Monday, December 31, 2012

Riordan Stroud Wodehouse

The Lost Hero
by Rick Riordan
Recommended Ages: 13+

The "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series is over, but the adventures of the young demigods at Camp Halfblood continue in a series called "Heroes of Olympus," which begins with this book. When Jason wakes up on the bus during a school field trip to the Grand Canyon, he has no memory of who he is or how he got there. This is disturbing news to his best friend Leo and his girlfriend Piper, who both have months worth of memories of their relationship with Jason—but before they can cope with the truth that these memories are false, the three friends must survive an attack by wind spirits sent to destroy them.

You see, all three of these youngsters happen to be demigods—children with a human parent on one side and a Greek or Roman god on the other. I add the words "or Roman" because, for some reason, Jason speaks Latin rather than Greek, and keeps blurting out the names of Roman deities such as Jupiter and Juno, rather than their Greek counterparts Zeus and Hera. It is Hera who has taken Jason's memory; Hera who sends a vision to Annabeth, a veteran halfblood camper, telling her that Jason will be the key to discovering where her boyfriend Percy disappeared to; Hera who sends the campers a terrifying prophecy of what will happen if she, Hera, is not rescued from a new enemy who holds her captive and who will sacrifice her, Hera, in four days' time. Unless the halfblood kids put a stop to it, Hera's sacrifice will be the beginning of a conflict even bigger than the recent Titan War II, threatening the health and well-being of everybody on Earth. And though Hera has heretofore been the least demigod-friendly of the Olympian gods—especially where the kid's divine parent is her husband—she has personally sponsored Jason son-of-Jupiter at Camp Halfblood, claiming that he is the key to bringing together the seven heroes who must save the world.

To start with, however, three heroes must go on a quest to save Hera. Jason, naturally, is to lead the quest. He is joined by Leo, a son of Hephaestus with a knack for building gadgets, fixing things, and—his big secret—handling fire. A rare and dangerous talent, that. Piper, meanwhile, learns that she is a daughter of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty—ironic qualities for a girl who is secretly under orders to betray her friends to the death, if she wants her kidnapped movie-star father to survive. Together with a flying mechanical dragon, a gung-ho satyr (a dude with the horns, hooves, and appetite of a goat), and an occasional leg-up from somebody or other's newfound mom or dad, the three kids make their way across the continental U.S., while each of them separately struggles with a painful secret or a personal mystery. Jason discovers more about who he is and where he's been. Leo begins to get over his mother's fiery death and grows more confident as a monster-slaying hero. And Piper learns to face the danger to her father and to her friends with honor.

The threat they will face, however, is more deadly than any of them could have anticipated. No longer must monsters wait in line to be returned to the world after being destroyed by a demigod; no sooner are they turned into gold dust than they start to re-form again. Mortal villains from the most savage chapters of history are returning to life—fiends like witchy Medea, gold-crazy Midas, and a swordsman who styles himself the Reaper of Men. Clearly, someone has opened the door that separates the world of the living from that of the dead. And that someone is awakening, gathering a terrible army, and recruiting minor deities to betray the gods and sabotage the campers' quest. As their chances of survival shrink to ludicrous littleness, the realization grows that if the kids fail in their quest, the result will be really, really bad.

Cheer up, though! You can't seriously think they fail. There are at least two more books in the series! But nor is the crisis over. Saving Hera may be the easy part. Getting the gods and demigods to work together will be even tougher, now that Zeus (or Jupiter) has closed Olympus. And perhaps even more dangerous is the threat of civil war among the demigods who... Well, let's not give too much away. If you really want to find out what could tear the halfbloods apart, read this book. And then watch this hilarious, action-packed, and surprisingly educational series continue in The Son of Neptune and The Mark of Athena.

The Golem's Eye
by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended Ages: 13+

If a boxed set of Harry Potter were to fall through the looking-glass, what came out the other side might be a lot like the "Bartimaeus Trilogy," of which this is Book 2. The fantasy world in this series is somewhat of a bizarro, backward-land version of Harry's wizarding world, which forms a secret enclave within the present-day world of us ordinary muggles. In Bartimaeus' world, the British empire is openly run by magicians, while the majority of the population—dismissively called "commoners"—toils in a condition not far above slavery. The press and the schools feed them a steady diet of pro-magician propaganda. The scales of justice are rigged in favor of the magicians. The security and police forces keep the people too frightened to rise up, including an elite squad of werewolves known as the Night Police—without even the ironic touch of a silent K. Ever since the magician William Gladstone took over the government in the 1860s and led a wave of conquest across Europe as far as Prague, the world has trembled beneath the jack-boot of British magic. Even the American colonies remain under British power.

