Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Lady Friday
by Garth Nix
Recommended Age: 12+

The fifth book in the "Keys to the Kingdom" series brings Arthur Penhaligon one step closer to claiming the seven keys to the House, and the seven parts of the Will of the Architect - which is to say, this fictional universe's creator. But each time Arthur uses the power of the keys, he also comes closer to becoming a full-fledged Denizen of the House. Once he completes that transformation, he will be unable to go back to his family and his home on Earth.

Arthur needs the keys to survive the many dangers of the house, especially as he goes after each of the seven unfaithful stewards of the House - the previous holders of the keys - each of whom proves a tougher opponent than the last. Even with four parts of the will jingling from his belt, Arthur has a tough road ahead of him as his mission pits him against the increasingly desperate "Morrow Days." Plus, since his last adventure, he must also race against a competing claim to be the Rightful Heir: the Piper, who has invaded the House with a huge army and terrible powers at his command.

In this phase of the story, Arthur continues to penetrate deeper into the mysteries of the House while, at the same time, fighting his way towards the top of its structure. He has taken control of the Lower House, the Far Reaches, the Border Sea, and the Army of the Architect; but now he has to tackle the Middle House, which is like a vast, strange world unto itself. He has beaten powerful sorcerers who represented the deadly sins of sloth, greed, gluttony, and anger; but neither he nor, perhaps, you can guess which vice Lady Friday will represent, or what ghastly form it will take in her abuse of the powers lent her by the Architect. And though Arthur doesn't know it, Lady Friday has an extra-special bargaining chip - or maybe bait for a trap - in her favor.

Reading the first four books in this series is seriously required before you read this book. This is too rich and complex a fantasy world simply to plunge into it. Even the first book is quite a plunge, as I recall. But this far in, the series continues to reward hungry minds with new and strange-tasting treats. Try to imagine a world whose denizens are immortal, ageless, practically indestructible; where everyone can instantly tell you his exact rank in a byzantine hierarchy reaching into the millions; where each demesne of the House is defended by superior denizens designated as Dawn, Noon, and Dusk; where you can travel absolutely anywhere, either by walking up the Improbable Stair (which appears out of nowhere) or by jumping into a circle of seven grandfather clocks set to just the right time; where children lured from earth have a way of never growing up; where Paper Pushers patrol a canal of "textually charged" water that flows uphill; and where every inch of territory is contested between shifting coalitions of strange armies, including Gilded Youths (who are one step up from wind-up soldiers) to Winged Servants of the Night (who speak in signs and have names like One Who Survived the Darkness).

Here there are Internal Auditors who wield pens that can kill; telephone operators who can melt your phone if you don't stay off the line; necklaces of words written on your skin that can strangle you if you don't obey; and a chilling type of drug trade that drives Lady Friday, the greatest pusher and addict of all, to destroy countless mortal lives and even, if necessary, the House itself. If she was Arthur's only problem, he would have a lot on his hands. But Superior Saturday and the Piper have both invaded the Middle House, menacing Arthur, his friends, and each other in a struggle to possess the Fifth Key. So even though it may mean losing everything he is fighting for, Arthur will be pushed to use his powers. And you will be pushed by this book's swift conclusion to plunge straight into the sixth book, Superior Saturday.

The Commodore
by Patrick O'Brian
Recommended Age: 14+

This is the 17th book of 20 about the daring British naval captain Jack Aubrey and his friend, naturalist, physician, and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin. And although it takes its title from a development in Jack's career - being put in command of a squadron, which entitles him to dress like an admiral - I find the narrative increasingly tilting towards Stephen's point of view.

Commanded to attack the slave trade off the Atlantic coast of Africa, and to make plenty of noise doing so, Jack succeeds brilliantly in exploit after exploit. These schemes culminate in a thrilling battle against a French squadron sent to Ireland in hope of stirring up a rebellion against England. So yes, this book has plenty of extroverted naval adventure to keep a sea dog like you enthralled, and most of it is instigated by Jack Aubrey. Who better?

Nevertheless, the better part of this novel concerns Stephen's inner life. Though on the outside he may seem a cold fish, interested mainly in medicine and birds, on the inside it's another story. His turbulent home life is constantly on his mind, from landfall in England at the beginning of the book to ditto in Ireland at the end. In the first instance he learns that his fascinating, mystifying wife Diana has disappeared, leaving their three-year-old, autistic daughter in the care of the almost equally fascinating Mrs. Oakes. In the last instance he learns what has become of Diana - lips sealed - giving rise to a final sentence that must be shattering to any fan of the series who isn't aware of the three further books.

The main thread of the plot, as I say, is spun from Stephen's inner life, and hangs between these two events. Meanwhile, some marvelous things are tied into it: a child's seemingly magical transformation; a desperate flight to elude the grasp of a highly-placed French spy; a canny counterintelligence mission carried out from Freetown, Sierra Leone, of all places; the first distant thundering of a new love affair in Stephen's life; reflections on aging and addiction; and a nearly fatal bout of the yellow fever, described in chilling detail. And if another name for this dread disease, "the yellow jack," raises images of an especially unwanted shade of admiral's flag, you may sense the dread suggested by the next title in this series: The Yellow Admiral.

Together with the awareness that the series is nearing its end, you may feel your heart squeezed a bit as you read this book's ending. Can such a marvelous, monumental cycle be nearly over? Can we say farewell to such beloved characters who seem so very present and alive? Must we leave this convincing and enveloping world of historical fiction, and go back to the far less satisfying fictions that entangle us in our every-day world? Alas yes; but, thank God, not yet!

