Sunday, March 2, 2008

P. B. Kerr

My review of the third book in this Children of the Lamp series was just posted on MuggleNet this morning. Excellent timing!

The Akhenaten Adventure
by P. B. Kerr
Recommended Age: 12+

Philippa and John Gaunt are not your ordinary, twelve-year-old twins. For one thing, they are totally different from each other: John is tall and dark and a magnet for trouble; Philippa is short and red-headed, with glasses and a cool, analytical mind. Nevertheless, they are so close to each other that they can almost read each other’s minds.

Besides that, they are also a couple of the richest kids in New York City, with an investment banker father and a glamorous, charity-ball-giving mother. They have two incredibly intelligent dogs, named Alan and Neil. They are extremely fit, but also claustrophobic. And already at age twelve, they need to have their wisdom teeth removed.

Only after this operation do they start to learn exactly how different they are. It starts when the cleaning lady wishes, in Philippa’s hearing, that she would win the lottery. Philippa feels power going out of her...and the next day, the cleaning lady wins $33 million! Other odd things happen, but it isn’t until the twins go to spend the summer with their Uncle Nimrod (their mother’s estranged brother) that they learn who they really are: Djinn.

I will leave it to the book to explain to you what Djinn are, where they come from, and what their powers are. Let it be enough to say that they are creatures of fire who can grant wishes, and who control the good and bad luck of the whole world. There are six tribes of Djinn – three of them good, and three of them evil. And if the balance of luck in the world (i.e., the power of the good and bad tribes) swings too far toward the bad, it could mean disaster for all mankind. This is what Nimrod, John, and Philippa must stop in their first adventure together, which takes them to the dust and heat of Egypt, a race against evil Djinn to find artifacts from a long-lost tomb, a feud against a leading villain named Iblis, and finally, a confrontation with one of the evilest spirits known to Djinnkind.

It is a story filled with amazing imagery, historical detail, fascinating background lore, high adventure, and quirky humor. The heroes are good-natured, all-American kids who, at the same time, become increasingly engaged in ancient mysteries, weird happenings, deadly dangers, and clever plots. There is a one-armed butler with a mouth full of complaints and a heart of gold; an elderly Djinn who looks like a holy man from India, but who talks with an Irish accent; and other equally wacky and wonderful characters and situations.

An “occult content advisory” should go out, however. The Djinn lore in this book (based on the classic “Arabian Nights” stories) involves a unique variant of Judeo-Christian and Muslim cosmology, which includes angels, demons, and humans as well as good and bad Djinn, and the possibility of any one of these enslaving the others. This brings the world of Children of the Lamp much closer to the classic definition of “magic” than the Harry Potter series. While, in my opinion, this book is no more than a fantasy (like an Arabian Nights tale translated into modern times), parents should make their own judgment about whether these themes are appropriate for their children.

The author of this book is known as Philip Kerr to the readers of his adult fiction. Kerr wrote this young-readers’ fantasy for, and with the help of, his own kids. He reportedly wanted to encourage them to spend more time reading. To judge by how much fun it is to read this book, I would bet that he succeeded. For a second Children of the Lamp adventure, uncork The Blue Djinn of Babylon.

The Blue Djinn of Babylon
by P.B. Kerr
Recommended Age: 12+

John and Philippa Gaunt are not just a couple of filthy-rich, twelve-year-old twins. They are also Djinn -- beings who can live hundreds of years, who are made of a “subtle kind of fire,” and who have power to grant wishes and to effect the luck of the world. Like Harry Potter, they can do amazing things. Unlike Harry, each of them only needs to remember one magic word (Philippa’s focus word is particularly addictive: FABULONGOSHOOMARVELISHLYWONDERPIPICAL! Can you say that five times fast?)

Unlike her brother, Philippa takes an interest in a Djinn dice game called Djinnverso. (The book actually contains rules for the game, which might rescue eight-sided dice from being eternally associated with Dungeons and Dragons.) Philippa joins in a big Djinnverso tournament, but when she is framed for cheating, her promising career as a Djinnverso player is cut cruelly short. She hopes to redeem herself by recovering a valuable book that was stolen from the Blue Djinn of Babylon – the hard-hearted, female judge who arbitrates disputes between good and evil Djinn, by virtue of being “beyond good and evil.” But this escapade turns out to be a trap. The Blue Djinn herself was behind it, with her plans to install Philippa as her successor in a terrible underground palace whose very air is slowly sucking the goodness out of Philippa’s character.