But their grip is starting to slip. While the most powerful magicians in the land are busy stepping on each other, climbing the ladder of government service by means of knives stuck in one another's backs, discontent is beginning to stir. And not just discontent: resistance. Kitty Jones, for example, has a resilience to many forms of magical attack. Her resistance cell, led by an elderly art-supply merchant named Pennyfeather, is full of people who are either resilient to magic, or able to see auras of magical power, or gifted in some similar way. Kitty joined up after a magician put the hurt on her best friend Jakob because of an accident with a cricket ball. Now she is starting to worry that the group is taking big risks but achieving nothing. Instead of gathering discontented commoners into their movement, their resistance group carries out small acts of sabotage and burglary that hurt ordinary people more than magicians. They are being hunted as traitors and picked off one by one.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the social divide, who do we find working his ambitious way to the top but a fourteen-year-old magician named John Mandrake—Nathaniel to his friends—which is to say, nobody. Nathaniel's only fear is that the djinni Bartimaeus, who helped him get started in his government career, will come back and reveal his secret birth-name to all. Nevertheless, he finds himself with no choice but to summon Bartimaeus again, since his career as Assistant to the Minister of Internal Affairs will soon end, probably along with his life, unless he gets to the bottom of a series of terrorist attacks. At first Nathaniel confuses the high jinks of Kitty's resistance group with the more serious attacks of a golem, a giant remotely controlled mud-man who has been spreading chaos, death, and (for the beleaguered government) political embarrassment all over London. Without reliable support from anyone in his department—with growing suspicions that a high-level traitor is involved—and with political rivals sabotaging his investigation at every turn, young Mr. Mandrake follows a thread of clues to Prague and back. And though the forces spread against him are more numerous, better armed, and highly organized, he holds his own with the aid of one Bartimaeus, fourth-level djinni.

What Nathaniel/John Mandrake lacks in personal appeal, Bartimaeus makes up. The portions of the story told from his first-person point of view are effervescent with irreverent humor. A natural leader among demons (ranking from afrits and marids down to lowly imps and foliots), Bartimaeus brings a steady flow of smart-mouthed banter to every scene he is in. The entertainment value of his patter is often enhanced by the way it makes Nathaniel squirm, especially in the presence of people he wants to impress. The frequent footnotes, in which the djinni confides further details of his sorcerous background, are comedic highlights. In one of them, Bartimaeus explains the seven levels of reality, of which most humans can only perceive the first and lowest level. He then adds: "For example, there's probably something invisible with lots of tentacles hovering behind your back right NOW."

Eventually, inevitably, the career paths of Kitty and Nathaniel intersect. He suspects her of being one of only two survivors when her resistance cell makes the hideous mistake of plundering Gladstone's tomb. Thanks to this mostly thwarted break-in, a deadly afrit runs amok across London, clothed in Gladstone's skeleton. A magician's staff that once brought Europe to its knees is now at large. Using Jakob as a hostage, Nathaniel must bring Kitty in and recover the staff or his life and career are over. Meanwhile, his every move is being watched by the highest level of government ministers, including the very traitor who controls the golem that nobody but Nathaniel believes in. And when young magician, golem, afrit, hostage, and staff come together in one blind alley at the climax of the tale, Nathaniel's only hope for survival lies in the hands of a mutinous djinni and a resistance fighter who has everything to gain from his death. In Harry Potter's world, the most likely person to save an enemy's bacon would be Harry Potter. But in this instance, the nearest thing to Harry Potter is the one whose bacon needs to be saved—and he is, if you'll pardon my Sanskrit, a son of a bitch.

Will Kitty's human decency overcome her dislike? Will they live to fight another day? Will Robbie spoil everything by answering these questions? Well, if you need a clue, let it be the fact that the trilogy continues with Book 3, Ptolemy's Gate. Plus, just to throw a whiff of irony across the word "trilogy" on the front cover of the book, there's now a fourth book in the sequence: The Ring of Solomon, though this is reportedly a prequel. Other magical tales by the same author include Buried Fire, The Leap, The Last Siege, and Heroes of the Valley. Plus, coming in September 2013 is the first book of his new "Lockwood & Co" series, Screaming Staircase.

by P. G. Wodehouse
Recommended Ages: 12+

This collection of ten short stories, also published under the title He Rather Enjoyed It, is devoted to the escapades of one Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, who also features in 13 other shorts (collected elsewhere) and the novel Love Among the Chickens. Because the stories in this book share a number of characters in common—besides the S.F.U. himself and his oft-exasperated biographer James "Corky" Corcoran—and thanks to other interrelated details, it almost holds together as a novel. That it doesn't quite manage to do so is due mostly to the chaotic nature of its central character and the side-splittingly funny episodes into which his life seems fated to divide itself.

Ukridge and Corky were old public-school chums, before the former got himself expelled. Even well into adulthood, he hasn't lost the knack for getting into trouble—most of the time, dragging one or more of his friends along with him. Big, loud, and full of mesmerizing charisma, he dresses like a slob when he isn't borrowing one of his friends' best clothes. He is always mooching off his more solvent pals, and frequently enlists their aid (willing or not) in a series of daft schemes that he believes certain to make him ludicrously rich—but which usually leave him as broke as ever. The only thing more hilarious than Ukridge's money-making schemes are the disasters that upset them. But apart from a harrumph of, "Upon my sam, it's a bit hard," he takes it all in good spirit and is never knocked down for long.

Observe and laugh as Ukridge tries his hand at managing a boxer, training dogs, making political campaign speeches, and brokering a real estate deal. Grin at his missteps as he kidnaps a parrot, outruns his creditors, and pretends to own a limousine driven by a drinking buddy. Ukridge gets arrested over a misunderstanding, gets engaged to be married without meaning to, scalps tickets to a private dance, and tries to dine out on his aunt's fame as a novelist even after she disowns him. Plus, he sends Corky onto a fair number of dodgy missions, such as impersonating a journalist on assignment—which proves doubly awkward when, after the ruse is detected, he actually does get sent on assignment.

