Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Last Musketeer

The Last Musketeer
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 12+

It's a good thing Greg Rich got to learn French, fencing and horseback riding at his elite private school in Connecticut, before his family lost everything and he had to transfer to a public school in New York. I mean, it isn't a good thing right away, because all that stuff makes it harder to fit in, and he never really felt like he belonged even before the family fortune went. But it all turns out to be really handy for Greg when an evil, immortal sorcerer tricks his parents into giving him their half of a stone that he then uses to take the four of them 400 years back in time. It's really lucky because present-day American kid Greg turns out to be D'Artagnan – the hero of Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers – and if he's going to save his parents and get back to the future, he'll need to bring together that book's real-life title characters.

In Greg's favor, Aramis, Athos and Porthos really exist in 1615 Paris, and he practically stumbles over them and makes friends with them easily. The problem? Well, to start, they're only teenagers. D'Artagnan wasn't supposed to meet them until years later, when the Musketeers were already an established unit, answering directly to King Louis XIII. But thanks to unscheduled time travel, and the very much scheduled execution of his parents, Greg doesn't have the luxury of waiting for the boys to grow up and become friends. He brings them together in a just cause – saving the lives of his unjustly condemned parents – albeit without sharing all the details, at first. And honestly, he wouldn't get very far without them in the fetid streets and waterways of pre-Revolution Paris. He needs all the advantage he can take from cathedral clerk Aramis's intelligence and clerical skill, militiaman Athos's skills as a swashbuckling warrior, and the foppish Porthos's ability to move among the nobility and even royalty – not to mention the almost insane bravery, resourcefulness and loyalty that soon binds them together, "all for one and one for all."

Also, they're in a lot of trouble. I should have mentioned that before. The captain of the king's guard has put out a description of Greg, wanted for an alleged conspiracy to assassinate King Louis. The prison he's put Greg's parents in is a dreadful pit of filth, disease and death – and it's designed to be unjailbreakable. A certain Milady de Winter, a teenager herself, already seems to be on her way to becoming a formidable mischief-maker. And of course that evil, time-traveling sorcerer I mentioned is still out there, pulling strings behind the scenes, manipulating the impetuous youths into a trap that he has designed to destroy the Musketeers before they can destroy him. These kids have a rocky road ahead of them, and I don't just say that because the streets of Paris were a cobblestoned mess at that date. Greg will be too busy fighting to stay alive in 1615 to worry about making it back to the future.

I mentioned before how Greg never felt like he belonged in the 21st century. But even though he feels like the weakest link in the Musketeers Club, soon he enough he's pulling zany stunts like climbing walls, swimming the Seine River, swinging from chandeliers and shimmying down ten-story ropes – in short, not lagging far behind his newfound friends in derring-do. So let's not be too upset with the fact that this book doesn't end with him and his folks making it safetly back to the era of indoor plumbing, cellphones and the internet. He apparently has more adventures ahead of him as D'Artagnan, and it would be a shame to break up the band before it makes the big time. Still, you can only imagine (sorry, spoilers) how proud and bemused Greg's parents must have felt, seeing him and the other three boys officially becoming the king's Musketeers.

Maybe I'm showing my age when this book leaves me seeing that scene from their point of view. But while I'm showing my age, let me pause right here to tell young readers that not only will they enjoy this book, but they have nothing to fear from Dumas's original, either. Despite being one of those classics that generations of kids have whined about being forced to read for school, it's a purely enjoyable adventure that is worth getting to know – maybe (hint, hint) before reading this book – so that you can appreciate even better what Stuart Gibbs is doing with Dumas's characters. And then, perhaps you will feel that lump in your throat when the four(!) Musketeers pledge their "all for one" oath to each other, because the possibility of such heroes – even in a historical romance – matters so deeply, and resonates in the heart.

This is the first book of the "Last Musketeer" trilogy, which continues with Traitor's Chase and Double Cross. Its author is is the same Stuart Gibbs who has written nine "Spy School" novels, three "Moon Base Alpha" books, at least two "Charlie Thorne" books and seven "FunJungle" books. Meanwhile, the original Musketeers was also only the first book in a series (whose number of books varies, depending on how they're divided up) by a prolific author who specialized in sensationalized historical fiction. Here's a list of Dumas's titles, if you're interested.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

The Book of Answers

The Book of Answers
by A.L. Tait
Recommended Ages: 12+

Gabe is a novice from a monastery who is on the run, accused of stealing a book that powerful men would kill to possess – but that, apparently, no one can read. He has been joined on his adventure by a band of merry men who are secretly girls: sisters Merry and Gwyn, who rob the rich and give to the poor while plotting to spring their wrongly imprisoned pa; their cousin Scarlett, a runaway child-bride; and tiny Midge, who has an uncanny ability to communicate with animals. Then there's Eddie, who claims to be a royal prince, victim of a conspiracy to replace him with an impostor. Together they've had some thrilling adventures before this book even begins, but their perils have only just begun.

