Ring of Fire
by P. D. Baccalario
Recommended Ages: 12+
Translated from the Italian by Leah D. Janeczko, this book is the first of four in the Century Quartet. The other three books, in order, are: Star of Stone, City of Wind, and Dragon of Seas. You might speculate, based on these titles, that the series has something to do with the medieval "elements" of fire, earth, air, and water. And after reading this book, you would have even more reason to suspect this.
The ring of fire in Pierdomenico Baccalario's fantasy world is not a flaming hoop to jump through, the mouth of a volcano, or even love (with all due respect to Johnny Cash). In this case, it's an actual ring, like one might wear on one's finger. And the finger that wears this ancient, powerful ring could wield terrifying power—like, for example, the power to burn the city of Rome to the ground. That's why the ring's location is a secret known only to the handful of people who guard it. And that's why, just when that group is about to pass the (cough) torch to four specially chosen members of the younger generation, a modern-day Dark Lord is willing to kill to get hold of it.
Our main characters only learn this much in bits and pieces, as the story unfolds. First they must discover each other: four children from widely different backgrounds, who happen to share the same unlikely birthday, and who happen to find themselves sharing a room in an overbooked hotel in Rome during the week between Christmas and New Year. The coincidence is really only remarkable in the case of three of the guests—Mistral, Harvey, and Sheng—since they have traveled from as far away as Paris, New York, and Shanghai. It's not such a surprise to find Elettra there; she lives in the hotel year round, because her family owns it. What is surprising about Elettra is her weird, burny hands that sometimes let loose a discharge of power, with results ranging from an exploding light bulb to a citywide blackout. She also has an aversion to mirrors, which lose their reflectiveness when she looks into them. So you can trust that any adventure involving Elettra will be a strange one.
What none of the children would expect, though, is an adventure that begins with a strange man handing them a suitcase full of weird clues, just before he is murdered by a violinist with a razor-sharp bow. Now the violinist, actually a hit man who calls himself Joseph Mahler, is after the kids and the gimmicks that they have only begun to recognize as a map to the ring of fire. The idea of Joseph Mahler getting his hands on the ring isn't what should scare you. The idea of the creature Mahler works for is what should scare you. While the frightened kids race from one local character or point of interest to another, it is increasingly clear to them that killers and kidnappers are in the race with them—and not only the kids, but their families too, are in grave danger. But then, so is the world.
The four kids in this book, in spite of their shared birthday, form an interesting group of heroes with their contrasting and complementary talents, interests, and personalities. Harvey, the spoiled American rich kid, can be a sullen brat when he wants to (and that's most of the time), but he also has a nugget of Romantic Hero material within him. Good-humored Sheng—whose frequent exclamation of hao! translates to something like "Cool!"—braves a completely alien city to make some clever discoveries. And fashion princess Mistral, whose mother designs perfumes, manages to survive after being completely at the mercy of a coldblooded killer. These kids work so well together that, when they go their separate ways, you can be sure their joint adventures are only beginning. Or maybe the three sequels were your clue. Anyway, hao!
The Clockwork Three
by Matthew J. Kirby
Recommended Ages: 12+
In an east-coast U.S. city, sometime in the 1800s, three children who have never previously met each other have a strange adventure together. Together and separately, the face a series of challenges that may determine their future happiness, their family's welfare, their personal survival, and/or the fate of a nature sanctuary adjacent to the city. All of these destinies are caught up together, intertwined, and depend on the qualities of courage, resourcefulness, and friendship in each of them, qualities that bring them together in spite of their differences.
Giuseppe and Frederick are both orphans. Frederick escaped a hideous life in Mrs. Treeless's workhouse, thanks to his mechanical talents and the kindness of a clockmaker, who made him his apprentice. Still, Frederick hasn't learned to accept and trust his master's love, and so he labors in secret to build a clockwork man. He worries that if he doesn't figure out how to make the automaton's head, he will never pass the guild examination to be a journeyman clockmaker.
Giuseppe, meanwhile, longs to go back to his native Italy, from which he was taken against his will when an uncle sold him to the cruel padrone whom he now serves as a slave. With his battered old fiddle, Giuseppe busks for coins on the street with little to hope for except a bowl of gruel and a bed in a dormitory full of boys as bad off as himself. Unless he can save enough money to buy passage back to Italy, Giuseppe has little hope to escape from this harsh life.