The outcome is ten pieces of light, springy humor and shining wit, lampooning the more disreputable side of the British upper class. It mixes in a bit of romance, some sporting fun (especially boxing), a sepia-printed cameo of life as a down-and-out student in the early 1900s, a touch of crime, a kiss of politics, and a passing breeze of satire on the evangelical revivals of the Billy Sunday era. My favorite bits involved boxing, a sport whose humorous possibilities have not been sufficiently explored. Reading these rib-ticklers, or hearing them read by a comic actor such as Jonathan Cecil, will certainly foster what Ukridge calls a "big, broad, flexible outlook." Or, to put it another way, it will make you laugh as you realize that a flair for failure—failing with style—can more than compensate for a lack of success.

Bellairs Brontë Hornung

The Face in the Frost
by John Bellairs
Recommended Ages: 12+

John Bellairs (1938-91) specialized in writing spooky tales of the mysterious and macabre for younger readers. One of the most mysterious and macabre things about him is the fact that he went on writing them after his death. It turns out that four of his books were completed by Brad Strickland based on sketches left unrealized at the author's death; Strickland then went on to write at least nine more books based on characters Bellairs created. This accounts for the strange fact that 31 novels are listed on Bellairs's bibliography, though he only lived to write 18 of them. There may be more pseudo-Bellairs spookiness to come, including a film franchise. Is this a good thing? I suppose the jury is out. Some fans of Bellairs may appreciate the chance to see his work continue, compensating in some degree for his untimely loss. Others may feel emotions ranging from irritation at having to distinguish between books Bellairs really wrote and those ghost-written after his death, to heartbreak at seeing a most unique creative mind lose control over the fruit of his imagination.

My personal feelings, however, are not mixed. I do not plan to read anything to which Brad Strickland set his hand. The way I mean to mourn for the genius of John Bellairs is to read all the books that he actually wrote, period. To that end, I made this book my first real purchase at the Amazon Kindle Store (not counting dozens of books that can be "bought" for $0.00). After reading its 11 chapters in one swift, delicious afternoon, I find that the $7.39 I spent on this Kindle book was a really good deal. I look forward to keeping it, treasuring it, re-reading it, singing its praises, and sharing it—starting here, with you.

Most of Bellairs's work was aimed at a juvenile audience. Evidently this is because his publisher, from some time in the early 1970s, discouraged him from trying to write adult fantasy, a genre that had not yet begun to thrive. So Bellairs devoted most of his novels to the adventures of young Lewis Barnavelt, Johnny Dixon, and Anthony Monday. First, however, he gave us this one book about a grown-up wizard named Prospero (not the one in The Tempest by Shakespeare), his best friend Roger Bacon, and their chillingly dangerous search for the root of a great evil that has begun to darken their unnamed country. Bellairs did write a short prequel to this novel, but it was lost when the fantasy anthology in which it was to be published, wasn't. He also started to write a sequel to this book, titled The Dolphin Cross—but neither Bellairs himself, during the last decade of his life, nor his ghost-writers since, ever finished it. So there is a wistfulness in enjoying this book, wherein one recognizes its integrity as one of the finest early examples of the wizard novel and regrets the unfulfilled prospect of more of the same.

In this respect, Bellairs's masterpiece (really his first novel, though it was his third book) begins to attract comparisons to the writings of Mervyn Peake. Both authors were powerhouses of adult fantasy before it became a bestselling genre. Both of them died too soon, leaving behind the torso of unfinished novels for other authors to complete. Both authors had a flair for rich, descriptive, strikingly original utterance. And both authors had a distinct way of blending whimsical silliness with dark, Gothically spooky stylings. The key difference is that Bellairs did it in much leaner, economical prose. His action moves at a brisk pace, taking both characters and readers farther in fewer words. This book, in which so much promise is tantalizingly but compactly embodied, shows Bellairs to be a master of charm, eloquence, and wit, the soul of which is brevity. It is not a long novel. But I think it could be a great one.

Prospero and Roger are admirable wizards. Undeniably goofy, in the cracked-but-great tradition of Gandalf and Dumbledore, they study hard—setting an example for all aspiring wizards. But while they have weird powers at their fingertips, they also have tender and noble hearts, and very human dreads and terrors. And so, as they explore the creepy mystery behind the unseasonable frost spreading across the land, and the evil face that traces itself in the frost on so many people's windows, and the stirrings of violence and chaos that threaten to set the Northern and Southern Kingdom at each other's throats, you can't help feeling their fears and sorrows along with them. In short, you will love them, and thrill to the creepy mystery-adventure through which this book leads them. And then, if you are as sensible as I trust you will be by now, you will place The Face in the Frost in your bookcase or Kindle folder alongside such beautiful tales of wizardry as The Last Unicorn and The Wizard of Earthsea.

by Charlotte Brontë
Recommended Ages: 14+

This 1853 novel is important in many ways. For one, it is the last novel to be completed by any of the three celebrated Brontë sisters, and it shows the furthest development of an artist whose career as a published author started with Jane Eyre. It draws on its author's experiences as an English teacher at a boarding school in Brussels, where (among other unhappy experiences) she suffered from loneliness, homesickness, and possibly an inappropriate but unrequited attachment to her married employer. It also depicts characters based on other people Ms. Brontë knew, reacts critically to styles of art and entertainment she had experienced, and expresses a deeply negative view of Roman Catholicism as a facet of the author's devout Protestantism.