After traveling to the furthest edge of the kingdom with their enemies in pursuit, the youngsters only learn enough about the book Gabe carries to be really concerned. Apparently, if it falls into the wrong hands, it could unleash terrible powers on the world. And now, it's Gabe's responsibility to protect it. Gabe finds all his certainties, moral and otherwise, put to the test as he, Eddie, and the girls do what seems necessary to survive and fight back against bad people who hold all the game pieces. There's the crooked Prior Dismas, from the abbey that was all Gabe knew until recently, who will abuse all that is holy to seek the book. There's Whitmore, the captain of the royal guard, who has turned against the king and his rightful heir. There's the ruthless Lord Sherborne, who controls the district around Gabe's abbey, and whose heavy taxes are reducing the peasants to starvation. And there's the cruel sheriff, Ronan, who salivates at the prospect of torture and death.

These are bad enemies to have against you, but Gabe also finds he has more friends in his corner than he expected, and they're the ones who really count. Gwyn can go wherever she wants, undetected. Merry laughs at danger and can shoot an arrow with legendary accuracy. Midge can get her trained hawk to do anything she wants with just a whistle. And even the pampered Scarlett and the royal Edward have their qualities, now and then – qualities that, in the end, will be needed to keep the kids' necks out of nooses and to stop the bad guys from making off with the kingdom.

It's a youthful yet old-fashioned adventure, set in medieval times, featuring kids who (mostly) aren't cut out to accept the way their world is rigged to work. Gabe, who of the lot of them has the most difficulty turning rebel against the values he was raised under, discovers unexpected resources within himself while remaining essentially faithful to his values. And the appealing young heroes are really put to the ultimate test before it becomes apparent how, or if, they will prevail.

This is the second of two "Ateban Cipher" books, the sequel to The Book of Secrets. Australian writer A.L. (Allison) Tait has also published four "Mapmaker Chronicles" books and The Fire Star.

The World's Greatest Adventure Machine

The World's Greatest Adventure Machine
by Frank L. Cole
Recommended Ages: 11+

Four kids out of millions just won the opportunity to be the first passengers on the thrill ride of the future: a high-tech roller coaster that taps into their minds to incorporate what they're scared of into a shared experience. Is it all done with high-definition special effects? Or are the monsters, meteors, volcanos and villains as real as they look, sound, smell and even feel? That's the question facing Trevor, Nika, Cameron and Devin when they find themselves on a ride that has spun dangerously out of control.

They're certainly a special group of kids. They couldn't have been picked better for the task – which is one thing that raises their suspicions. Maybe they weren't brought together at random. Maybe there's a reason the Castleton brothers of Beyond, California picked Devin, who has flashes of insight into the future but isn't sure he wants to be a social media superstar; Cameron, a hyperactive genius who sometimes has to take his clothes off and write math equations on the wall; Nika, whose insensitivity to pain is only half of the reason her rich, Russian grandfather is so protective of her; and Trevor, who has a short circuit in his brain that makes him incapable of feeling fear, and who is therefore getting into constant danger and trouble. As the kids make their way through an apparently malfunctioning ride, pursued by terrifying creatures seemingly grown in a lab just to chase them, they receive disturbing messages from someone within the company that lead them to suspect that they've been brought together for a purpose, and it isn't about mass entertainment.

The question becomes: Whom can they trust? But the Adventure Machine is cleverly designed to call even their sensory experiences into doubt. So the answer comes down to "nobody but each other" as the kids survive thrills, chills and spills that beggar belief – from being chased by a meat cleaver-wielding maniac to swinging over a pit on live electric wires. Their adventure will leave them, and you, questioning what is and isn't real, and its fast-paced, life-or-death excitement will create a bond of friendship between misfits and strangers that will warm the reader's heart. They're fun characters to share the ultimate adventure with, and the blend of high-tech fantasy, paranoia, horror and kid-friendly fun makes the whole book an impressive experience.

Frank L. Cole is also the author of The Afterlife Academy, four "Hasbrown Winters" adventures, three "Guardians" novels and three "Potion Masters" novels, all apparently written for kids. His latest book, scheduled for release in August 2021, is The Die of Destiny, purported to be the first installment of a series called "Champion's Quest."

