a pair of fierce twins, the first dwarves he has ever met, who inform him that they have been sent to escort him to a council of the leading dwarves as a candidate to be their next High King.

Boïndil and Boëndal turn out to be excellent companions for a dwarf just starting to learn about who he is, while numerous people seem to be intent on killing him. The twins give Tungdil his first taste of dwarven cheese, his first experience of dwarven ballads, and his first lessons in dwarven martial arts. He has to learn fast, what with the armies of the Perished Land always right behind them and sometimes in front of them, and with a contract out on his head at least due to the magical parcel he carries, if not for the threat he represents to certain dwarves he hasn't even met yet. When the three dwarves finally arrive at the stronghold called Ogre's Death, however, it is only to begin a new and even more dangerous quest: to race against a savvy, experienced dwarf chieftain to be the first to forge the axe Keenfire, the only weapon which can destroy Nod'onn.

Tungdil's adventure is a test of his courage, tenacity, and blossoming leadership skills. Though he cares not so much for winning the race as for saving Girdlegard, Tungdil has to rein in the hostilities within his party, including dwarves of different clans, separated by personal grievances, character problems, political issues, and romantic tensions. Besides the dwarves whose skills he needs to forge Keenfire, Tungdil is joined by a troupe of actors, a tempestuous maga, and her mysterious bodyguard who can best be described as "someone (or something) who eats orcs for breakfast." Their journey underground and overland is hampered by rockfalls, enemy attacks, assassination attempts, spooky goings-on, and heartbreaking losses that call forth a courage stronger than death itself. But the outcome of the final battle will depend on Tungdil learning to accept who he truly is and what it may mean for the future of the dwarves.

A bestseller in its original German, this book comes to us in English through the translation skills of Sally-Ann Spencer. It is the first part of a trilogy that continues with The War of the Dwarves and The Revenge of the Dwarves.

Pillage
by Obert Skye
Recommended Ages: 12+

The author of the "Leven Thumps" quintet brings us this first book in an exciting new series which, strangely enough, seems to be packaged for an age group younger than its main character. When we first meet Beck Phillips, the smart-mouthed, fifteen-year-old mischief-maker has just lost his mother, a casualty of mental illness. Abandoned by his father at an early age, Beck has nobody except an uncle he has never heard of until the latter sends for him.

Even after a spooky train ride to a secluded valley, followed by a chauffeured drive up a mountain to the enormous mansion that will now be his home, Beck's resentment understandably grows. His Uncle Aeron lives as a recluse in the copper dome above the seventh floor, and seems uninterested in meeting the boy. The small staff keeps the huge old house up as best they can, occasionally selling pieces of furniture to pay the taxes, and they refuse to explain the reasons for all the strange rules they impose on Beck—rules such as "Don't go in the back yard" and "There is no basement, there never was a basement, and even if there was a basement, you are never to go down there."

Pretty soon Beck is in trouble at school, as he discovers that making enemies is only the least of his gifts. Even his two best friends show concern when Beck proves that he can make plants move and grow at his command. And that's before his exploration of all the forbidden places in and around his new home lead him to discover his family's long tradition of hatching dragons to pillage the countryside for them. Before Beck understands what is truly at stake, he is caught up in a scaly, fire-breathing, winged disaster that all goes back to an evil magician's curse. And unless Beck breaks the curse, either he or his newfound father will die a horrible death.

This is an exciting, scary, and emotionally complex book, beyond anything that the cover design and marketing would lead you to expect. Beck's first-person narration laces the drama and adventure with irreverent humor and teenage rebellion. And while the full realization of what he is up against builds slowly, its unfolding is rigged with cool surprises—including betrayal, deception, insane heroism, and the discovery of both friends and enemies in unexpected quarters. It is such a fun book that it may be hazardous to come to its end without having the sequel, titled Choke, on deck.

Choke
by Obert Skye
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the sequel to Pillage, sixteen-year-old Beck Phillips continues to wrestle with the curse that drives every female in his family to madness and every male to a gruesome death... a curse connected to dragons.

Life has almost returned to normal after Beck inadvertently unleashed ten rampaging dragons on the sleepy valley town where he moved after the suicide of his aunt, who had raised him from infancy. His newfound Dad, previously known to him as Uncle Aeron, still lives in seclusion in a copper-roofed dome at the top of their seven-story mansion. His real family seems to be the small staff that runs the house. And while we don't see much of his magical ability to make plants grow in this book, we do see a lot of Beck's strongest power: the power to make trouble for himself and everyone else.

Never good at following instructions or even advice, Beck starts this adventure by blowing up a big balloon in a small shed. He almost gets killed in the process. During his stay in the hospital, he gets few visitors except for a nosy reporter and a mysterious, cloaked figure with deathly-white skin. Neither of these characters does Beck any good as, against his better judgment, he seeks out the last dragon stone left after his previous brood perished and plants it in a secret hideout inside a nearby mountain cave. The beautiful but deadly creature that emerges is a queen dragon named Lizzie. Though Beck is enchanted with her, he knows that he will be held responsible for everything she pillages or destroys.

By the time he accepts the hard fact that he has to destroy Lizzie, Beck doesn't know how he can do it. Worse, he is hindered by not one, but two villains who pretend to be helpful just long enough to put Beck's life and that of his friend Kate in terrible danger—to say nothing of everyone else in the valley. To clean up this mess, and to bring his family a step closer to being free of its curse, Beck will have to ride a fast train to all but certain death. It's an exciting and scary ride, brightened by Beck's roguish humor, a twinkle of romance and a touch of family drama. Plus, of course, dragon fire. Expect another sequel; enough said!