If its narrator, an outwardly cool but inwardly troubled young lady named Lucy Snowe, really reflects the author's attitudes and feelings, this novel must then reveal Charlotte Brontë to be anything but the model of a conventional, Victorian girl—demure, dutiful, spotlessly virtuous in thought and deed, etc. Rather, it seems to be the confession of a spiritually troubled young woman who suffered greatly from solitude, heartbreak, and depression; who, while bearing these afflictions, sought to make her own way in the world, armored with a fiercely independent spirit and at times a biting wit; who frankly admitted feeling unlawful desires and entertaining such mental house-guests as jealousy, peevishness, a dread of ghosts, and near-suicidal despair. It is a daring story in that its narrator is sometimes unreliable, deceiving the reader or playing coy with the nature of her afflictions (such as exactly what became of her immediate family); even its ending is ambiguous, suggesting that something dreadful happened but inviting the reader to imagine a happy ending instead.

We first meet Lucy Snowe as a girl staying with her godmother Mrs. Bretton and the latter's son Graham, along with an even littler house-guest named Paulina Hume. No sooner is the stage set for some melodrama than this episode passes, and the setting changes, and we find a grown-up Lucy waiting at the bedside of an elderly invalid who confides the heartbreak of her life during the first of the book's many moving passages. Through some tragedy or another, Lucy finds herself alone in the world and decides to try being a governess or a teacher somewhere across the sea. She settles in a country called Labassecour (somewhere in the neighborhood of Belgium), in the capital city called Villette (modeled on Brussels), at a boarding school directed by a Madame Beck, quickly moving up from being a nanny to Mme. Beck's own children to teaching English in the school itself. All this time she suffers from the culture-shock of being surrounded by people who speak a different language and practice a different religion; until, left alone during a school break, she becomes so completely miserable that it almost kills her.

This crisis is not so much relieved as succeeded by a new set of problems. Lucy loses her heart to a handsome, English doctor who (she belatedly reveals) is our own Graham Bretton from the beginning of the book. But as kind as "Dr. John" is (don't ask), he never gives his heart to her. Lucy's torment is exquisite as she schools herself to bury her passion for Graham while, at the same time, trying to ensure that he chooses the right girl of two beautiful cousins. Then she starts to have feelings for the brusque, moody M. Paul Emanuel (the "M" stands for "Monsieur," silly)—a relative of Mme. Beck's, who teaches literature and other subjects when he isn't trying to bring Lucy under the discipline of the Catholic Church. Even as it grows increasingly obvious that their love can never be—their religious differences being only one of the reasons—Lucy's desperate need for some kind of happiness becomes so unbearably urgent that it may make you squirm. And does she find it? Ah! That's where the book cheats you; or rather, it forces you to choose between the happy ending you would like and the probable ending that you wouldn't.

Make no mistake, this book will lead you on a gruelling journey. It is a fascinating one, though—full of scenes and characters and ideas and details that form a speaking picture of Lucy Snowe, Villette, the school, and a whole remarkable way of life. Perhaps as deeply as any novel can, without becoming unreadable, it explores the inner workings of one woman's heart in a situation in life that is not conducive to a conventional storyline with a tidy ending, a neat resolution, or poetic justice for its good and bad characters. It is, in fact, more or less a slice of life with all the unpoetical injustices left in and, where a happy ending is wanted, at best the memory of a circumscribed period of incomplete happiness, followed by... Well, whatever life brings next.

If you want the girl to end up in Mr. Rochester's arms, read Jane Eyre. To meet a young woman whose mundane outer struggles and colossal inward ones continue indefinitely, this is your book. The other story may be more in line with your romantic ideas. But this one seems, at times, to be opening your heart and reading it back at you. I'm neither a woman, nor a teacher, nor a foreign traveler, nor a victim of unfulfilled love... but I recognize many of the feelings Lucy Snowe feels in this book. And so in struggling to understand Lucy, one might perhaps feel a comforting sensation of Being Understood.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE ADVISORY: To understand some of the dialogue in this book, it may be helpful to study a year or two worth of French. Evidently Charlotte Brontë assumed that her appreciative reader would have such a background of linguistic study. It might be interesting to know how these passages play in French translations of the novel, but enough said.

The Black Mask
by E. W. Hornung
Recommended Ages: 12+

Published in the U.S. under the relatively pedestrian title Raffles: The Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman, this is the second collection of adventures of gentleman burglar A. J. Raffles and his school chum, sidekick, and biographer Bunny. These characters seem to have been invented as foils to Holmes and Watson, the celebrated creation of Hornung's friend and brother-in-law Arthur Conan Doyle. Though they are not so well-known today, anyone who reads British fiction written in the first quarter or so of the 20th century must have had their interest piqued by references to Raffles, whose name stood for a while as a proverb for any merry rogue who made off with millions while posing as a sportsman, a magnetic figure of fashion and culture, admired by men and women alike.

In this book, however, Raffles has moved beyond the phase of his career when he plied his criminal craft under the cover of being a celebrated cricket player. Presumed dead since his escape over the side of a cruise ship in The Amateur Cracksman, he has returned to England resolved to stay dead in the eyes of the law. Bunny, meanwhile, has done a bit of time for their joint crimes, and has emerged into a society that does not promise much to a man of his experience. The pair are reunited in the guise of an elderly invalid and his personal attendant, resuming their criminal lifestyle while taking pains to uphold the public's belief that Raffles is dead.

