Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mull Neff Riordan Sage

Keys to the Demon Prison
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Ages: 12+

It's the fifth and final "Fablehaven" adventure, and the world is coming to an end. More of the world's magical game preserves are falling to the Society of the Evening Star, which is collecting the five hidden talismans needed to open the demon prison of Zzyzx. Young Kendra and Seth Sorenson, along with their family and friends, are charged with protecting these powerful objects, and the five "Eternals" who must die before the bad guys can turn the key in the lock. But after a death-defying visit to the Australian preserve where the last artifact is housed, Seth is taken prisoner by the so-called Sphinx—actually a centuries-old Ethiopian slave who rebelled against his masters and now holds most of the keys to Zzyzx. At that point, the score stands thus: The Knights of the Dawn (read: "good guys") have two of the five artifacts—the ones that give people the power to time-travel and to teleport over vast distances—but the Sphinx has the ones that give the power of healing, long life, and seeing anything you want to look at, not to mention his hostages, such as Seth. Now the Knights plan a daring raid of the Sphinx's lair, hoping to steal back those artifacts and rescue Seth. Guided by a traitor from within the Sphinx's organization, relying on a spy embedded in ditto, and armed with a gizmo that can take three passengers around the world in the blink of an eye, there's no way they can fail. Right?

Well, guess who ends up with all five keys to the Demon Prison. If you guessed "the Sphinx," you're wrong. The answer is even worse. Now, even with Seth on the loose again, the Sorensons and friends are faced with the imminent threat of Zzyzx being opened by demons, for demons. The human race may be an endangered species if they don't stop it somehow. Seth, knowing that his own mistake may doom mankind, leads two satyrs and a vampire on a quest for a sword that may give him an eensy-weensy chance of saving the world. Kendra, meanwhile, joins a team of rescuers in a last-minute effort to save the surviving Eternals from a team of supernatural assassins. Both parties are armed with a variety of weapons and powers, but none are more essential than the two Sorenson children: the one a "shadow charmer" who can communicate with the undead, the other able to restore power that has drained from magical objects and creatures. For the fate of the world will depend on a few people arriving at an island that can only be reached via ghost ship, summoning an army of dragons, unicorns, and fairies, and wielding a magical sword that draws its power from the character of its wielder. And they will be all that stands between our world and the huge, hideous, powerful demons that will soon swarm out of Zzyzx.

The chances of Fablehaven's friends could be better. But don't count them out just yet. It's amazing what can happen when a kid as daring and unpredictable as Seth is involved. His sister is no slouch, either. And their allies, both human and non-human, have some surprising and clever tricks in reserve. Junk-food-munching satyrs Newel and Doren lighten the tension with their humorous patter, including battle-cries of "Frito-Lay!" and "Hostess!" (Alas, Twinkie fans, they were not quite accurate in their prediction that Hostess would never die.) The Fairy Queen makes a sacrifice of cosmic proportions. The dream guy of every girl who loves unicorns smiles at Kendra. And one huge battle determines the future shape of the world. Some authors know just how to end a series! For another example of Brandon Mull's strength in this area, see the third and last "Beyonders" book, Chasing the Prophecy, going on sale on March 12, 2013. His other books include The Candy Shop War and its sequel Arcade Catastrophe, which came out in October 2012.

The Second Siege
by Henry H. Neff
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book 2 of the "Tapestry" quartet continues with Max McDaniel's second year at the Rowan Academy, a school for magically talented teens somewhere on the east coast of the U.S. I have already noted that Rowan has as much in common with Hogwarts as almost any school for magic. In this book, however, the apparent similarities between the two schools take a backseat to the intriguing differences between them. Not that we get to see much of what goes on in the classroom, this year. Max and his frail, vulnerable, yet super-sorcerous roommate David Menlo miss most of the school year between one perilous adventure overseas and another to the world of the Sidh (which I take to be something like Faerie), where they spend more time than passes in our world. Not long after they come back, the whole campus finds itself under siege by the powers of the enemy—the enemy being an ancient, powerful, surprisingly non-hideous demon named Astaroth, who wants a book of power that has been guarded by Rowan for the past thousand years.

