Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Even More Reviews

The Warrior Heir
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Age: 14+

I love to read aloud. Some books positively demand to be read aloud. My parents know this, and their response to my need to read aloud to them most often ranges between resigned sufferance and grasping at any excuse to escape. But when, during a holiday weekend at their house, I started reading The Warrior Heir to them, I was astonished at their response. They hardly interrupted me at all. When I paused to check how they were holding up, they seemed focused on the story. And when I reached the end of each chapter, they urged me to read on. I might have asked what had become of my real parents, but there was no need. It was obvious that some wizard had put a spell on them; and that wizard's name was Cinda Williams Chima.

I didn't have time to read this whole book to my folks, and I sensed their disappointment about this. So I was happy to send them my copies of the first two books in this trilogy, as soon as I was done reading them. That didn't take long. They are hard to put down.

This book introduces you to Jack Swift, an 11th grader from the small college town of Trinity, Ohio. At first there doesn't seem to be much special about him. He isn't an orphan; his parents, though divorced, are both living. The only scar he has comes from a heart operation that saved his life when he was a baby; he still takes medicine for his heart every day. Other than that, he's an ordinary American teenager who plays soccer, chases girls, hangs out with his friends Will and Fitch, and deals with bullies at school. At least, he remains ordinary until the day he forgets to take his medicine. The day something funny happens at soccer tryouts. The day strange forces begin hunting for Jack, hunting with a purpose he could never have imagined.

Jack's easy-come, easy-go Aunt Linda has something to do with all this. So do the heart surgeon who has checked in on him all his life, the white-bearded handyman who lives above the garage, and a surprising number of neighbors on Jack's Street. It turns out a lot of people in Jack's life are in on his secret and sworn to protect it. But it is the new vice-principal of Jack's high school, the dangerous-looking Mr. Hastings, whose after-school training regimen becomes the key to Jack's survival.

For there are things in the world unknown to Jack and his friends. There are enchanters, seers, and sorcerers, whose special abilities grow out of a stone inside their bodies, stones they have been born with since their ancestors made a pact to rob a sleeping dragon. There are wizards, with a broader range of terrifying powers and the will to force all the other "weirlind" to serve them. And finally there is Jack, one of the last of his kind: a warrior. The wizards will use him to fight a ritualized battle in an arena: a battle to shift the balance of power between the rival wizard houses of the White Rose and the Red Rose; a battle, need I add, to the death.

Jack's swift journey takes him and his friends to a terrifying encounter in a graveyard, a nearly fatal visit to London, and a climactic battle in the mountainous north of England. He learns some of what it means to be both a wizard and a warrior. He picks up a sword of power and a custom-fit book of magic. He wrestles with a century-old murder mystery. He sees his friends used against him as hostages. He faces betrayal, heartbreak, and a trial for his life. And in order to help Hastings change the unjust ways the wizards have forced on the other weir, Jack must also face a high probability of death in battle against the last person in the world he would ever hurt.

The Warrior Heir is the first young-adult novel by a sometime nutrition columnist for the Cleveland, Ohio, Plain Dealer. And yes, it is also the beginning of Chima's first fantasy trilogy, which is now complete. The companion books are The Wizard Heir and The Dragon Heir. If you find them as captivating as my family and I do, you may enjoy knowing that a second trilogy is in the works. You can visit the author's website ( for more information.

The Wizard Heir
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Age: 14+

If you have read the first book in this trilogy, The Warrior Heir - which I highly recommend - you will already know a few things as you begin this second book. You will know, for example, that the Weir are folks who are born with a magical stone inside them, a stone that gives them certain powers, depending on whether they are sorcerers, seers, enchanters, or warriors. The Anaweir, like the Muggles of Harry Potterdom, are everybody else - and they don't even know that such people exist.

The most powerful of the weirlind are the wizards, who for hundreds of years have ruled over the Anawizard Weir (enchanters, warriors, etc.) as masters over slaves. The wizards are strong, but their strength is divided by mutual enmity. Two main parties, the White Rose and the Red Rose, have been in conflict for many generations. The result has been a perpetual wrangling for power over all the magic in the world, and innocent people are often caught in the crossfire.

Joseph McCauley - Seph to his friends - seems innocent enough. He doesn't know who his real parents were. Raised by a foster-mother with a sorcerer's knack for material-magic, he has only the sketchiest possible notions of the world of weir or his place in it. He has the power of a wizard, but after spending his childhood trying to suppress it, he finds it blazing out of his control. Little accidents - and not-so-little ones - keep him moving from one private school to another. Finally, it seems that only one place will take him. It isn't exactly St. Brutus's Secure School for Incurably Criminal Boys, but it's close to it.

