Monday, September 28, 2009


The Stones of Green Knowe
by L. M. Boston
Recommended Ages: 10+

I discovered this sixth and final book in the Green Knowe series several years after reading the first five. Yet in no time, I felt comfortably at home in Lucy Maria Boston's fantasy world based on the centuries-old manor house she owned and loved. Her writing is as lean and sinewy as ever, gripping the senses with taut description and creating a timeless mood.

In this adventure, a twelfth-century squire's son named Roger d'Aulneaux watches with fascination as his father builds the stone house that will, in later ages, be home to Tolly and his grandmother, Toby and Linnet, Alexander, Susan, and Jacob - children who have learned how to meet and play together in spite of the centuries that separate them.

It is Roger who discovers that key to the Green Knowe children's ability to visit their home in other eras. Ancient and overgrown even in his time, the standing stones - or rather, perhaps, sitting stones - look like a pair of child-sized thrones. Roger calls them the King and Queen. Sit on the one and wish, and you can find yourself hundreds of years in the future. Sit on the other, and risk a visit to the past. Aided by these stones, Roger surveys the history of his country home from the Saxon conquest of the Britons to the eighteenth, ninteenth, and twentieth centuries.

Throughout the changes wrought by time, Green Knowe still stands: a matter of pride for a boy who will one day inherit it. But many other things change. The forest recedes. A richness of wild plant and animal life diminishes. Fashion, technology, and ways of life change. In a strangely sad way, the reader may find himself feeling nostalgic for an age long ago, Roger's age of jousting knights. Seen from his point of view, the present modern age looks frightful. And it is in that age that the book ends, with shocking abruptness, on a heartbreaking note that will leave you questioning the way ancient things are preserved.

The Dragon Heir
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Ages: 14+

The sequel to The Warrior Heir and The Wizard Heir wraps up at least the first trilogy about the "weirlind" of Trinity, Ohio. These are the wizards, warriors, enchanters, sorcerers, and seers who have taken refuge in a magical sanctuary where the two main houses of wizards - the Red Rose and the White Rose - cannot enslave them and force them to fight in their age-long war. They are set apart from "anaweir" (non-magical folk like you and me) by a magic stone in their chest, a hereditary organ that draws power from a stone called the Dragonheart hidden in a mountain ghyll in the northern English county of Cumbria.

As this book opens, a young wizard named Jason Haley steals the Dragonheart from under the noses of the Roses and of the wizardly D'Orsay family whose family owns the ghyll. D'Orsay needs the Dragonheart in order to consecrate a new covenant giving him power over all the magical guilds. But first, he needs to retrieve the covenant itself, which has fallen into the hands of a mercenary b*****d named Warren Barber. Barber magically enslaves a pink-sweater-wearing, backstabbing, popular-girl wizard named Leesha Middleton to infiltrate Trinity, get close to Jason, and bring both Jason and the Dragonheart to Warren.

Got all that? I hope so, because I'm just getting warmed up. While Leesha develops genuine feelings for Jason - feelings that could get her killed - another wizardly romance is hitting a rough patch. Freakishly powerful Seph McCauley carries too much of the responsibility for maintaining the security of the sanctuary. The girl he loves, Madison Moss, is an elicitor - think: a sponge that soaks up magic. Ever since she absorbed a hex aimed at Seph, she has been poison to him. Literally. Realizing this, Madison is almost relieved to get called home to take care of her younger sister and brother, who are too much for her flighty mother to handle. Only, she doesn't count on Seph finding the "hex painting" onto which she directed the overflow of evil magic trapped within her. Nor does she realize that the Dragonheart has selected her to play a very special role in the magical war now brewing on the outskirts of Trinity, Ohio.

That might give you just a taste of what's going on in this complex book, though it's hardly a synopsis. I haven't told you what happens when Warren Barber catches Jason on his way to Madison's house. Or the drama that plays out between Madison and the handsome, rich, evil young wizard who covets her ancestral land. Or about Seph's dangerous dabbling in performance-enhancing potions. Or what becomes of all the regular people of Trinity on the eve of the magical war-to-end-all-wars. Or what becomes of Seph's parents, preventing them from lending their powerful aid to the sexy young heroes whose complicated motives and loyalties could as easily become the stuff of soap opera as, in this book, the backdrop for a tale of love, betrayal, courage, and a desperate fight for survival.

I won't conceal from you the fact that I enjoyed this book a bit less than the first two in the trilogy. The Warrior Heir and The Wizard Heir are both relentlessly focused, taut magical thrillers. This book is just as magical and perhaps even more thrilling, but the focus is spread much more widely. I recall one scene in particular when more and more characters walked onstage, adding their remarks until one was apt to forget what the scene was about. As an epic conclusion to the series, it does fine. But its strong points are the parts that zoom in on Madison's and Jason's points of view. If another Trinity trilogy develops (a novel titled The Demon King is on the way), I hope and trust that the author will keep that strong focus throughout.

by Sarah Beth Durst
Recommended Ages: 12+

From the author of Into the Wild and its sequel Out of the Wild comes this novel-sized version of the famous fairy tale "East of the Sun and West of the Moon," also known as Beauty and the Beast, Hans My Hedgehog, and the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. It's a very powerful story, close to the heart of world folklore, so one needn't be surprised to find it expanded to fit a novel. Indeed, Durst isn't the first author to do this. Edith Pattou gave us East. Robin McKinley wrote two versions: Rose Daughter and Beauty. Even C. S. Lewis wrote one: Till We Have Faces.