Astaroth has awakened, thanks in part to a traitor on Rowan's faculty and in part to an undead sorcerer who has also betrayed the cause. Now he is taking over the world, toppling governments and terrorizing whole populations with the aid of his army of ogres, goblins, and vyes (shape-changing creatures who, in their natural form, look like bipedal werewolves). Rowan's best lines of defense are its two star second-year students. Max, the "Hound of Rowan," has superhuman fighting abilities comparable to such heroes as Achilles and Cúchulainn. Already by the start of his second year, he can beat any sixth-year in a training simulation without even trying, and is the match of the Red Branch's deadliest agent, the rock-hard Mr. Cooper. By the end of the year, particularly after his training in the Sidh, Max's abilities have grown to include the closest thing to a nuclear explosion that can happen in hand-to-hand combat. David, meanwhile, matches him kiloton-for-kiloton, making up for the weakness of his body in sheer magical power. It is David whose spell to hide Rowan from the outside world keeps Astaroth away for most of this year. It is David whose talent for summoning spirits enables the pair to find the Book of Thoth, or Origins, before Astaroth does—though, thanks to some diabolical trickery, it was only in danger of falling into Astaroth's hands while the two boys were getting closer to finding it. And it is David, even more than Max, on whom the defense of Rowan depends in the crucial, final confrontation with Astaroth.

Which is too bad.

It's too bad, for starters, because just when everything depends on Max and David, the witches—an offshoot of the Order of Rowan who live in the Himalayas and depend wholly on pure magic, without any modern technology—show up and demand that the two boys be handed over to them. Evidently they have a right to claim up to three students from Rowan, as payment for the role they played in hiding the Book of Thoth long ago. They couldn't have chosen a worse time to assert their rights, however. Luckily, a shocking kidnap by another offshoot of the order (the Frankfurt Workshop, which specializes in technology without the use of magic) turns into an opportunity for the boys to escape. After returning from two journeys—first a visit to nightmare-ridden Europe, where the obtain the key to finding the Book of Origins; then their strange, time-bending visit to the Sidh, where they find not only the Book but also Max's long-lost mother—they find things at Rowan have grown even worse. Max has no sooner found his mother than he loses her again, forever. One of his best friends turns out to be possessed by a demon loyal to Astaroth. The witches, losing patience with the school for refusing to hand over the boys, plant a curse on it. The head of the Red Branch, of which Max is now an agent, has decided to negotiate with the archfiend. And with David too gravely wounded to hold up his share of the school's defense, Rowan is practically defenseless when Astaroth lays siege to it.

Those of us who faithfully audited seven years worth of classes at Hogwarts may be disappointed at how little classroom time our heroes spend in their second year at Rowan. And although none of Harry Potter's school adventures from year 3 to year 6 had a particularly upbeat ending, the outcome of all the fighting and striving and resisting this year at Rowan may surprise you with its bitterness. In fact, the fortunes of Max and his friends fare steadily worse from about the midpoint of this book to the end. Each time you think their chances can't sink any lower, they sink lower still. Face it, Year 3 (titled The Fiend and the Forge) is going to be tough. But from the fact that there is at least a fourth year to look forward too (titled The Maelstrom), I reckon our Rowans still have some fight in them. And with the world already tottering on the brink of doom, the danger can only become greater, along with the expectations riding on David and Max. The question isn't so much whether they will have the power or courage to face the challenges ahead, as whether you will have the guts to look on!

The Red Pyramid
by Rick Riordan
Recommended Ages: 12+

This is the first book of the "Kane Chronicles," a series that does for Egyptian mythology what the same author's "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" and "Heroes of Olympus" series did, and continue to do, for Graeco-Roman ditto. And in case you missed that memo, it gives teens a crash course in a whole range of Egyptian history, customs, gods, and monsters, all washed down with a kid-friendly blend of streetwise attitude, laugh-out-loud humor, rip-snortin' action, and a special-effects budget limited only by your own imagination. There is even a hint that the Egyptian godlings in this series dwell in the same magic-haunted universe as the young demigods of Camp Halfblood. I don't know, maybe it's the veiled reference to the goings-on at the Empire State Building in Manhattan, across the East River from the Brooklyn mansion where the Kane siblings come to live with their mysterious Uncle Amos after... well, there's a lot to summarize.

To start with, Carter (age 14) has been living out of a suitcase for the six years since their mother died in what now turns out not to have been an accident. Their globe-trotting Egyptologist father, whom Carter has been following around the world since then, also proves to be more than he seems. They only see Sadie (age 12) a couple times a year, due to the custody deal with her London-dwelling grandparents. On the latest visitation day, their family situation quickly progresses from "vaguely disappointing" to "terrifyingly weird." Dad blows himself up in the British Museum, along with the Rosetta Stone, and unleashes five ancient deities from the Duat, or magical realm, where they have been cooling their heels. Now two of those gods—Isis and Horus—are trying to possess Carter and Sadie. Another god, Osiris, has become trapped with their father. And that leaves the way open for Set, the Egyptian god of evil, to plan a birthday blow-out for himself—which will pretty much wipe out the world as we know it.