Friday, June 11, 2021

Blue Moon

Blue Moon
by James Ponti
Recommended Ages: 13+

Molly Bigelow and her friends Natalie, Alex and Grayson are all members of a secret group called Omegas that patrol the undead world of New York City. Zombies can only exist at or below ground level (not very much higher) in Manhattan and maybe Roosevelt Island, thanks to a particular composition of bedrock there that was somehow involved in their undeath. And the original undead, known as the Unlucky 13, rule Dead City from below in a system that involves annually revealing themselves in public view to "verify" that they're still in power. Coming back from suspension, Molly's team is specially tasked with monitoring the Unlucky 13 – and their mission may be extra-important now, as the Mayor of Dead City, Marek Blackwell, took it on the chin at the end of their previous adventure and his Verify – at midnight New Year's Eve in Times Square – will reveal a power vacuum that could trigger a war with the undead.

Molly and Co.'s quest to learn more about the Unlucky 13 is interwoven, somewhat, with a firsthand account by one of them, the elusive Milton Blackwell, who became alienated from his brother Marek and the others in part because his mistake made them all undead. In an zombie hierarchy where a Level 3 is brain-eating goon, a Level 2 is a soulless psychopath and a Level 1 is practically human, Milton is a nice Level 1 while his potential rival for power, Ulysses Blackwell, is a dangerous Level 2. You can guess which one the Omegas would like to see step up into Marek's place.

But adding complexity to their run-up to New Year's Eve is the discovery of an electronically sealed vault deep beneath Grand Central Station. Now the Omegas may have bigger things to worry about than Marek's Verify. Now they may be facing a program called Blue Moon, based on a pro-Soviet scheme from the Cold War era, to convert millions of New Yorkers – not to communism, but to undeadism. With a chance that wheels are already moving to turn hearts across Manhattan as cold as the Manhattan schist, Molly's little group and even the larger, secret organization behind the Omegas may not be able to move fast enough to save New York.

So, that's the basic gist. But between the covers of the book there is so much more – a glimpse of New York history featuring then-Police Chief Theodore Roosevelt; a family secret involving Molly's mom, who isn't quite as dead as most people thought; a sizzle of high-tech gadgetry, including a biometric scanner calibrated for room-temperature flesh and a talking computer that can scan top-secret documents; views from all levels of New York, from the tram line running 250 feet above the East River to the deepest abandoned subway tunnels – not leaving out 30 Rock and St. Patrick's Cathedral, thank you; fast-paced combats, surprise revelations, grisly horrors and a final shock that will set the hook for the next book in the series.

This is the second book of the "Dead City" trilogy, between Dead City and Dark Days. Ponti is also the author of three "TOAST Mysteries" and so far two "City Spies" books, all for young readers.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Spy School Secret Service

Spy School Secret Service
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 12+

Cyrus Hale is the most accomplished spy 13-year-old Ben Ripley knows. For most of us, that wouldn't be saying much. But Ben goes to the CIA's Academy of Espionage, also known as spy school. And both Cyrus and Ben have learned in their past missions together that there aren't very many people they can trust, in an intelligence community riddled with moles and double agents. So when Cyrus picks up on chatter that the nefarious organization known, only to a few, as SPYDER is plotting against the President's life, he can think of no better way to deal with it than to plant Ben in the White House on the ruse of a "play date" (eurgh) with the First Son, Jason Stern.

Ben's first problem is that Jason Stern is a complete jerkwad, and the two boys fall in hate at first sight. His first visit to the White House goes downhill from there, with a slight misunderstanding about an unlocked bathroom door leading to Ben being tackled by Secret Service agents, held for questioning, then sent home with his tail between his legs. The second day goes off with a bang – which is to say, Ben realizes almost too late that he himself has been duped into assassinating the President, and only by blowing up the Oval Office (empty at the time) does he manage to thwart the attempt. But the Secret Service doesn't understand that. Pretty much everyone in law enforcement thinks Ben is a traitor, forcing him to go on the run.

The only way this young spy can come in from the cold involves figuring out who really planted that bomb in Ben's jacket and why. Because it turns out the President wasn't really the target; his death was only meant to hide the true motive for the crime. But it's hard to investigate when everyone's trying to capture you and put you away forever and ever. This leads Ben, and the very few friends who believe in his innocence, on a series of wild escapades, including a chase through the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, an insane break-in to a secret prison for evil spy kids, and a desperate, climactic caper in the hallways of the Pentagon.