All in all, the eight capers in this volume are cloaked in a vapor of melancholy that sets them apart from the rollicking fun of the previous set. Raffles daringly swipes a priceless artifact from under the very noses of a museum's guards, only to admire its beauty for a while before sending it to Queen Victoria as a jubilee gift—a display of sentiment that even Bunny considers unlike his worshiped friend. One chapter is devoted to the story of a tragic romance with an Italian girl, another to Raffles' narrow escape from gruesome death at the hands of a vengeful crime boss. There is a duel of wits (to the death) with a fellow tradesman; the revival of an "old flame" with a married woman, leading Raffles to fake his death a second time; an interlude of more or less successful burglaries carried out on bicycles, while our rascally heroes hide out under a new identity; and finally—and I mean finally—the Boer War, in which the patriotism in Bunny and Raffles is so stirred up that they risk exposure and death to fight for their country. And these risks become all too real when they recognize a corporal in their unit as an enemy spy.

The end really comes for Raffles in this book, yet somehow it is not the end of the stories published about him. E. W. Hornung went on to write another book of Raffles stories—A Thief in the Night—as well as a novel—Mr. Justice Raffles. The same author wrote a considerable number of other books, which are listed here. And while hard copies of these entertainments can vary from cheap reproductions to expensive used books, the free Kindle book makes for a fiendishly clever way to steal an hour of fun out of a snow day, a rainy afternoon, a dull lunch break, or a holiday at the beach.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hardy Horowitz

The Return of the Native
by Thomas Hardy
Recommended Ages: 12+

By now, my Harry Potter fan friends must be wondering about me. I've been recommending a lot of books lately that are not what one would expect in answer to the question, "What should I read after the Harry Potter series?" And this book by one of the imposing figures of English literature is just such a surprise answer. But I submit that it's a most appropriate book for the purpose. Why? Because, for starters, it has magic in it. Concerned parents may want to observe an "occult content advisory," in fact; for one of the main characters is suspected of being a witch, to the extent of having a hat-pin stuck into her arm by a superstitious neighbor. And later, the same neighbor makes a waxen effigy of the same lady and thrusts needles into it while performing a creepy incantation.

But that's not actually what I meant when I started to say that this book has magic in it. I had three other examples in mind. First, I drew great pleasure from hearing the award-winning audiobook narration by Alan Rickman, known to every Potterhead as the actor who played Professor Snape in the movies. And although Rickman has as distinctive a voice as any actor of the silver screen, there were times during his reading when I forgot it was he. Can it be less than magical when an actor as noticeable as Alan Rickman disappears in a role—or rather, a whole cast of characters?

My second example is Hardy's evocation of the grim, unchanging, sparsely populated Egdon Heath, which he conjures so vividly throughout the novel (and especially in its first chapter) that you may find it hard to believe, afterward, that no such place exists. Egdon, all but a speaking character in its own right, was based on a combination of several places Hardy knew of, embellished and immortalized as part of the equally fictional English county of Wessex in which several of Hardy's novels take place. Part of what makes this trick work is the interrelatedness of the settings of Hardy's books, so that even without seeing a map of this all-but-real fantasy-land, you can visualize the heath's location relative to such Wessex points-of-interest as Casterbridge, Weatherbury, Sandbourne, etc. Basically, Hardy has rearranged the whole southwest of England, renamed the places, and created an environment so convincingly real that one is shocked to be unable to find it in the atlas.

Thirdly, there is that which Prof. Dumbledore admitted to be magic beyond all that they do at Hogwarts: music. Shortly after Thomas Hardy's death in 1928, English composer Gustav Holst came out with an orchestral piece called Egdon Heath, honoring the place so vividly evoked in this book. Here is a recording of that piece, which lasts about as long as it takes Alan Rickman to read the chapter that sets the scene. It's playing on my computer's speakers as I write this. I almost think that if you listen to Holst's piece while you read Hardy's chapter describing Egdon Heath, you may look around on reaching the end of both and find yourself in a strange, dark, peaty landscape of thorn trees, furze, and lichen, the rim of the surrounding horizon broken by strange mounds and barrows.

As to what happens in this lonely, subdued, remote landscape—where some who live there feel trapped outside the flow of life, while others who have left it are drawn back to its savage beauty—well, that's where recommending this book as a supplement to Harry Potter becomes a stretch, to say the least. This book is not a supplement to anything. It is, rather, one of the great books of modern English lit, on which things like the Harry Potter series are at best a gloss. It is the sort of tragic romance in which the romantic bits of its human characters come into conflict with the immovable, unchangeable, anti-romantic character of the landscape, and the landscape wins; therein lies the tragedy. It is a story about how the permanent conditions of human nature triumph over every spark of originality. It is about something that suggests magical (or at least pagan) ideas, because it is older than history; while it may actually be in the business of crushing the magic out of people.

To put these general hints into more concrete terms: The Return of the Native is about what happens when the golden boy of Egdon Heath—the young man who was voted "most likely to succeed in the outside world"—comes back from a glittering career in Paris, disgusted with his cosmopolitan life, homesick for the beloved heath of his boyhood, and determined never to go back. Unluckily, this young man—Clym Yeobright by name—falls in love with a fascinating young lady named Eustacia Vye, whom Hardy describes in almost as much sensuous detail as the heath itself. "She had pagan eyes, full of nocturnal mysteries," he says, for example. You would think someone like that would fit right in among the barrows erected by "dyed barbarians," and feel at home amid the local customs in which Hardy observes "fragments of Teutonic rites to divinities whose names are forgotten," which "seem in some way or other to have survived mediaeval doctrine." But young Eustacia isn't cut out for the rustic, socially retired lifestyle of Egdon Heath; her fondest dream is to live in Paris, the center of the fashionable world. Imagine what happens when the lad who loves the heath, and would rather be anywhere but Paris, marries the girl who hates the heath, and would give anything to go to Paris. Perversely, part of what brings them together is the very thing that will tear their marriage apart.

