Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jenny Nimmo

The Children of the Red King series
by Jenny Nimmo
Recommended Age: 10+

Midnight for Charlie Bone

This popular series should appeal very strongly to Harry Potter fans. Its hero is a messy-haired little boy who never knew his father and who discovers at age 10 or 11 that he has a magical gift. As a result, Charlie is enrolled at a school where other “endowed” children study, eating at house tables below the staff at their head table, and sleeping in draughty dormitories. The school crawls with secrets, and the forces of good and evil are constantly clashing, constantly striving for control of the magic – especially, it seems, of Charlie’s magic. For it doesn’t take long to realize that Charlie has a “saving people thing”—gee, why does this sound familiar?

Of course, in most other ways, this book is as different from Harry Potter as a book can be, while remaining perfect for a 10-year-old just coming off Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Charlie isn’t an orphan; its only his father who’s dead (supposedly), and though he lives with a wonderful mother and grandmother and a strange but affectionate uncle, he also has a second grandma who is an absolute nightmare...and her three spinster sisters are even worse! When they find out that Charlie can hear the voices of people in photographs, the nasty Yewbeam aunts pack him off to Bloor’s Academy, where, in fact, most students are gifted in music, drama, or art... but a handful, like Charlie, have strange magical gifts.

These twelve endowed children descend from the mysterious Red King, whose ten children split into factions and started a battle between good and evil that has divided the magically endowed ever since.

So Charlie rides a bus, not a train, to school. He gets to visit home on the weekends (when he doesn’t have detention). He gets to wander not a castle, but the ruins of a castle. He meets shape-changers, hypnotists, telekinetics, a boy who talks to animals, and another boy who experiences other people’s feelings when he puts on their clothes. He meets some cool non-magical kids too. While Charlie makes plenty of friends and enemies at school, the most perplexing mysteries have to do with his own family. Well, that and a child whose family gave her up to the evil Bloors, and who has been under a spell of hypnosis ever since...

These books are a fast read, formatted to be easy on young eyes and prefaced by helpful charts and explanations. After reading this first book in the series, I was glad I had bought all four books [then in print], because enough mysteries remained unsolved to ensure that I couldn’t stop at just one.

Charlie Bone and the Time Twister

In his second term at Bloor’s Academy, Charlie continues to develop his gift for finding trouble (and leading other kids – even older ones – into it as well). He also, by the way, develops his gift for talking with people in pictures. Unlike Harry Potter’s world, being able to chat with people in paintings isn’t a common magical gift! And unlike Hogwarts, Bloor’s isn’t a warm, safe place where a child can foil a Dark Lord in between lessons and games. This is a school whose grounds contain dangerous ruins; run by wicked people who could do serious harm to Charlie and his friends; with a head boy of incredible nastiness; a 100-year-old dark sorcerer scheming in a tower room; an eight-year-old albino spy; and really a small number of magical children in proportion to the student body – and roughly half of them are evil!

Even though Charlie gets to spend weekends at home, this is small comfort when his mother and grandma are terrorized by his other grandma and her three vile sisters. Home isn’t any safer than school, when his own family seems to have played a role in his father’s disappearance (and supposed death) years ago. And now a great-great-uncle, who disappeared in 1916 when he was Charlie’s age, materializes (still Charlie’s age) in the middle of Bloor’s Academy, and Charlie has to protect him from the Bloors and from his own aunts. Will a boy who can talk to paintings be able to save his time-traveling relative, even with the aid of Cook and a handful of endowed and unendowed friends? Will Charlie have to make a dark bargain with an ancient sorcerer to save Henry? Will an uncle who never goes out in daylight, a man who runs a café for pets, three strange magical cats, and a best friend and his dog (neither of whom goes to Bloors) be able to help?

Hey, I’m not answering. You’re on your own on this one. But judging by the many letters I have received praising the Charlie Bone books, you won’t really be alone. It’s not hard to see why they are so popular. The book is solidly built and feels good in the hands; it is printed in a way that reduces eye-strain; and it is written in a transparently clear style that sweeps you into the middle of the story before you have time to wonder what’s going on. And I mustn’t forget to add that it’s a pretty neat story, set in an unusual modern-magic world you will want to visit many more times.

Charlie Bone and the Invisible Boy

Still in his first year at Bloor’s Academy, Charlie has already found another innocent person who needs help. Once again, this means staking his life and those of his friends against an evil plan by the Bloor family and Charlie’s own Yewbeam aunts.

This time, the victim is a boy who disappeared the year before Charlie came to Bloor’s. Nosy Ollie Sparks didn’t really leave the school, as everyone had thought; he was still living in a cold attic, after a squeeze from an enchanted boa turned him invisible (except for one toe). Now it turns out that the young art teacher, Mr. Boldova, is actually Ollie’s older brother, come to try to rescue Ollie. But Mr. Boldova himself disappears, leaving the task up to Charlie and his friends.

