by Frank Beddor
Recommended Ages: 13+
In this sequel to The Looking Glass Wars, young Queen Alyss has scarcely claimed the throne of Wonderland—the "true" version behind Lewis Carroll's garbled account—when already she faces another threat to the peace and security of her realm. Her Imperial Viciousness, the ex-Queen Redd, has escaped through the Heart Crystal that enables the queens of Alyss's bloodline to rule through the power of pure imagination. Too soon, Redd is ready to stage a comeback, complete with a gang of otherworldly ruffians. Meanwhile, King Arch of the neighboring Borderlands has his own designs on the Queendom, plans based on a ludicrous form of machismo raised to the level of political ideology. Armed with weapons of freakish deadliness, seconded by henchpersons whose powers of inflicting death are as disturbing as their lack of humane values, and shrewd enough to hedge their bets with, for example, a bit of hostage-taking, these villains could not only overwhelm Wonderland's defenses but even destroy it forever.
Meanwhile, Alyss faces dilemmas closer to home. First, there's the matter of Dodge, the young guardsman she has loved since they were children, but who is consumed with vengeance against the anthropomorphic cat who murdered his father. Then there's Homburg Molly, the queen's half-blooded bodyguard from a race of warriors, called Milliners, whose specialty is weaponized headwear. Molly's disappearance coincides with an outbreak of trouble that threatens the power of "white imagination" throughout Wonderland, stops up the looking-glass transportation system, and leads the father Molly never knew—the Hatter—on a queen-defying quest that at times seems like downright madness.
This fast-paced book is crammed with magical whimsies, macabre twists, furious battles, sneaky double-crosses, and Lewis-Carrollian imagery turned upside-down and inside-out as though in a fun-house mirror. Romance, family tragedy, Victorian-era alternate history, fantastic creatures, dancing skeletons, terrible poetry (what you get when you let slip the doggerels of war), and characters ranging from creepily ambivalent to flamboyantly evil, all crowd into the same canvas as card-soldiers, living chessmen, and a species of large-eared albino tutors. Somehow, it seems to be over too soon. But that's all right; the series continues with a third book, titled Arch Enemy. Plus, author Beddor has co-authored a related series of graphic novels, collectively known as Hatter M.
Dead Eye: Pennies for the Ferryman
by Jim Bernheimer
Recommended Ages: 15+
Mike Ross sees dead people. He saw them in a big way in Iraq, where a couple of his war buddies were blown to bits by a roadside bomb right next to him and nearly killed him too. But he doesn't start seeing them "walking around like regular people" until the eye-patch comes off after a cornea transplant saves the sight in his right eye. The cornea used to belong to a ghost hunter who suddenly developed the ability to see ghosts at the exact moment that bomb changed Mike's life, and who mysteriously died 17 days later. And now, as Mike tries to get his life back together, he is suddenly faced with a new set of potentially life-threatening problems. And the "nearly departed" are going to have a lot to do with them.
At first, Mike just wants to concentrate on his belated college studies. But a cute girl encourages him to use his new gifts to help the dead cross over. Maybe, he reasons, he can make a bit of cash on the side, by claiming the rewards for solving murders and missing-persons cases. One such case even nets him a girlfriend, though something always seems to prevent them from getting close. Meanwhile, Mike soon learns the downside of being a "ferryman"—ghosts can be dangerous! They can punch, kick, and even use weapons, though most of their weapons are only harmful to other ghosts. Given enough ectoplasmic energy (or "spook juice"), some ghosts known as Skinwalkers can even take possession of a living person. Mike experiences this himself and, to put it mildly, it's nasty.
Even as Mike learns to protect himself from ghostly enemies, his danger grows. Unknowingly he has gotten himself in the middle of a war between gangs of power-peddling ghosts, some of whom are actual historical figures (mainly from the Civil War era), and who have divided up the territory around Washington, D.C. It's spooky (no pun intended) to think how much influence these revenants may hold over mortal politics. But what's even spookier is the plan a Skinwalker, a treacherous ghost, and a fiend known as the Beast of Baltimore have in store for Mike.