Or one of the things, rather. There's also a little matter of the man who married Clym's cousin Thomasin—an innkeeper named Damon Wildeve, whom Hardy is describing when he pungently writes: "To be yearning for the difficult, to be weary of that offered; to care for the remote, to dislike the near... This is the true mark of a man of sentiment." More simply put, Wildeve only marries sweet, gentle Thomasin because he fears losing her to another man. Before and even during their courtship, however, he has dallied with the fiery Eustacia; and after losing her to another man, he desires her even more. Add to the crucible an older woman (Clym's mother and Thomasin's aunt), who disapproves of both unions and inadvertently provokes Eustacia's vehement dislike; to say nothing of the fair-figured but demonically tinted reddleman—a dealer in red dye whose trade was dying out even at the date of this story—whose name is Diggory Venn. To give measure for measure, the reddleman has loved Wildeve's bride before and during their courtship, and goes on loving her after their marriage.

Do you think you can see where this is going? Well, you don't. You have no idea. The accidents and incidents on which these characters' fates turn are so cruelly perverse, so devilishly coincidental, that what someone does with excellent intentions often brings about calamitous results; and when their motives are bad, the results are even worse. Half of the characters I have described above die horrible deaths, and one of them (perhaps the only altogether admirable person among them) survives with the heartbreaking conviction that he is to blame for it all.

As in his other books, Hardy garnishes the main course of his story with a whimsical flavoring of salt-of-the-earth, local-color characters, such as the old "grandfer" who always boasts about what a dashing young soldier he once was; his cowardly, superstitious fool of a son who is silly enough to believe, even at age 31, that he will never survive to manhood; grouchy old Timothy Fairway; and so on. But then even these minor, seemingly comical characters, show themselves often enough in a tragic light, from Susan Nonesuch's business with the wax image of Eustacia to her sickly son Johnny, who innocently blurts out the words that destroy Clym Yeobright's peace of mind. One especially memorable minor character is Charlie, the youthful servant of Eustacia's grandfather. His puppy love for Eustacia adds a humorous, not to say mildly sensual, note to the episode in which Eustacia engages in cross-dressing as a stratagem for meeting Clym. After Eustacia meets her grim end, Charlie's heartbreak proves to be nearly as moving as Clym's.

So, finally, you might ask yourself at the end of this book: Did the heath punish these people for trying to leave? Or were they undone by discontent combined with sentimental delusions and forbidden desires? Is the heath an uncanny place, or is it rather a microcosm of how the world irons out, or mows down, the uncanny people who stick out of its smooth conformity? Is it perhaps neither a magical place to escape to nor an unmagical place to escape from, but rather an example of the inescapable forces that seal magic out of the world? The nature depicted upon Hardy's heath would abhor a witch or wizard, or anyone with an ambition to challenge or change the world. The sense of this is, I think, what makes the tragedy in this book particularly crushing. And the fact that Clym Yeobright finally commits himself to a slow, humble, lonely course of challenging and changing what he can, lends the last page of this book the very essence of what is meant by the word bittersweet.

by Anthony Horowitz
Recommended Ages: 12+

Alex Rider, Britain's leading fourteen-year-old spy—more or less James Bond with zits—has survived a lot in only a few fast-paced months. He has been gunned down by an assassin and lived to tell. He has blown up a luxury hotel in outer space. He has even survived a feature-film adaptation that flopped at the box office. And now, in his seventh action-filled adventure, Alex has splashed down in Australian waters and become a guest of ASIS, the down-under intelligence agency that wants him to do for them what he has so often done for Britain's MI6 and, most recently, America's CIA. What better cover could a spy ask for than to be a kid? In this case, it should be even easier than that. Alex only needs to look like a dirty, dentally-challenged Afghan refugee kid to lend credibility to the cover of the grown-up spy who is supposed to do the real job. All he has to do is keep his mouth shut and act stupid. Doesn't sound like too much work, right? And the clincher, ensuring that Alex will accept the assignment, is that the grown-up spy in question is his godfather—the person who knew Alex's parents the best—and the last person to see them alive.

So, of course, Alex signs on. And, of course, the mission proves to be more of a test of Alex's survival skills than as advertised. For the people-smuggling gang Alex is supposed to help Ash infiltrate, is really only one small part of a vast network of evil—indeed, the world's most powerful criminal organization. By sheer luck, Alex finds himself at the center of a plot to kills tens of thousands of innocent people. Although he is outnumbered, outmuscled, outgunned, and outmaneuvered by a villain of insane fiendishness, Alex is the only one who can stop a tsunami of mass destruction and death. And just to make it extra hard, he has been betrayed by someone within ASIS. The bad guys saw through his cover from the word Go. All they have to do is wait for him to fall into their hands.