Naturally, all this has to do with the ancient, evil (but, fortunately, not very talented) sorcerer, Mr. Elijah Bloor. Charlie’s wicked Grandma Bone and her three foul sisters also have their hand in it; but the most dangerous part of the conspiracy is a new student named Belle, who looks like a pretty little girl with golden curls, but is really a monstrous old hag with tremendous powers.

Just when Charlie needs the help of his reliable Uncle Paton the most, Paton disappears. When he finally turns up, he is at death’s door. In order to save Uncle Paton, Charlie takes a big risk in going “into” the portrait of a very nasty wizard, who then breaks out into the real world and makes things even more difficult for Charlie. In the end, it all comes down to whether Charlie and his friends have the talents – magic and otherwise – to balance the evil powers of the Bloors and their minions.

Sure, Charlie has had a busy year at Bloor’s. Three adventures in as many terms! Naturally, they aren’t as painstakingly structured or as full of colorful detail as the one-a-year adventures of Harry Potter. Yet as the series develops, you get a sense that the Charlie Bone books are really parts of one big, complex, almost epic adventure. And they are told in such a smooth, clean, clever way that you can’t help but giggle, gasp, and groan at all the right places. Bravo!

Charlie Bone and the Castle of Mirrors

As he begins his second year at Bloor’s Academy, Charlie finds himself floundering with confusion – like a first-year all over again! One of the reasons is that Manfred Bloor, late head boy, is back as a teaching assistant, and his equally nasty stooge, Asa Pike, has also returned (to repeat a year). Another reason has to do with the delicate balance among the handful of magically endowed students at Bloor’s, which has begun to tilt toward the Dark Side – thanks to a strange, magnetic little boy named Joshua Tilpin.

Then, there is the disappearance of the piano teacher Mr. Pilgrim. (Does anyone else think he’s who I think he is?) Plus, Mr. Pilgrim has been replaced by a terribly strange, and strangely terrible, new teacher named Tantalus Ebony. And finally, just when a caring guardian steps forward for little Billy Raven (you remember, the eight-year-old orphan who has been raised almost as a prisoner in Bloor’s, who can talk to animals, and who is a “neutral” between the two feuding groups of endowed children), just then, I say, the Bloors pack Billy away with a new set of adoptive parents. And wouldn’t you know it, the de Greys are evil, evil, evil people with the power to make Billy the most miserable little boy in town.

And that’s all just the beginning. There’s more - much more: a dangerous shifting of the balance... Charlie’s friends in more danger than ever... Charlie’s importance as a keeper of the balance becoming ever clearer... a ghostly warhorse brought back from the dead... a powerful wand stolen, destroyed, and transformed... one of Charlie’s friends discovering a troubling new talent... an evil spirit bent on vengeance... a bizarre castle with a hideous history... and another crushing setback in Charlie’s search for his long-lost father... It’s hard to believe all this can fit into one book, just over 410 pages, and those printed in an eye-strain-reducing format!

Astounding as Charlie’s adventures in this book are, they almost seem to work out too easily... ALMOST! After all, someone literally sacrifices their life for someone they care about. And although Billy’s escape from the de Greys comes early enough to spare us much anxiety (perhaps too much), it isn’t an easy escape and neither are the consequences. Plus, the discoveries Charlie and his friends make in this book could generate several more adventures, each of which will, no doubt, be more challenging than the last. So maybe I’m just whining because the fun ended too soon, and I don’t know when the next book is coming out!

Charlie Bone and the Hidden King

Nine hundred years ago, the Red King went into the forest to mourn his wife, and was transformed into a tree. His ten children – five good, five evil – warred among each other, and the good ones moved away into the wide world. Now Bloor’s Academy, a special school built on the site of the Red King’s ruined castle, is bringing the descendents of those ten magical children back together. But the war between good and evil, the battle for control of all the magic, continues.

Caught up in that battle is 12-year-old Charlie Bone, a second-year student at Bloor’s Academy who has the ability to walk into pictures and talk with the people in them. Charlie is plagued by a grandmother and three great-aunts who want him to serve the cause of evil; and by the disappearance of his father, whom Charlie dreams of finding and bringing home again.

Even with a growing circle of “endowed” friends, and some un-endowed ones too, Charlie faces more danger than ever in this adventure. A wicked witch-woman has released a shadow from the portrait of the Red King. An enchanter has stolen the heart of Charlie’s mother, making her forget his long-lost father – and once forgotten, he will be lost forever. A magnetic little boy focuses his terrible powers against Charlie. Charlie’s best friend’s parents turn spy against him. Disappearing animals, reclusive friends, and an old enemy with a terrible new power are against him... and as Charlie begins to learn the truth about his father, he also learns that saving him requires a magic spell performed by ten young descendants of the Red King. Where will he find that many allies in time?

