Lair of the Beast
by Adam Jay Epstein
Recommended Ages: 10+
Once again, Wily travels with a warrior elf whose mood swings from sunny to gloomy with the time of day, a knight whose right arm has magically become a separate entity, his adopted hobgoblet sister, and a mud golem who speaks in sign language and has plants and fungi growing all over him. This time, his journey takes him to a tribe that lives under the sky and practices the secret art of calming wild beasts, hoping that one of them will join their cause. But their new companion, named Valor, only grudgingly joins them when she recognizes that Stalag's golems threaten all wild things, as well as the hated people who dwell within walls. Nevertheless, they have a perilous journey to undertake, sneaking past the golems to an upside-down, underground world where the sun shines up, ruled by a gigantic creature with three heads, a bat's wings and an octopus's tentacles. Not to mention an insane elf who entraps people with illusions, a whirlpool of lava, a race of wolf-sized ants and a prophecy that leaves Wily doubting himself all over again.
Wily's crisis of confidence is at the center of this book, but in the crunch he shows admirable leadership qualities and a firm, good heart. His friends are an odd lot, but lots of fun – including one who turns out to be her own kind of royalty and another whose attitude makes a 180-degree turnaround. Stalag and his minions are, of course, too foolish ever to succeed, yet the danger seems real for a moment or two. (I especially get a kick out of the mage's oglodyte minions, Agorop and Sceely, who are easy to recognize by their inability to count properly.) And the widespread assumption that Wily will grow up to be like his psychotic father is also, rightly or wrongly, something that weighs on him – to his credit. If this book is good for nothing else, it's awesome for how it depicts the choice of whether to be a hero or a villain as a real choice that even a very young person can make.
This is the second book of the "Snared" trilogy, between Escape to the Above and Voyage on the Eversteel Sea. Epstein is also the author of four "Familiars" books and two "Starbounders" books, all co-authored with Andrew Jacobson.