And fall he does, time after time. This is the one where Alex gets forced into the ring of a no-holds-barred blood sport in Bangkok, held up by commandos in a sinister toy factory in Jakarta, chased between the decks of a cargo ship, and bundled off to a high-security hospital where his organs will be harvested for transplant. Besides a few gadgets and an occasional hand from a friend, the only advantages Alex has working for him are his compact size, his lightning reflexes, his towering nerve, and brain made for rapidly designing hairsbreadth escapes out of materials that would have left MacGyver thinking, "In my next life, I'll always make sure to have a wormhole at my back."

Somehow he survives all this long enough to join a team of paratroopers in a (literally) eleventh-hour attack on the oil platform where a bomb that will change the world is nearing the end of its countdown. But could that be the end for Alex? Even if he survives the mission, he swears he's through with the cloak-and-dagger stuff. But we're not fooled. For there are already two more books in the Alex Rider series: Crocodile Tears and Scorpia Rising.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Mebus Pratchett Shan

Spirits in the Park
by Scott Mebus
Recommended Ages: 12+

In Book 2 of the trilogy titled "Gods of Manhattan"—which started with the book by the same name—young Rory Hennessy takes big strides toward fulfilling his destiny as the last surviving Light in the city, county, and state of New York. This sentence immediately confronts me with the problem that there is so much to explain, just so you can understand what I'm talking about as I try to describe this book, that I could very well say, "Read no further until you have read Gods of Manhattan." There's a lot to be said for doing so. This trilogy is really a most unique fantasy concept, and its complex layering of magical problems and solutions bears witness to a lot of intricate planning on its author's part. I'm not sure I can do it justice in a paragraph or less. But I'm going to give it my best effort anyway. Brace yourself.

The fundamental idea of "Gods of Manhattan" is that people who have left a strong impression on the memory of the generations after them, live on as "gods" in a reality alongside our visible world. This reality crams together people and institutions that existed in all the different eras of history into a sort of augmented space that fits into regular space. So, for example, there is room for the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel on the same site as the Empire State Building that replaced it. And on the island of Manhattan, tied to that borough of New York City by a magical force called "blood," are millions of spirits covering all periods of New York history, from the 1800s corrupt politician Boss Tweed (god of Rabble Politics), to colonial-era leaders such as Alexander Hamilton (the Mayor of the spirit-side of Manhattan), all the way back to the New Amsterdam period and beyond. Some of these "gods" lend their magic touch to areas they came to symbolize, such as the Korean shopkeeper whose talent for thwarting shoplifters led him to become the god of Put That Back. Many of these lingering spirits begot new families after their death—immortals, such as the young members of the Rattle Watch, who can never be gods because they never lived in the mortal world. And some of the gods have fallen, or continued the evil ways they followed during their mortal lives. This is why there is danger and conflict in this layer of reality where phases of history overlap each other—where the spirits of the Munsee Indians (who lived on Manhattan before the Europeans came) are magically trapped in Central Park—where power-hungry villains and their insane minions will use every means, from propaganda to murder, to thwart or destroy the only mortal who can see their world or help others to see it. Such a mortal is known as a Light. And that's why Rory, being a Light, is lucky to have lived as long as he has.

All right, that was a long paragraph. But it covered most of the background. It left out a few things. You'll have to find out at your own hazard why there are little men dressed in cockroach armor, some of them riding rats. And how Rory's spunky little sister Bridget came by the papier-mâché body she sometimes uses instead of her own—a superhero gadget that has some amazing advantages, but also horrifying drawbacks. All these concepts are but a few of the ingredients swimming in the chowder of chilling danger, thrilling adventure, magic, action, romance, mystery, heartbreak, and nuggets of historical trivia that this book cooks up. Some of it is rather chewy. But, if I may murder this metaphor to death, it will also warm your insides, nourish your mind, and energize you. As Rory searches for his long-lost father in the mists at the edge of the world, Bridget has her own adventure in a super-sized, perilous park (Central Park, that is) haunted by resentful Indians, man-eating squirrels, traitors, friends, a rival for the heart of Rory's almost-girlfriend, and clues to the disappearance of a girl who could heal the conflict between the trapped Munsees and the gods who betrayed them.

One thing is clear, however. The Trap must come down, or Manhattan will tear itself apart with earthquakes, storms, and whatnot. But when the Trap frees the Munsees from their 150-year captivity in Central Park, will there be war? Somehow Rory, Bridget, and their friends hold the key to the fate of all the gods of Manhattan and the spirits in the park. And even in this book's climactic conclusion, there is clearly much more danger to be faced, and many questions still to be answered. To find out how it all turns out, look to the third book of the trilogy: The Sorcerer's Secret.

Unseen Academicals
by Terry Pratchett
Recommended Ages: 12+

When you're following as many series of books as I am (which is currently a three-digit number), you're bound to get a little behind on some of them—especially when their author is as prolific as Terry Pratchett. This book, for example, is the 37th novel of Discworld out of (at this writing) a total of 39. That's not too bad. I'll probably get caught up soon... just in time for another book to come out! If I were thinking about just starting to read this series (say, with The Colour of Magic), I might be a bit intimidated. But reading the next new Discworld book will always be a high priority for anyone who has ever read one, or 10, or 36 of them. Once you get started, you won't feel so much intimidated as thrilled to anticipate so many weird, funny, and exciting books. Their entertainment value is hard to beat, especially if you're reasonably bright reader with an off-center sense of humor. And even more encouragingly, they maintain a consistent high level of quality, unlike many other long-running series. Always exploring new territory, even within well-loved areas you have visited before, the Discworld novels offer to be the cornerstone of a huge library of comic fantasy, especially appealing to young wizard fans who have grown tired of waiting for their letter of admission to Hogwarts.