Jenny Nimmo’s spooky, weird, complex fantasy tale rushes to a big finish in this book. Sometimes one misses the slower pace and richer detail of the earlier books, but now that the stage has been fully set and the urgency of the adventure is turned all the way up, it’s hard to complain. This is a totally enjoyable, quirky “Harry Potter alternative” written on about the level of Sorcerer’s Stone, with an easy-to-read format, an appealing hero, appalling villains, and a clever blend of different styles of magic. And now that the adventure seems to have run its course, you’ll want to know at the end of this book: Will Charlie start a new adventure now? [EDIT: At the time I wrote this, I thought it might be the end of the series.]

Charlie Bone and the Beast

One of the few series of books I buy without waiting for the paperback edition is the Children of the Red King series, for the simple reason that they don’t seem likely ever to come out in paperback — at least until the whole series is published. This is already Book 6 of the series, and the first five are still in hardcover. Seeing that my love of buying books exceeds my financial resources, I hope this isn’t going to become one of those “growing trends.”

At the end of Charlie Bone and the Hidden King, I was prepared for the possibility that the series would end there. Now it looks like it could go on for a while longer. Author Nimmo, who is English by birth and Welsh by marriage, doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave behind her strange, unnamed kingdom that seems to be somewhere between England and Wales. It is a kingdom where many descendants from the semi-mythical Red King are “endowed” with magical powers. But because of a schism between the Red King’s ten children, those same descendants remain divided between good and evil, between using their powers to help people and using them to control people.

Charlie Bone is the epitome of the type who want to help people, and he has gotten very good at it. His power has grown, and I’m not just speaking of his endowment (which is the ability to travel into pictures and speak with the people in them), but also and especially of his influence over the balance between good and evil, his ability to get things done through cooperation with others, and his effectiveness at saving people with the help of his friends.

Like Harry Potter, Charlie goes to a school where some emphasis is put on the training of the endowed. Unlike Harry’s story, Charlie’s unfolds at a slower pace than one book per year. I believe that, as of this sixth book, Charlie is still in his [second or] third year at Bloor’s Academy, which is run by a family of villains who are increasingly determined to destroy Charlie, because he increasingly threatens their plans. In this they have considerable help from members of Charlie’s family, including his Grandma Bone and her three evil sisters, one of whom is Matron at Bloor’s (the American equivalent would be “dorm mother”).

But now the balance has swung a bit in Charlie’s favor. He has found his long-missing father and freed him from the Bloors’ mental enslavement. He has won over another endowed student to his side — Asa Pike, his erstwhile enemy, who turns into a hairy beast at night. And he has contacts with more than one child who has kept her endowment secret from the Bloors. So what do the Bloors do to fight back? They make a deal with an evil man who has power over the sea, asking Lord Grimwald to drown Charlie’s parents while they are on a second-honeymoon cruise. They set Lord Grimwald’s son, a “drowner” named Dagbert Endless, the task of isolating Charlie from his friends and, if possible, destroying him. And they have Asa cooped up somewhere, with a plan to bring him back over to their side.

Charlie is up against all this and more in this book. He is cornered by a deadly trio of endowed children. He is menaced by stone figures that walk and kill on command. One of his most critical allies loses his power, and two others are distracted by their sudden discovery of girls. He is torn between hoping that a mysterious Red Knight may be the Red King himself, and fearing that it may be an impostor planning to obtain a fearsome weapon. And the secret the Bloors don’t want him to know is beginning to take shape behind it all.

Like all the other Charlie Bone stories, and even more than some of them, this book full of strange revelations, weird patterns, complex cross-agendas, and colorful characters leaves you hoping and expecting for even bigger thrills to come.

EDIT: Book Seven of Children of the Red King, titled Charlie Bone and the Shadow, is coming out in September.

The Magician Trilogy
by Jenny Nimmo
Age 11+

The Snow Spider

This first book in The Magician Trilogy introduces Gwyn Griffiths, an ordinary Welsh farm-boy who is about to begin an extraordinary adventure. On his ninth birthday his grandmother, Nain, gives him five strange gifts which, she claims, have been handed down through generations of her family, going back to the legendary Welsh magician Gwydion. Nain hopes that her own Gwydion Gwyn will turn out to be a magician too. She is not disappointed.

Gwyn’s five gifts include a stick of seaweed, a silver locket, a wooden flute, a badly damaged toy horse, and a yellow scarf. Gwyn is most surprised by the scarf, which was last seen around the neck of his sister Bethan, who walked out into a rainy night four years before and was never seen again. But it is the horse he really needs to look out for, because in it is trapped an evil spirit that must never be set free.