The Titan's Curse
by Rick Riordan
Recommended Age: 12+

Book Three of Percy Jackson and the Olympians had me laughing already at the Table of Contents. I seem to recall Books One and Two doing the same thing. How many books have chapter titles like "The Vice Principal Gets a Missile Launcher"?

I am glad to report that the book lives up to the promise of its T.O.C. It offers pleasures galore, from an eighth-grade demigod needing to be dropped off by his Mom before battling a monster to an ominous discovery about a sweet little boy who has just become Percy's worst enemy. Narrated by its irrepressible young hero, it is jammed with references to Greco-Roman myth updated to fit a present-day context. The result is a steady flow of wry humor, multi-layered gags, fast-paced action, breathtaking dangers, shattering losses, gripping tension, and moments of eerie beauty - often combined in the most unexpected ways.

Joined by his satyr friend Grover, fellow Camp Half-Blood hero Thalia, and two of Artemis' huntresses, Percy goes on - like, duh - another quest. This time, however, it's an especially complicated quest, with more than one goal in mind. First, the team has to rescue the goddess Artemis herself, who has somehow been captured. Second, they have to catch some kind of monster which the Titans - eternal enemies of the Olympian gods - want to use to destroy Mount Olympus. Third, unofficially, Percy wants to rescue his friend Annabeth, who is in serious trouble.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that all these problems are connected, and evil teen Luke - a former camper who has gone over to the other side - is involved. Also unsurprisingly, Percy's quest is hounded by complications. A prophecy says that either he or Thalia will make a decision, by his or her sixteenth birthday, that will either save or destroy Olympus. Though her sixteenth birthday is only days away, he still has two years to be a threat to the gods, and some of them would just as soon put the threat out of the way. What is a poor son of Poseidon to do when he has Olympians gunning for him on one side, Titans on the other, and a dozen indestructible warriors behind him who will not stop chasing him until they kill him?

I know a kid who loves mythology and stories related to it. He endlessly cajoled me to buy this book (even - gasp! - before it came out in paperback) so that he could read my copy after me. I held my ground, so he gave up waiting for me and has already read the fourth book in the series, The Battle of the Labyrinth. Maybe you're a kid like that, or maybe you know one. Or maybe you have no particular interest in myths, but you just like books that are really fun to read. Take a peek at this book's table of contents and see if it doesn't promise to delight you or someone you know. I'll bet it does, and I'll vouch for the rest of the book fulfilling that promise.

The Mysterious Benedict Society
by Trenton Lee Stewart
Recommended Age: 11+

The promotional blurbs for this book compare it favorably to the work of J. K. Rowling, Roald Dahl, Blue Balliett, and Lemony Snicket. That combination of names, together with the cover art by Carson Ellis, intrigued me enough to buy the book. But within the first few pages it outstripped all my expectations. Attention! I hereby officially anoint this book my "highest recommendation of the year."

Yes, I know there's a lot of year left at this writing. Trust me, if I read anything that makes me change my mind between now and Christmas, I will be very, very happy. Why? Because it would have to be a very, very enjoyable book to give me as much pleasure as this children's novel by an Arkansas-based author whose only previous book (Flood Summer) is for adults.

Why do I like this book so much? Because, for starters, it has a hero who goes right to my heart. Reynie Muldoon lives in an orphanage. And his trouble isn't that it's a particularly nasty orphanage, but that he simply doesn't fit in with the other kids. Reynie, though he is too modest to say so himself, is a gifted child. When his beloved tutor, Ms. Perumal, spots an advertisement inviting gifted children to try out for "special opportunities," she pushes him to take the test. It turns out to be a very odd test that only Reynie and three other kids pass, and you couldn't imagine three kids more different from Reynie and each other. Clearly, if they all passed the same test, it must be an odd test indeed - one whose nature the children only slowly come to understand.

Who are these other kids? (Why is this review starting to feel like a test?) First there is Kate, a daring, active girl who ran away to the circus at an early age. Then there is Sticky, a highly intelligent but insecure runaway. Finally, there is Constance who, whatever her gift may be, has a huge problem with authority. These four widely different children, who have only just met each other, must now trust each other in a dangerous, secret mission that could determine the fate of the world.

What is their mission? To infiltrate an exclusive, fortress-like school called the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened - LIVE for short; which, incidentally, is EVIL spelled backwards. Someone on the island has been sending thought signals into people's minds, creating a worldwide state of emergency and preparing for an unknown (but most likely terrible) Thing to Come. The children have to find out about it and, if possible, stop it. But it won't be easy. It isn't just that adult agents have failed; but no adult agent who has gone to investigate the island school has ever returned.

That it is a dangerous mission, there can be no doubt. But the bit that makes this story so delightful to read is the quirkiness of the villain, the hyper-imaginative strangeness of the little world he has built around himself, and the gradual way the awesome scope of his evil becomes known. That and the plucky heroism of the kids, whose friendship and courage are put to a profound test. Mind-tickling puzzles, rib-tickling gags, audacious capers and torturous inner conflicts combine in a unique book that brilliantly entertains, provokes thought, and moves the emotions at the same time.

I plan to keep a sharp-lookout for the sequel: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey.

1 comment:

foreather said...

I couldn't agree more. What an excellent book!