Hannah, at least, still has her parents and a pair of much younger sisters. But she is the breadwinner of the family, since her stonemason father suffered a disabling stroke and her mother must nurse him day and night. Hannah's career as a hotel maid threatens to be short, however, when the head maid takes a dislike to her. The mysterious lady in the penthouse suite makes a pet of her, but this seems unlikely to help when a family medical crisis forces Hannah to take desperate steps.
Things start to change for these three children when a green violin with an exquisite, singing tone, washes ashore after a shipwreck. As Giuseppe bewitches crowds with the music of this instrument, he begins to hope for escape. But escape will not come in the way he expects, nor does the magic necessarily lie where he thinks it does. About the same time, Hannah grows interested in the rumor that a rich guest who died in the hotel may have left a treasure hidden in a secret chamber on the top floor. And Frederick risks stealing a marvelous object from a fiercely-guarded museum, hoping to learn not only how to make his clockwork man tick but also who his mother was, and why she left him at the orphanage.
As these children's separate quests become tangled up together, other strange people and things are drawn in as well: a deadly predator, a spirit medium, an ancient lady who talks to plants, a performance of Verdi's opera La Traviata, a labyrinth of secret passages, an untamed wilderness only steps away from the city's streets, a kindly old priest with the will to change the world, and a Russian mercenary with a heart of gold.
In his debut novel, Matthew Kirby conjures up a world of danger, wonder, mystery, and adventure, deftly weaving together multiple storylines with a curiously effortless blend of historical fiction, weird fantasy, and social criticism that pulls up just short of Steampunk. His imperfect but sympathetic characters face hardships, tough moral choices, and an extra-strong dose of most young adults' agony in discovering who they are and what really matters to them. He manages all this with grace and a stir of infectious emotion. Readers who enter this book will come out interested in what its author might do next. And behold, his second book is titled Icefall.
The Accidental Hero
by Matt Myklusch
Recommended Ages: 12+
Previously published as Jack Blank and the Imagine Nation, this first novel by a sometime MTV producer features a young hero who will appeal strongly to fans of Harry Potter, comic books, and science-fiction franchises such as Star Trek. His name is Jack Blank. And though he doesn't know it at first, he has super-powers. One power, actually—but one that explains why machines tend to break down around him when his emotions are stirred. This power could also be a curse, since it could make him either the savior or the destroyer of the secret country where many of the heroes of sci-fi, fantasy, and graphic novels live for real. And it comes in especially helpful one dreary day when a robo-zombie villain out of one of his comics turns up and tries to kill Jack.
Ah, Jack! Raised in a damp New Jersey orphanage that brutally squashes the childhood out of children, he is bullied by the staff as well as the other kids. Jack's only solace has been the secret stash of comic books hidden in the depths of an unfrequented library. Having read these comics so many times that he knows them by heart, Jack dreams of being a superhero, or an alien, or a ninja, or a robot, or a barbarian, or perhaps a sentient hologram, like the characters he has come to admire. He meets them in real life, soon enough. And he may even have a chance to grow up to be one of them, if he can pass the entrance examination of the School of Thought where superkids train to be superheroes. Or, instead, he might have to be destroyed and dissected, because his blood contains a teeny, technological plague that turns everyone it infects (except Jack) into robo-zombies, like the one that visited Jack in the orphanage at the beginning of this book.
Jack could be the Imagine Nation's best hope of defeating the Rustov (as those robo-zombies are really called), or he could be a secret Rustov weapon to doom the galaxy. No one knows for sure—and even Jack has good reason to wonder. In spite of the opposition of Jonas Smart (the Imagine Nation's genius inventor, publisher, industrialist, and would-be dictator), Jack joins a silver-skinned space-girl and a hard-bitten barbarian boy in a series of challenges set by the ruling council to test whether they are School of Thought material. He visits Cyberspace, survives an attack by undead ninjas, and manages not to get lost in a neighborhood completely devoted to secret hideouts. He witnesses a friend's loyal sacrifice, faces the awful truth about himself, and learns to make polite small-talk with household appliances.
Even after he learns why a Rustov named Revile means to destroy him—and faces him in a climactic battle—it is clear that Jack's journey has just begun. The Jack Blank series continues in The Secret War and The End of Infinity.