Gwyn gives the other four gifts to the wind, as Nain tells him to do. What he gets in return are a silver spider that shows him scenes from another world in her mirrorlike web; a silver flute that enables him to hear sounds from that world as well; an encounter with an icy-cold spaceship; and a visit with a girl who is remarkably like his missing sister, only paler, colder, and not a day older than Bethan was when she disappeared.

Much of this book is the moving story about how this unearthly girl’s visit heals a deep wound in Gwyn’s family. But another major part is about the toll magic takes on Gwyn’s social life, and the danger that results when he makes his first, inevitable, magical mistakes.

All by itself this is a very fine story, though it imbibes enough of the traditional lore of Welsh magic to merit a mild “occult content” warning. But just you wait: the trilogy gets better and better!

Emlyn's Moon

Gwyn Griffiths doesn’t know why, but he has been brought up to hate and shun a cousin his own age, who lives in the same town and goes to the same school. It has something to do with the cousin’s decision to stay with his father when the boy’s mother, Gwyn’s aunt, ran away a couple years ago. Again it has something to do with his belief that “something bad happened” in the deconsecrated chapel where Emlyn Llewellyn and his father live.

So Gwyn is not pleased to find out that Nia, younger sister of his best friend Alun Lloyd, has taken an interest in Emlyn and his father. Both his family and hers try everything in their power to discourage her from visiting the Llewellyns. But she is mysteriously drawn toward them. Perhaps this is somehow connected with the fact that only Nia, of all Gwyn’s friends, really believes that he is a magician, and doesn’t mind.

With all her heart, Nia wants to get to the bottom of the mystery behind Emlyn and his belief that his mother “lives in the moon.” And she wants to find a way to change the enmity between Emlyn and his cousin Gwyn to friendship. This task becomes especially urgent when the icy-cold children from another planet, who once stole Gwyn’s sister away, come back to lure Emlyn out of his sad, lonely life.

The dual point-of-view of Gwyn and Nia works well in this second book of The Magician Trilogy, which gathers up a combination of otherworldly menace with some traditional Welsh magic lore (mild occult content warning), and builds them to a climax of creepy intensity. The solitary farm boy, with the additional layer of loneliness that comes with being a magician, makes an interesting counterpoint to the middle of seven children, whose life bustles with interesting people and bursts with all manner of mischief. You will feel for both of them, even when their behavior makes you squirm (especially Nia’s). And you will end up primed to go with the final book of the trilogy, The Chestnut Soldier.

The Chestnut Soldier

I was in the backseat of my pastor’s car, riding home from a game of mini-golf, when the boy on the other side of the backseat told me very enthusiastically about this book. Sometimes I think it would be interesting to be in my pastor’s place, listening to two kids (roughly 25 years apart in age) talking like equals about a shared interest. Anyway, once I knew this book was out, I went and got it.

It is the third book of The Magician Trilogy, which also includes The Snow Spider and Emlyn’s Moon, from the Wales-based author of the Children of the Red King series (featuring Charlie Bone). And unlike Charlie Bone, Gwyn Griffiths has all his magical adventures right there in present-day Wales — albeit a Wales in which that country’s ancient legends of magic are true.

One of those legends is about to replay itself in Gwyn’s small town of Pendewi, where his best friend Alun Lloyd lives next door to the butcher shop his father runs. When a handsome cousin with a mysterious war wound comes to stay with the Lloyd family, he brings with him mystery, menace, and a spirit of romantic rivalry that divides the three Lloyd sisters against each other. The menace aspect builds rapidly, especially after Gwyn makes a magical mistake that results in Cousin Evan being possessed by an ancient evil, the spirit of an angry prince.

Gwyn’s choices, and those of his friend’s sister Nia, become increasingly desperate as he makes mistake after mistake, discouraged in part by the magic’s stunting effect on his physical growth. The real sign of growth will be seen if Gwyn can save — rather than destroy — both the prince and the soldier.

In a way, it is sad to see a fine series like this come to an end (occult content warning notwithstanding). But one interesting thing about it is how seriously The Magician Trilogy presents the “downside” of magic: its difficulty, its dangerousness, its somewhat unforgiving nature, and the toll it takes on a boy who, by the end, wants nothing more than to give magic up for good. This is magic with a certain spiritual aspect, but not religious magic; it is a magic driven by the spirits of folk-tale characters, and bound to their fate. And in the long run, the fate Gwyn chooses for himself is that of an ordinary boy.

EDIT: Jenny Nimmo is also the author of the Box Boys quartet, the Delilah trilogy, and several stand-alone novels, including The Bronze Trumpeter, Ultramarine, Rainbow and Mr. Zed, Griffin's Castle, The Rinaldi Ring, Milo's Wolves, and Secret Creatures.

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