Now the kids are on the run, marked for death by the only magicians who know how to cope with the power of Egyptian gods. They are just starting to understand their new powers. They can barely hold off Horus and Isis from possessing them completely. And they have to start an apocalypse that will spread evil from a red pyramid inside a mountain in Phoenix, Arizona, while monsters and minor gods in the service of chaos are coming at them from all directions, including up and down.

Cringe with them as the goddess of scorpions swarms them in New York City. Shake in your blue suede shoes as a pair of magically deadly good-old-boys chases them through the Graceland museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Spew milk out of your nose when a rampaging lion goddess turns into her sleepy cow aspect and begins making "Moo-zzz" sounds. And bask in the glow of puppy love as the Kanes encounter a pretty girl whose duty is to kill them, and a cute boy who happens to be the god of death.

You'll feel like you're right there as Carter and Sadie take turns narrating all their wild and weird adventures, from fleeing the upper deck of the Washington Monument in the form of birds to facing an army of demons, beasts, and animated sculptures (called shabtis) on one side and the unfriendly magicians of the House of Life on the other. Who knew there was more to Egyptian mythology than shambling mummies and cursed tombs? Well, you'll know now—you'll be amazed how much you can learn when you're having this much fun—and you'll be glad to know that there is more to come in the sequels: The Throne of Fire and The Serpent's Shadow.

Syren
by Angie Sage
Recommended Ages: 12+

The fifth book of the "Septimus Heap" series carries on the adventures of apprentice wizard Sep, princess Jenna, ex-manuscriptorium scribe Beetle, and their growing circle of sidekicks in the same wacky, wild, magically dangerous spirit as the previous four books. By now Septimus has survived his Queste, tamed his dragon, and rescued his brother Nicko from a time-travel-related exile. He has just been promoted to the rank of Senior Apprentice. Now all he has to do is fly his scaly friend Spit Fyre across the sea and bring back Jenna, Nicko, Beetle, and company. But his plans go awry when his passengers meet up with Jenna's merchant captain father first.

The party then splits up. Sep and his group fly on dragonback into a storm in which an unfortunate thunderbolt leaves them marooned on an island. Nicko, meanwhile, stays on board Milo Banda's ship, along with his girlfriend Snorri and her feline familiar. They end up lured onto a sandbar off the very same island—lured by a crew of wreckers who have evil plans for Milo's precious cargo. The wreckers' villainy includes the theft of an ancient beacon light, the attempted murder of the strangely feline fellow who guards it, a bargain with an evil ghost, a spirit whose song lures sailors to their doom, and a tunnel under the sea that could prove the fatal weakness of the Castle that Sep and his friends call home.

Meanwhile, Sep's old Young Army buddy, now known as Wolf Boy for reasons I haven't room here to explain, is on a sort of quest himself. If he completes his task, he may become the next White Witch of the Marram Marshes, succeeding Sep's quirky, cabbage-pushing Aunt Zelda. But before Wolf Boy can safely escape the den of the Port Witches' Coven with the required piece of magical ickiness, his task gets tangled up in the fate of Lucy Gringe, fiancee to Sep's ne'er-do-well brother Simon. The two of them end up having an adventure of their own, partly in an underwater craft that raises questions about exactly when and where this fantasy world is located. After all, "the Small Wet Country Across the Sea" isn't a very specific place name, is it? Hmmm.

And then, of course, there is a possessed girl from five hundred years in the past, and a self-steering sled that answers to a high-pitched whistle, and a cat that changes form every time the sun rises or sets, and a naughty wizard wannabe who intercepts a Jinn meant for someone else, and a pair of evil twins who resemble the number 10 when viewed in profile, side by side. There are spells that have to be said backward, and warriors with weapons growing out of their arms, and a ceramic gnome that magically drips water out of his spout, and an absolutely scandalous amount of FizzFroot and Banana Bears to tempt readers who have a sweet tooth. By the end of the tale, Sep and his ilk have faced down as great a danger as ever, making you wonder why some people are always having great adventures like this, and leaving behind an even larger cast of odd, weird, and funny characters whom we can expect to see in the next book. To be sure, there will always be a next book, as long as there are more words to be cunningly misspelled in the title. The next one in this series, for example, is titled Darke; a seventh book, Fyre, is due to be released in April 2013. Also, a novella called The Darke Toad, part of the Septimus Heap canon but not of the sequentially numbered series, is expected in February 2013.

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