No one has a chance of saving Philippa from this fate – no one except John. Because he is her twin, John might be able to sneak past the Blue Djinn’s defenses. But for him, this means a long and dangerous journey across the lawless desert of Iraq, through a series of ancient and nerve-shattering challenges, and into the clutches of not one, but two horrible monsters who haunt the underground world where the Blue Djinn holds court. Can John save his sister before she forgets who she is? Ooooh, wouldn’t you like to know?

Once again, I owe it to the vigilant parents out there to issue an “occult content advisory.” The Djinn magic in this series involves some spiritual forces. Angels and demons may come into play. Explanations of Djinn lore, drawn apparently from the Arabian Nights, includes distorted versions of stories from the Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions. (For example, King Solomon is depicted as a sorcerer who wrote a Grimoire explaining how to bind Djinn.) Also, the book takes liberties with historical and biblical characters; for example, it claims that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered King Solomon, though in fact they lived several centuries apart. And finally, the concept of a character existing “beyond good and evil” may be very disturbing or perplexing to many people’s religious views. Parents, I advise you to take the time to read this book and decide for yourself whether it is harmless fantasy, or something inappropriate for your kids.

This is P. B. Kerr’s second novel for children, though adult novelist Philip Kerr (of the Berlin Noir trilogy, etc.) is the same person. I, for one, have enjoyed this series, and I am interested in seeing what happens next to the Gaunt twins.

The Cobra King of Kathmandu
by P.B. Kerr
Recommended Age: Age: 12+

By one of those funny coincidences that frequently befall readers of YA fantasy series, I put my hands on this third book in The Children of the Lamp series at the same time as The Hour of the Cobra, the second book in an equally fun time-travel series. So it happened that I read two "cobra" books in a row, and lived to tell the tale.

If you have followed The Children of the Lamp so far, you already know that John and Philippa Gaunt are twins from New York City. Being twins is the least unusual thing about them. They are brighter than average, physically fitter than average, and they had their wisdom teeth out at a very early age. This last item is a "red flag" for those who know about such things. For the Gaunt children also happen to be Djinn.

Yes, Djinn. You know, genies. Spirits of fire. Members of a tribe of good djinn that bring good luck to human beings, at last to balance the bad luck brought by their evil cousins.

But they are also, you know, kids. So they do stupid things now and then. They don't always get along like mature adults should. And they don't have the full power of grown-up Djinn, especially in cold weather. All these facts lead them into big trouble when a desperate friend - if the word "friend" can really describe someone as ambivalent as Dybbuk Sachertorte - calls on the twins for help. A tiny little theft that no one really noticed - just a piece of art tucked away in a U.S. military museum - has turned into a price on Dybbuk's head. Now his accomplices are dead and a group of killers armed with deadly cobras are after him and a picture he doesn't even understand.

The Gaunt twins agree to help Dybbuk get to the bottom of all this. First, with the aid of a friendly angel, they cover up their absence at home. Then they travel by whirlwind to England, hoping to meet up with their resourceful Uncle Nimrod. Instead, they find out that Nimrod and his friend, elderly Djinn Mr. Rakshasas, have gone abroad on unspecified business. The children follow a trail of clues leading to a monastery in northern India, where a bizarre sect funds its operations by giving deliberately bad advice to computer users who call for technical support.

The treasure they seek must not fall into the wrong hands...but the children, along with their uncle's butler Groanin, hardly expect to fall into the wrong hands themselves. This they do, however - in spite of some really cool disguises. The seemingly friendly loonies of the religious sect turn out to be, after all, a fiendish cult that holds incredible dangers for Djinnkind, and for the children, Uncle Nimrod, and Mr. Rakshasas especially. But even if they survive this peril, they can hardly be prepared for the shock that awaits them at home.

Fans of Harry Potter should run to pick up this brilliant new series, which continues now into a fourth book: Day of the Djinn Warriors. With its fascinating alternative to the magic of witches and wizards, the good-natured appeal of its main characters, the mystery and menace surrounding some of their kind, and its all-around rollicking good fun, it is just the thing to burn away the post-Deathly Hallows blues.

EDIT: I can't believe I just noticed that the titles in this series are coming out in ABC order. Does that mean there could be up to 26 installments? Dude!

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