What does this version have that the others don't have? It has the present-day, strong female voice of young Cassie Dasent. It has a richly detailed portrait of Arctic life in its variety and fragility. It also has a strong current of Inuit spirituality (occult-conscious parents and readers be advised). The bear who claims Cassie as his bride, for example, is a Munaqsri: a magical being who collects the souls of the dying and recycles them into the newborn.

Cassie's husband is a polar bear by profession, but a human by birth. He assumes his human form only at night when he lies beside her in bed. In the darkness of their enchanted ice castle, one mile north of the North Pole, Cassie longs to see his face and know whether she has truly married a monster - especially as she wrestles with confusion over her growing love for Bear, her feelings toward her family, and the meaning of the child growing inside her body. One night she takes matters into her own hands - which is to say, she takes a flashlight. But because of a cruel promise, Bear is taken from her at the very moment she realizes that she truly loves him. And so Cassie sets off on a journey through brutally harsh conditions, passing through pain and despair and cruel hope, in quest of the troll's castle beyond the end of the world where her husband is to be married to the troll princess.

It's a novel about what happens when a real-world girl of today gets caught up in a fairy tale. It's a novel of survival in a broad range of Arctic ecosystems. It's a novel that begins with acknowledgments thanking "the polar bears, arctic foxes, and caribou for their patience and kind words of encouragement." It's a novel whose prologue, all of two pages long, seized me in its firm grip and pulled me all the way through to its swift, fulfilling end. It's a fine work, even for a story whereof many great authors have written competing versions. I thank Sarah and her publicist at Simon & Schuster for sending me not one but two promotional copies of this book. It has my wholehearted recommendation!

Cirque du Freak
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

Does the world of teen lit have room for another vampire saga? It had better. Before Twilight was a gleam in Stephenie Meyer's eye, dozens of Book Trolley visitors were demanding that I read this book and its bevy of sequels. The series has flourished very quickly, with a total of twelve books (arranged in four trilogies) since the year 2000, and an upcoming film titled Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, based on the first trilogy.

Because different editions have been issued with changing titles, a few words need to be said about the title. This book was originally, and officially still is, titled simply Cirque du Freak. In the some editions, and in some lists of titles in the series, it seems to be titled or subtitled A Living Nightmare. The series as a whole is sometimes called Cirque du Freak and, I think more definitively, The Saga of Darren Shan. Each trilogy within the series has its own title, distinct from the series as a whole. The full list of titles runs as follows:
  • Vampire Blood (1st trilogy)
    • Cirque du Freak
    • The Vampire's Assistant
    • Tunnels of Blood
  • Vampire Rites (2nd trilogy)
    • Vampire Mountain
    • Trials of Death
    • The Vampire Prince
  • Vampire War (3rd trilogy)
    • Hunters of the Dusk
    • Allies of the Night
    • Killers of the Dawn
  • Vampire Destiny (4th trilogy)
    • The Lake of Souls
    • Lord of the Shadows
    • Sons of Destiny
Expect a quiz on this later. In the meantime, I've finally decided to take my readers' advice and read this series, so that I can properly hate the movie as befits a fan of the books. Will I be a fan of the books? Even after reading Book 1, it's too early to tell. It doesn't have the erotically charged atmospherics of the Anne Rice vampire novels, or even the teen romance of Stephenie Meyer's ditto. But it does reinvent the vampire legend in a neat way. And from a preteen boys' point of view, it's a pretty cool story. My only comnplaint, at this stage, is that you seem to have to read a whole trilogy to get a book's worth of story. On the other hand, you could say the same thing about the Twilight series - and those books are much longer!

Cirque du Freak purports to be a memoir of one Darren Shan. The fact that the main character shares his name with the author is a bit spooky, to start with; never mind that he tells us, right up front, that it's not his real name. As an English schoolboy, Darren excels at soccer, gets along famously with his parents and his kid sister, and commands the friendship of a troublemaker and bully named Steve Leonard, a.k.a. Steve Leopard. It isn't always easy to sympathize with Darren, because at times he has really bad judgment and his choices are not based on the best motives. But I suppose that makes him all the more believable. This becomes important as the things happening to Darren become increasingly unbelievable.

First, a freak show comes to town. Steve and Darren manage to get tickets and sneak out one night to see the bearded lady, the wolf man, the snake boy, and other creatures both whimsical and gruesome. The highlight of the night, however, is Mr. Crepsley and his trained spider, Madam Octa. It's a highlight for Darren, who loves spiders and is captivated by the deadly Madam Octa and her tricks. Steve has another reason to be excited: he recognizes Mr. Crepsley as a vampire.

After the show, Darren is shocked to overhear Steve begging Crepsley to turn him into a vampire. The latter refuses after tasting Steve's blood, which savors (he says) of an evil soul. A little later, Darren sneaks into Mr. Crepsley's cellar and steals Madam Octa. When a trick goes wrong and Steve's life hangs by a thread, Darren goes back to Mr. Crepsley and begs for help. The vampire agrees, on one condition: Darren must become his half-vampire assistant.

The rest of the book tells the gruesome, suspenseful, and heartbreaking tale of how Darren fakes his own death, bids farewell to his family and his old life, and makes a lifelong enemy of his best friend. And that's only the beginning of twelve books' worth of dark, spooky, vampire adventures for Darren Shan.

This first book reads quickly and seems fast-paced, though only a few real events are spread through it. Darren's foolishness, his agony over Steve's grave condition, his helplessness to comfort his grieving family, and the all-pervading sense of dread will make it an intense experience for young readers. Yet it communicates to them on the level of equals, in direct (and imperfect) language they can understand. And it acknowledges its own spookiness when the narrator himself seems to shiver. Whether I would personally recommend this series to kids I care about, depends on whether I think Darren Shan will turn out to be evil or good. I guess I'll have to read further in the series before I can be sure.

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