Judging from its inconclusive ending, this book is meant to be the beginning of a series. And I'll hand it to Mr. Bernheimer, whose signature is on the first page of my copy: it's an entertaining story with an engagingly imperfect hero, a story that I would enjoy seeing continued. If I must complain about anything—and face it, I must—it's the sloppiness of the punctuation and a few other minor but irritating grammatical issues. Frankly, Mr. Bernheimer's story deserves a better editor than it had for the edition I read. Perhaps later editions will correct, or have already corrected, these mistakes, so I won't feel any embarrassment in recommending the book. As it is, I approve of it with the reservation that readers with grammatical OCD should keep their anti-anxiety drug of choice at hand while reading this book—I recommend Darjeerling tea—because, after all, it's the story that matters.
by Vivian Vande Velde
Recommended Ages: 12+
Giannine's birthday gift from her long-absent father is one she picked for herself: a gift certificate to Rasmussem Enterprises, a high-tech gaming parlor whose only similarity to a penny arcade is that it costs a pretty penny. Giannine arrives in the midst of a protest by a group of demonstrators who believe that fantasy and roleplay are of the devil. Soon after she plugs into a total-immersion, virtual-reality game about castles and wizards and barbarians and dragons, the protestors storm the facility and damage the machine Giannine is playing on. Thus she becomes trapped in the game, which she must start over each time her character dies. The only way out is to play it to the end and win. And she can only afford to "die" so many times, because the damaged machine will damage her more the longer she stays connected. If she doesn't make it out quickly, she never will.
So, no pressure.
The trouble is, Giannine is only fourteen years old, and the grandmother who has raised her can't afford to send her to Rasmussem Enterprises every weekend; so she actually isn't very good at gaming. Her inexperience tells early as she has to start the game over and over just to get past Level One. This isn't an encouraging sign in a fantasy game in which Giannine's character, very creatively named Janine, must rise from tending sheep to ruling a kingdom in three days.
Time passes much faster in virtual reality than in the real world; but even so, three days can be a lifetime when you keep getting killed on Day One and having to start over. And there are so many ways for a shepherd girl-turned-heir to the throne to die. There are three handsome princes, sons of the jealous dowager queen, who all have ambitions; deciding which of them to trust, and how to get him to trust her, is a life-and-death decision that comes out differently each time Giannine plays. Then there are the soldiers, who could become loyal to Janine if she can avoid getting assassinated by them; the barbarians, who intend to kidnap her; a witch with a knack for brewing poison; a wizard who likes to play a game of riddles with one hand on the lever to release the trap door under one's feet; a greedy dragon; an army of ghosts; and a mob of rebellious peasants, all with Janine's name on the blades of their swords or the tips of their arrows.
There is no one right way to play it. There may even be infinite ways to win. But as Giannine soon learns, there are infinite ways to lose. And unless she figures out how to get three royal advisors (one of them an embezzler, another a religious fanatic) to work together with three workers of magic, and keep the princes, soldiers, barbarians, and peasants from stabbing her in the back, she is just going to keep dying virtually until she dies for real. And that would totally ruin her birthday.
Giannine's fantasy adventure within a fantasy adventure is fun in and of itself. Particularly interesting is the unusual way she plays it—a sign that she is a special person in the real world, and one that endears her to the gaming tycoon who is desperately trying to save her. The idea that the sword-and-sorcery fantasy is a game that must be played over and over until the player figures out a way to win throws a unique light on the genre, and points out a variety of whimsical takes on the standard storyline. Plus, Janine/Giannine's double jeopardy adds an extra level of suspense as she gets closer to either final victory or total oblivion. A generous charge of mouthy attitude, a fizz of silliness, a tingle of controversy over the role of fantasy in the formation of children, and a sizzle of teen romance make this virtual world one that young readers will gladly plug into.