The Dragon's Tooth
by N. D. Wilson
Recommended Ages: 12+

You probably didn't know this, but Columbus wasn't the first European explorer to discover America. And nor were Vikings such as Leif Ericson. According to this book, the first colony in the new world was planted by Saint Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk whose followers started a community of hermits on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Now only one of several Estates that the Order of St. Brendan operates around the world, the community of Ashtown, Wisconsin, is a world apart from the world: not only a home for monks, but also headquarters for a worldwide society of explorers, an academy for a secret army of renaissance men and women trained to fight not only on the ground but in the air and by sea, a museum of magical artifacts, a zoo of freakishly deadly creatures, and (gulp) a prison in which the world's most dangerous villains are held in a state of suspended immortality.

But for siblings Cyrus and Antigone Smith, the story does not begin there. They do not even learn that Ashtown exists until they have lost pretty much everything and everyone they care about. Since the accident two years ago that killed their father and left their mother in a coma, Cy and Tigs have been raised by their older brother Dan, not in the family's oceanview home in California, but in a decaying wreck of a motel outside of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. (Take extra points for knowing how to pronounce that town.) And then the motel burns down, their mother and brother are kidnapped by a creep who alternately calls himself Dr. Phoenix and Mr. Ashes, and the godfather they never knew dies before their eyes and leaves them... well, among other things, a set of keys that can open any door, and a few other trinkets whose magical properties are the very thing Dr. Phoenix would kill for.

Suddenly Cyrus and Antigone are thrust into the world of Ashtown, the only place that can protect them from Phoenix and his semi-human goons. Only it can't protect them, not really. It starts not protecting them the moment they show up. Their induction into the Order of St. Brendan is deferred until they can meet the criteria for journeymen in the order—and not just the ridiculously demanding modern-day standards, but the all-but impossible pre-1914 ones. They have until New Year's to learn two foreign languages, master several forms of armed combat, learn to fly and sail like a pro, and more, while living in a dungeon infested with deadly Whip Spiders and being sabotaged at every turn by all the people who don't believe the Smiths have a right to be there. Befriended only by misfits, and menaced by bad guys who somehow never seem fazed by Ashtown's heavily armed defenses, they must finally rely on their own talent for trouble and a keychain loaded with magical goodies.

Here is the first book in a new series (titled "Ashtown Burials") from the author of 100 Cupboards and its sequels. Like that earlier trilogy, this new story presents an amazingly original new dimension of the "school of magic" concept. This book is anything but a cutesy romp in a world of sparkly hocus-pocus. It is an intense, scary, deadly-serious bullet train of danger, conflict, suffering, and loneliness. It shows a couple of good kids struggling not to be overwhelmed by an evil of terrifying proportions. It is a gallery of flawed characters, booby-trapped with betrayal and loss, and yet enlivened by the possibility of friendship, excitement, and awesome adventure.

There is actually an amazing "book trailer" for this book, featuring young Joel Courtney of Super 8. Mr. Wilson has also written the young adult novel Leepike Ridge, a couple of Christian-themed children's picture books, and a nonfiction book about the Shroud of Turin. Visit his website for more information.

The Curse of the Wendigo
by Rick Yancey
Recommended Ages: 13+

As the nineteenth century winds up, a self-absorbed monstrumologist (i.e., scientist who studies monsters) named Dr. Pellinore Warthrop is drawn out of himself, and out of his headquarters in a small New England town, along with his faithful apprentice Will Henry. It's difficult to be precisely certain what it is that draws him. It could be the anguished plea of the only woman he ever loved, begging him to save her missing husband (who, up until he broke up their engagement, was Warthrop's best friend). It could be his altruistic love for a man who shared his youthful apprenticeship to the legendary Dr. Abram von Helrung. Or it could be his determination to prevent Meister Abram from cheapening the science of monstrumology with superstitious nonsense.

Whatever may be his true reason, Warthrop takes his "indispensible" young assistant along on a gruelling and terrifying journey, first to the wilds of Canada and then to the streets of New York City. Their quarry is a beast whose existence Warthrop never accepts, but whose call Will Henry hears: the Wendigo. It is the voice that rides the high wind, the hunger that is never satisfied. While Pellinore Warthrop insists that his friend John Chanler is merely the victim of the well-documented "Wendigo Psychosis"—the belief that one is possessed by an evil spirit that craves human flesh—Dr. von Helrung and some other members of the Society of Monstrumologists think that such creatures really exist and that Chanler has become one. This raises a conflict between Pellinore and his old mentor, not to say everyone else, as to whether Chanler is a beast who must be destroyed, or a man who must be saved.

Whatever the true answer may be, there's always room for doubt—even from the point of view of narrator Will, who has heard the Wendigo's voice call his name. What is not beyond doubt is that John Chanler has become terrifyingly dangerous. Make no mistake, this is a horror novel. Though it is marketed for young adults, please do not mistake it for a children's book. Besides a smattering of PG-13 language, it contains imagery so disturbing that it may give even a seasoned adult bad dreams. Living conditions in the tenements of the era of Jacob Riis and Thomas Byrnes are so graphically depicted that your stomach might do flip-flops, even without the violence and gore that takes place in them. But what puts the final chilling touch on this horror novel is the conceit that it is not Rick Yancey's fictional brainchild, but a transcript of journals left behind by an impossibly old man, who may have been delusional or even writing fiction himself. Who knows?

This sequel to The Monstrumologist is by no means the end of the series. Book 3, titled The Isle of Blood, came out in September 2011. Mr. Yancey is also the author of the "Alfred Kropp" trilogy, the "Teddy Ruzak" mysteries (four books so far), the novel A Burning in Homeland, and the nonfiction book Confessions of a Tax Collector.

1 comment:

Robbie F. said...

I forgot to mention in my review, but one of the exciting things about "The Dragon's Tooth" was seeing myself quoted on the dust jacket. That blurb from MuggleNet.Com? That was me!!