Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Emily Drake

The Magickers
by Emily Drake
Recommended Age: 13+

Jason Adrian seems like an ordinary boy...except that he lives with his stepmother and stepfather; and he has really wicked nightmares that wake him up every night at midnight; and he keeps getting attacked by a crow that once lured him into falling out of an attic window; and now, when an injury at tryouts sidelines him from summer soccer camp, he gets picked for an “English-geek camp” somewhere in Northern California. But Jason doesn’t know how extraordinary he really is, until he finds out that Camp Ravenwyng is really a school for the magically talented!

We’re talking about “Magick,” powered by a mysterious force called manna, focused by crystals, and practiced by a very small group of rather goofy adults, such as the dulcimer-playing beauty who wears long skirts and hovers several inches off the ground to make herself look taller, and the tie-dye-wearing, fiddle-playing head counselor who carries a wolf’s head cane.

Very few Magickers survived a crisis event, several centuries back, in which a duel between two great Magickers caused all the Magic to be ripped out of the universe. Now, slowly, it is seeping back in, and the small remnant of surviving Magickers must race to rebuild their craft. Why the hurry? Because the evil side of Magic—known as the Dark Hand—threatens to drain all the energy out of the good side, a terrible manna storm is gathering, and a vicious pack of creatures known as wolfjackals haunts the edges of Camp Ravenwyng.

At first, all this is unknown to the kids, who think the camp is really all about weaving lanyards, canoeing, swimming, and hiking. But the race is on, and the counselors begin to move up the schedule a bit—sending home those students who can’t hack it, after forcing them to drink a Draught of Forgetfulness—and exposing the children to potentially dangerous lessons in controlling their Magick.

Meanwhile, Jason has problems of his own. On the first night of camp he was bitten by a Wolfjackal. The scar still hurts whenever evil is near, and the memory of the creature’s words ("You’re mine.") still haunts him. Plus, one of his best friends has disappeared; his other best friend is growing more and more distant; a thief, a ghost, and a Skinwalker are at large; a creature of the deep tries to pull Jason to a watery grave; a spy and traitor is in their midst; and, through it all, Jason’s nightmares continue to keep him awake at night, putting him in jeopardy of being sent home with the Draught of Forgetfulness.

Perhaps it is his fate to fail, or to be destroyed...or perhaps Jason’s destiny is to save everybody’s bacon! I think you’ll enjoy finding out in this 2001 book that is very likely to be called “the closest thing to what Harry Potter would be like if he was an American.” Drake’s prose doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as JKR’s, and her depiction of Magick veers uncomfortably close to New Age Mumbo-Jumbo. But, it remains a gripping story with a clear delineation between Good and Evil. It opens the door on a spooky, exciting, and often funny magical world, and introduces a very attractive young hero (his friends are full of surprises, too).

Plus, this is the beginning of a series that now has at least three more books, including The Curse of Arkady, The Dragon Guard, and The Gate of Bones. So it also opens up a lot of ways to spend your time until the next Harry Potter book or movie comes out! [EDIT: I know there aren't going to be any more Harry Potter books. This review was originally posted in 2005.]

The Curse of Arkady
by Emily Drake
Recommended Age: 13+

Here is Book Two in a series that could be billed as, “If Harry Potter were an American.” What a difference that would make! Instead of an underfed, mistreated, Quidditch-playing orphan named Harry Potter, he would be a bullied, soccer-playing boy named Jason Adrian whose step-stepfather is rather nice, and whose stepmother worries about him so much that it causes problems. Instead of owls, he and his friends from the past summer’s Magicker summer camp keep in touch over the internet. And instead of a safe (???) boarding school where young wizards and witches can study magic together, they attend their own separate schools and the school of life, while a mysterious curse and a deadly enemy seek to take advantage of their lack of training.

Welcome to the continuing adventures of Jason and his crew of raw, inexperienced young Magickers. In this installment, Jason’s bad dreams continue, dreams that he shares with the Dark Lord Brennard. As Brennard awakens, gathers followers, and sets plans in motion, the Magickers have returned to their homes for a new school year with very little protection; and even that is soon nullified by the Dark Hand and its vile creatures. The Wolfjackals grow bolder every day, trying to attack Jason and his friends; the school guidance counselor from hell is messing around with Jason’s life; and when the step-stepdad drives Jason over to see his latest construction project, it turns out to be the mansion from his recurring nightmares.

Meanwhile, the young Magickers have many problems of their own to deal with. Jason’s friendships and family ties are tested by the secret he is magically bound to keep. Ting, on the other hand, learns that her family already knows her secret, particularly her Grandmother, who has cancer. Rich and his shape-changing pal Stefan find themselves in hot water when the beast within decides to go to the homecoming game. Bailey learns how to see through the eyes of her packrat-companion. Trent remains the only Magicker without any powers – and only Jason knows about it. And poor old Henry Squibb, who lost his powers and his memory in the Magickers, is starting to get them back – just when nothing could be more dangerous!

There is plenty going on in The Curse of Arkady. Maybe too much. Compared to Harry Potter, it is not as tightly structured, as smoothly written, or as faithful to a single point of view. At times, I had to read a bit two or three times to make sure I understood it right. Most irritating are the occasions when you don’t know which character is talking, or when you think you know who’s talking but you find out (at the end of a very long quote) that it was somebody else. It’s the sort of thing that could mean you’re not reading very well, or it could mean that somebody isn’t writing very well – and since I don’t usually have this problem...

So, on the level of pure love of good writing, this book and series are not as satisfying as Harry Potter. However, on the level of an interesting story that shows promise as a Harry Potter alternative, you may find it very satisfying indeed. If you like this book, look for the third book in the series, The Dragon Guard.

