Sunday, September 11, 2011

LaFevers, Malone, Reeman

Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris
by R. L. LaFevers
Recommended Ages: 11+

It's tough to be a swashbuckling hero when you're a twelve-year-old girl in Victorian England. No one feels this more deeply than Theodosia Throckmorton, who at one point in this novel observes that even a jackal statue come to life and run amuck in the streets of London has more freedom than she does. Partly this is a result of the expectations held over young ladies of the time, embodied by her sternly disapproving Grandmother. Partly it is a side effect of being as deep undercover as possible for a secret agent battling the combined forces of ancient Egyptian curses and an international conspiracy to sow conflict between the English and the Germans.

Yes, the Serpents of Chaos are back, even after the drubbing Theodosia gave them in her previous adventure. This time their scheme involves an ancient staff of tremendous magical power. It can make mummies walk the streets of London at night. But it has even nastier powers, which will soon be aimed at one of Britain's most valuable military assets. Meanwhile, Theo's father is in trouble with the law, her friend Sticky Will is in trouble with someone on the other side of the law, and some of the quirky assistant curators at Father's museum reveal their own surprising secrets. With loads of evil magic to lay to rest, a plot against her country to foil, a kooky secret society on her trail, and a series of demanding governesses trying to mold Theo into a proper young lady, she has more trouble than time to deal with it. Luckily, she is a resourceful girl with the wit to be prepared for almost anything.

This fun, magical romp is Book 2 in a series that continues with Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus and Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh. Because Theo uses, and interacts with, magic based on the religion of ancient Egypt, I owe concerned Christian parents an "occult content advisory." Besides these books, R. L. LaFevers is also the author of (at present) four books featuring "Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist," a trilogy titled "Lowthar's Blade," and juvenile fantasy novels The Falconmaster and Werewolf Rising.

The Sixty-Eight Rooms
by Marianne Malone
Recommended Ages: 11+

If copies of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The Castle in the Attic got together in the Hogwarts Library and magically brought forth a baby book, it might be this first installment in what promises to be a nifty series. And to think that it all started in the imagination of a woman named Narcissa. No, that isn't another Hogwarts reference. I'm speaking of an honest-to-history Narcissa who spent a lifetime, to say nothing of a considerable fortune, collecting miniature works of art and assembling them into a series of tiny scale models of historic rooms from Europe to America and around the world. Her name was Narcissa Niblack Thorne, and the sixty-eight rooms in this book's title are the Thorne Rooms (not a typo) on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.

There are actually more than 68 of these amazing works of art, if you count the ones displayed in other museums, but many children who have visited the collection in Chicago would agree that however many of them there may be, these miniature rooms are magical. While the rooms are real, the magic in this book comes from the imagination of an author who fell in love with the Thorne Rooms at age six, when her artist mother brought her to the Art Institute for the first time. Now an artist, a mother, and a teacher herself, Marianne Malone leads us into a world of magic discovered by only a few lucky children in each generation.

The present-day pair are best friends Ruthie and Jack, who discover an enchanted key that (in Ruthie's hands, at least) enables them to shrink down to just the right size to fit the scale of the Thorne Rooms. But even this discovery, and the after-hours mischief in the museum that it leads to, isn't all the magic has in store for them. For soon it seems that time travel will also be on the itinerary. Jack and Ruthie touch the lives of children in other eras of history, as well as a heartbroken man and a wistful old lady in present-day Chicago.

Jack and Ruthie are adorable but imperfect kids. They mean well, but they make mistakes. To make their magical dreams come true, they find it necessary to lie to their parents and break a number of other rules that exist for good reason. Ruthie feels guilty about this, but she is too caught up in the magic to stop. Nevertheless the kids face some pretty sobering problems, including uncertainty about whether they hurt the people they visited in the past, not to mention some dangerous wall-climbing adventures (revealing yet another use for duct tape) and a scary battle against a giant bug. They respond to all these challenges with a combination of courage and clever problem-solving skills, and above all with the sweetness of spirit that makes them the right people for the magic to choose. If you choose to join them on their strange adventure, prepare to make some wonderful new friends. And if you find it hard to say goodbye to them, cheer up. A sequel is coming in 2012, titled Stealing Magic.