The scenery is highly educational, showing readers a side of the White House, the Smithsonian and the Pentagon most people never see – you know, like, the inside. Ben's attitude about all of it is a big part of the fun, but his resourcefulness is amazing and the loyalties (and, in one case, disloyalty) of his circle of friends at spy school continue to confirm that this series has a very special young hero. It's an exciting, clever, funny adventure that will keep fans hooked for at least another go-round.

This is the fifth of nine "Spy School" adventures. Coming up next is Spy School Goes South.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Spy Ski School

Spy Ski School
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

A super-rich Chinese businessman with ties to the underworld has come to Vail, Colorado for a week of skiing with his cute, but very sheltered, 13-year-old daughter. Naturally, the CIA thinks its best shot at finding out what Leo Shang is up to is to get Ben Ripley, a second-year student at the agency's Espionage Academy, to befriend her on the slopes. Luckily, skiing turns out to be the one sport that comes naturally to Ben. Unluckily, his better-looking, cool and charming buddy from middle school, Mike Brezinski, shows up in Vail that same week. Mike isn't supposed to know that Ben's science school is really a school for spies, and Jessica Shang's instant attraction to him threatens to mess up Ben's mission.

Luckily, fourth-year student and cloak-and-dagger genius Erica Hale is on the ski trip, too. While Erica turns on the flirt, trying to lure Mike away from Jessica, you can watch with evil glee as an avalanche of teenage jealousy threatens to bury Vale. Warren (the kid from spy school whose only good subject is camouflage) is jealous of Zoe, who likes Ben. Zoe is jealous because Ben likes Erica. Ben is jealous of the attention Erica is showing Mike – and so, by design, is Jessica Shang. It's even possible that Erica is a little jealous about the way Jessica looks at Ben. Though it's hard to tell with her – her school nickname is Ice Queen, after all. The whole adolescent romance vibe builds like a bomb fixing to go off, providing just the distraction needed to make it a surprise when things really start to explode. Only then do Ben and his friends – spy kids and otherwise – realize how explosive Shang's evil plan may be. And their race to stop it isn't just a test of survival for them, but maybe for the whole free world.

Once again, young Ben's top-secret adventures bring the whole range of rewards for readers in search of fun. It has terrific scenery, thrilling and (literally) chilling action and danger, intriguing mystery, and lots and lots of laughs. You'll meet a character named Dane Brammage and, rather than wonder how a smart author like Gibbs would think he could get away with something like that, you'll be amazed that it hasn't happened before. (Don't correct me if I'm wrong; I'm having fun here.) The bad guys are scary. The good guys are hilarious. And Ben has special qualities that will leave you in no doubt that he has a great career ahead of him.

This is the fourth of going on nine "Spy School" adventures. The next title in the series is Spy School Secret Service.

Evil Spy School

Evil Spy School
by Stuart Gibbs
Recommended Ages: 11+

One the first day of his second year at the CIA's Academy of Espionage, 13-year-old trainee spy Ben Ripley blows up the principal's office. Naturally, he is immediately expelled from spy school – even though he has already saved the U.S. intelligence community from two dastardly plots by a chaos-sowing covert organization known as SPYDER. So when SPYDER offers him a free ride at their evil spy school, Ben takes it. It's not that he's thinking about turning evil or anything. It's just that he thinks, or maybe hopes, that his expulsion was a cover for inserting him into the enemy's headquarters.

Evil spy school doesn't look at all like Ben thought it would. It doesn't even look like a school, really. He shares a house in a gated subdivision with two other students – the only two – and is kept so busy doing math problems, trying to improve his marksmanship, and working out at the rec center that he doesn't have time to find out what SPYDER is plotting. He just knows that it's happening soon. And maybe it has something to do with a place on the Jersey shore called Sandy Hook, where Ben's nemesis since his earliest days in the spy game takes the evil spy kids for a day off. By the time Ben realizes that he may have already, unwittingly, given SPYDER the means to carry out a fiendish attack on New York City, it may be too late to stop it.

Like the two books before it, Ben's adventure in Evil Spy School is packed with mystery, suspense, action, and laughs, with just a hint of teen romance and some family drama to round out the entertainment. Ben makes new frenemies whose paths will cross his again, including a video gaming addict named Nefarious Jones (not as bad as he sounds) and a perky, word-coining, gymnastics princess named Ashley, who might be more dangerous than meets the eye. And of course it features many more characters readers will love, hate, or (most likely) chuckle at in a series that consistently earns high marks in Smart Sense of Humor 101.

This is the third "Spy School" book by the author of the "Moon Base Alpha," "Last Musketeer" and "Charlie Thorne" series. The next book on deck is Spy Ski School.