The Dragon Guard
by Emily Drake
Recommended Age: 13+

This third book in the series that started with The Magickers continues as the most obvious “American answer to Harry Potter” — one that even makes references to Harry Potter, as well as Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings. Set in Southern California, the series follows the adventures of a group of “talented” children who first found out that they were Magickers while attending Camp Ravenwyng for the summer.

Now, they are back at home, going to school, playing sports, and living their various lives. But Jason Adrian and his group of friends continue to stick together as Magickers. They need more support than ever, as the Dark Hand of Brennard continues to reach its evil tentacles toward them.

In The Dragon Guard, you will find not only a dragon, but also a martial arts master, a soccer championship, an Indian shaman who goes to live among the wolfjackals, a mysterious illness that threatens the life of one of the elder Magickers, a deliberate traitor and an unintentional one, a creepy stalker, a huge breach of the Magicker equivalent of the “statute of secrecy,” and a race of horrible creatures who are mirror images of a Magicker, created to hunt them down and devour them.

The Young Magickers are pushed to take the most desperate steps they have ever taken. It’s now or never — they need a haven, a safe place to study magic — or they will perish — NOW. And everyone depends on Jason to make it happen, from his friend Bailey who talks to animals, to Stefan who keeps turning into one; from Trent who does not seem to have any powers, to Henry Squibb whose wild, uncontrolled powers pose a danger to one and all. And while they are hunted by Brennard and his even nastier son Jonnard, there is no one to help them—because the adult Magickers have even bigger problems of their own!

The climax of this novel is one of the most exciting magical battles you could hope to read. It’s an engaging story, built on an intesting concept – to say that it is “what Harry Potter would be like in America” really doesn’t do justice to the originality of the world Emily Drake has created here. While I still find myself stumbling over occasional bits of awkward writing, I grow more and more interested in seeing how this series plays out. And when the ending of this book socks you with the “hook to end all hooks,” you will surely want to pick up Book 4, titled The Gate of Bones.

The Gate of Bones
by Emily Drake
Recommended Age: 13+

The fourth novel in the series that began with The Magickers brings the battle between the young Magickers and the villains of the Dark Hand to a climactic conclusion.

I think.

It’s hard to say for sure, but it looks as if the “American answer to Harry Potter” is complete in four books. But, as I have noted before, Emily Drake’s writing style is not as transparently clear as J. K. Rowling’s, and the structure of her books isn’t as sturdy. At times in this fourth book, particularly at the climax, I felt that events were rushing along too fast, and the imagery of the story sometimes refused to picture itself in my mind. But while it is easy to find fault with the book, it is also easy to find things to enjoy about it. Exciting things happen: magical battles, vendettas, romance, horror, journeys through space and time, and an amazing transformation are here to thrill you, and the young Magickers continue to grow up in very satisfying and entertaining ways. And even though it looks like the Dark Hand is done for, there are still “loose threads” that could suggest another book at least.

What happens in The Gate of Bones? You probably thought I had forgotten to say. But there’s a lot to mention. The Magickers have moved to a completely different world – but one that already has people in it. The Dark Hand have come too, and are steadily working to corrupt the quaint society of the people of Haven. Some of the nastier people of Haven are openly or secretly in league with the Dark Hand, but the Magickers have their own allies too – including a clever trader named Renart and the beautiful “warrior princess” he loves. There are also outcast wanderers, who help the Magickers when they can.

Haven is a strange and wonderful place, visited by dragons, guarded by an invisible spirit that mysteriously drains the magic out of people and crystals. It becomes a dreadful place, too, when the Dark Hand unleashes hordes of bandits, ghouls, and fiends, and opens an evil gate that can only be closed by a human sacrifice. Who are the Dark Hand? They are, primarily, teen villain Jonnard and his power-hungry mother Isabella. And when they aren’t plotting against each other, they are trying to bring down the Magickers and their new academy in the mountains – Trent, who can’t do Magick but can see it; Ting, who finally solves the mystery of the Chinese dragon that guards her ancestral home; Henry, who still has trouble controlling his powers; Stefan, who in times of danger walks a thin line between becoming a bear and a berserker; and Rich – hypochondriac, healer, and now victim of a poison that will require him to take a nasty-tasting medicine for the rest of his life. There are adult Magickers, too (read the book yourself to learn more about them), but above all Jonnard is after two: beautiful, blooming Bailey, and the most dangerous of the young Magickers, Jason Adrian.

Jason is the Gatekeeper. He is the Harry Potter figure in this story, complete with two (2) dead parents and a scar. Jason opened the gate between the worlds, the gate that brought the Magickers to Haven—and the Dark Hand too. So he knows it is his responsibility to take the Dark Hand out of Haven. How far will he have to go, how much will he have to risk, to make the magical world safe again? While you wonder about the same thing in regard to Harry Potter, it may be handy to consider the conclusion of this book. You may also be interested to see the very beginnings of a school of magic (or Magick).

Will there be more books about the Magickers? In spite of my quibbles about the author’s flawed writing style, I am interested to know!

IMAGES: Besides the cover of each book, the photos show author Rhondi A. Vilott Salsitz, also known as Emily Drake, Ann Knight, Elizabeth Forrest, Charles Ingrid, and Rhondi Greening, among other pen names. Her numerous, non-Emily Drake titles include The Twilight Gate, Where Dragons Lie, The Unicorn Dancer, Solar Kill, Celestial Hit List, Radius of Doubt, and Aphrodite's Mirror.

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