The First to Land
by Douglas Reeman
Recommended Ages: 14+

OK class, pop quiz time. Can you name the 20th-century war in which the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Japan were all together on one side? Hint: While saber-wielding hordes rushed at them wearing white gowns and turbans, screaming "Kill!" with all but inhuman ferocity, the allies fought for survival behind defenses designed by an engineer named Herbert Hoover. Do you give up? Oh, well. I'm sure you'll pick up the answer later...

In this second book of the Blackwood Novels, also known as the Royal Marines Saga, one of naval fiction's most prolific authors carries his account of Britain's sea soldiers into a new generation. Whereas Blaze of Glory introduced us to Crimean War hero Philip Blackwood and his younger half-brother Harry, this novel finds their sons serving "by sea or by land" at the turn of the 20th century. This was the troubled tail-end of Queen Victoria's reign, when the sun seemed to be doing its damnedest to set on the British Empire.

David Blackwood is the eldest of three sons of the old General (whom we know as Harry) who have followed the family tradition of serving as Marine officers. While he mourns the death of his middle brother, killed by a sniper in the Second Boer War, and wonders what has become of his youngest brother who has only lately put on the uniform of an artilleryman, David finds himself in the disagreeable position of having to look after his wretched cousin Ralf. The latter is nothing like his heroic father, but David has neither the time nor the inclination to stroke the lad's petulant temper. For thanks to a combination of diplomatic and military blunders and the rise of a fanatically xenophobic cult known as the "Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists," the two cousins are about to land right in the middle of the Boxer Rebellion. Oops! There's the answer to our one-point quiz! How did you do?

Boxers may not sound very scary. But we're not talking about Kung Fu masters flying through the air, chopping with their feet and fists of fury. We're talking about virtually fearless killing machines who tortured, mutilated, and killed every foreigner they could get their hands on, whether man, woman or child; and who even butchered entire Chinese villages if they were felt to be under the influence of the "foreign devils." "Boxers" was really a whimsical nickname for a group better described as the "Big Knife Society." And because China's royal family and imperial army sympathized with the Boxers, the Boxer Rebellion wasn't just a wave of uncontrolled violence; it was actually an officially declared war. To start with, at least, representatives of foreign governments and business interests on Chinese soil had a rough time of it. No, that's not putting it strongly enough. They got massacred.

David and Ralf Blackwood go ashore to keep the allied supply lines open. But the enemy they face is perhaps more terrifying than any other foe I have yet encountered in my readings of historical naval fiction. Even the Muslim pirates featured in Ramage and the Saracens were less scary, considering that they were more interested in capturing slaves for their galleys and brothels than torturing and killing for its own sake. Imagining the horrors witnessed by the characters in this book will make your flesh crawl. If you have a weak stomach, you may even join some of Britain's finest marines in throwing up.

To make up for the graphic nature of the violence in this novel, author Reeman treats us to a cast of fully fleshed characters, flaws and all. One Marine sergeant, for example, carries a gruesome secret. A lieutenant finds courage through fear—the hard way, that is. David Blackwood carries on a steamy (not to say adulterous) affair with a German countess, which at times makes this book seem as much a romance novel as a story of war. And Ralf proves his mettle only after convincing us that he has no redeeming character traits whatsoever. But brace yourself. A lot of good men are going to die as wave after wave of screaming fanatics rush at the allies' increasingly frail defenses, cut off from reinforcements in the foreign quarter of Tientsin (now Tianjin). Their endurance in the face of virtually certain extermination is one of the greatest stories of courage under fire that you'll have never heard before. Because, face it, when have you ever read a book about the Boxer Rebellion?

It's an intense and compulsively readable book. Nevertheless I owe an "adult content advisory" to parents, and a "political incorrectness advisory" to schoolteachers, before recommending this book to younger readers. In the first place, do I really need to go back and underline the words "steamy" and "graphic" in my review above? In the second, as unsympathetic as I am to the forces of political censorship, I have to recognize that a book containing the "n" word could stir up trouble in a classroom, especially in a book published as recently as 1984. That a character of that time would have naturally and innocently used that term in the context in which it crosses David Blackwood's mind is obviously no defense, given the criticism today leveled at such books as Huckleberry Finn. I, for one, see no problem with letting history be history. But a word to the wise is sufficient.

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