Actually, the Havens is much worse. It takes in students that other schools can't control, and straightens them out double-quick. But the way it does this isn't very nice. The headmaster, Dr. Gregory Leicester - pronounced like "Lester," for all you non-Brits out there - applies appalling methods to break the hard cases. Methods like sending them terrifying nightmares until they bend to his will. And occasionally, methods like murder.

A few of Leicester's students and alumni are special. Endowed with wizard powers, they receive special training and privileges. They live in their own building, follow their own course of study, and serve as Leicester's small, private army of muscle and magic. Some of them aren't so willing, however. It seems Leicester has a power over them that goes beyond nightmares. Such a power, indeed, that once they join him, they can only escape by death. He drinks their powers as a vampire drains blood from his victims; and if he dies, they die.

Now wizards don't bat an eye over enslaving other folk, but enslaving other wizards is beyond bounds even for them. If Seph could get word out on what Leicester is doing, the big meanie would be in deep trouble. But Seph can't get word out. He can't escape. And it is only a matter of time before Leicester wears down his resistance and forces Seph to join him.

A major part of this book is a grim account of the pressure Leicester puts on Seph, and his gradual but inevitable loss of hope. Then, suddenly, in one of the most suspenseful scenes young-adult fantasy has ever known, the tables are turned and Seph begins a new and even more exciting adventure.

The threat of Leicester and his Alumni is not yet entirely behind Seph. They are coming for him, and the safe refuge of Trinity, Ohio, can't shield him from them forever. Even with new friends and a taste of romantic love, Seph's danger is not yet over. For no sooner does he learn who his parents are than he must risk everything to save them, together with all his new friends - save them from Leicester's final plan. For an upcoming Council could change the balance of power among the weir forever, either to make things better for everyone, or to make them unimaginably worse. Guess which way Leicester plans to steer things.

Though this trilogy is her first foray into YA novels, and though second novels (in or out of a trilogy) can often be a let-down after a promising start, Chima continues to weave a tight, strong fantasy, and she doesn't drop a thread. She has crafted a fresh, compelling fantasy world and stocked it with fascinating characters, powerful conflicts, bizarre dangers, creepy forebodings, loves and hates and pities and surprises galore. Once you start reading The Warrior Heir, it's almost certain that you will read this book as well. And once you read The Wizard Heir, the concluding book of the trilogy, titled The Dragon Heir, will surely be on your to-do list.

Finn MacCool and the Small Men of Deeds
by Pat O'Shea
Recommended Age: 9+

Even after reading this book, I am somewhat surprised to find it packaged as a reader for small children. Slender, richly illustrated (by Stephen Lavis, in the edition I have), and laid out in big, square pages, it looks like a bedtime story, or a book for Read-Aloud Time in a first-grade classroom. In a lot of ways this makes perfect sense, since it is a light-spirited fairy tale. What's surprising is the level of sophistication the author trusts children to have, even at that age level. For this is a book that trusts children to appreciate wit and irony, and that throws vocabulary-building terms at them as carelessly as its hero throws himself into an adventure.

Finn MacCool is a hero out of Irish folklore. The Irish spelling of his name, according to the author's note, is Fionn MacCumaill, which serves to make the non-Irish-speaking reader (like me) feel humble, if not downright helpless, when it comes to pronouncing Irish names like "Fianna" and "Oisín," "Caelte" and so on. Fortunately there aren't many of these in the book. And the sheer delight of the story and its telling are such that you soon forget to worry about them.

Here is the tale of a warrior chieftain who dismisses his troop one day while lying down with a headache. Nevertheless he accepts a giant's plea to help a giant King and Queen prevent their third child from being stolen on his birth night, like the first two. Accompanied only by eight strange dwarves who offer their services to him along the way, Finn MacCool travels to an island where everything is bigger than life. Aided by the small men's various powers, he outwits a terrible witch and reunites a royal family. And back in our world, little eyes - Irish and otherwise - are dancing with pleasure at the magic, the humor, and the warmth of the tale. This could, in fact, be a favorite book for many children, if they but heard it while sitting cross-legged on a classroom floor, or nestling in Grandma's warm lap, or leaning against a sunlit window and listening to their own voice read aloud.

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