And behold, this book focuses on a school for wizards. By now Unseen University will be well known to followers of this series. It is the alma mater of the nebbishy wizard Rincewind, whose adventures were heavily featured in the earlier books of this series. Its Librarian is an orangutan who can give the word "Ook" a wide spectrum of meanings. Its Archchancellor is a rugged, bullmoose type named Mustrum Ridcully. It has a chair of post-mortem communications, a branch of magic otherwise known as "the dark arts." It has a super-computer powered by an ant farm. And it has a complex body of traditions that, somehow or other, keep the sun in the sky and U.U.'s walls covered with ivy. One such tradition, which has lain neglected almost to the point of disaster, is that the wizards must occasionally field a football team (that's soccer, for U.S. readers). If they fail to do so every twenty years or so, the endowment fund that puts food on the wizards' table could go away. Which, given the wizards' fondness for pickles and cheese, is a pretty persuasive argument in favor of putting a side together.

There are, however, arguments against it. Lord Vetinari, the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, frowns on the game. The way it is played in the street is a danger to life and limb, with the ball being made out of wood wrapped in rags, the concession stands touting frankly toxic pies, and the brutal "shove" of well-armed spectators often proving to be more action-packed than the main event. But the times, they are a-changin'. Or, to borrow a favorite phrase of Pratchettese that crops up many times in this book: "The leopard may change his shorts."

For one thing, archaeologists have discovered a naughtily illustrated urn from deep in the muck of Morporkian antiquity, revealing the original rules when the football was a religious ritual honoring the goddess Pedestria. Then there's the matter of the ball, designed by the University's all-knowing, multi-dimensional computer, which makes a lovely "gloing" sound when it bounces. Perhaps the biggest revolution in the game is the tactical genius furnished by one of the drudges in the university's candle-dribbling vats—a suspected goblin named Nutt.

Nutt's history is actually even more strange and ominous than you would guess from the above description. There is something exceedingly original about the young fellow. He devours books (not literally, but you know). He talks posh. He understands heady ideas by sheer instinct. And he has a thing for a plump, plain, motherly young woman who cooks pies in the university's night kitchen. Glenda takes Nutt under her wing, along with a kitchen maid named Juliet who is destined to become Ankh-Morpork's first supermodel, and the dreamy Trevor Likely, whose destiny is decidedly football-shaped. Together with a fashionista dwarf, an overworked wizard who carries the weight of the university on his shoulders (because he is the only known wizard with any common sense), and a cross-section of the city's melting-pot of trolls, vampires, werewolves, and zombies, these four young below-stairs dwellers ride the crest of the latest wave in the Discworld's ongoing industrial revolution.

Feats of body, mind, and magic meld with high fashion, low society, and mass hysteria to add yet another dimension of real-worldliness to the whimsical, woolly world of Terry Pratchett. Reinventing the football won't be easy. There may even be blood. The future welfare of the entire city may be at stake. And both Nutt and Trev—to say nothing of their lady friends—will have to face tough truths within themselves. You, meanwhile, will face truths about the football (and other areas of modern life) that you may never have thought about, in a way that will make you laugh often and sigh occasionally while you grow, perhaps, a little wiser. Not a bad deal for Book 37 of at least 39!

Vampire Mountain
by Darren Shan
Recommended Ages: 12+

First, let's get the confusing part out of the way. This is Book 4 of "The Saga of Darren Shan," also known (at least in the U.S.) as "Cirque du Freak"—which happens to be the title of Book 1. Darren Shan is both the name of the narrator and main character in this 12-book series, and the pen-name of Anglo-Irish author Darren O'Shaughnessy, who in real life most likely isn't a half-vampire like his in-book namesake. Since the 12 books in this saga are also divided into four trilogies, this book is also Book 1 of the second trilogy, titled Vampire Rites. I put this in italics, rather than in quotation marks, because (in my opinion) a single-volume edition of this trilogy would be less an omnibus than a single, complete novel. Of course, I base this only on my impression of reading Vampire Mountain. As I write this, I am getting ready to run down to the public library to pick up books 2 and 3 of the trilogy (or books 5 and 6 of the overall series), which I requested immediately after finishing this book.

I'm miffed, mostly at myself for not having the entire trilogy ready at hand before I started it, but also partly at the publishing genius which chopped Vampire Rites into three books. So my first critical note, I'm afraid, is going to be a complaint: This book simply is not a complete story, even at the level of "Book 1 of a trilogy." The whole book does little more than build up to whatever happens in Book 2. Apart from a scary encounter with a mad bear in the middle, a sparring session in a vampire gym further on, and a not-very-climactic sort of trial at the end, this book in itself delivers little of the conflict and none of the dramatic shape (you know, like with a climax) one expects from a complete novel. It has an arduous journey in it; it introduces several characters who promise to do interesting things later; it sets the remarkable scene of the labyrinth of mountain caves where the vampires hold court, of the history and nature of vampire culture; and it foreshadows troubles and conflicts to come. But while it excels in the "beginning" part of a story, it stops short of having a middle or an end. For that you will have to read the next two installments, Trials of Death and The Vampire Prince.

My intuition tells me that even combined into one volume, Vampire Rites would not be a very thick book. Judging by its first part, it would be a fast-paced page-turner. I suppose it may be nothing but my own grouchiness that causes me to object to seeing it split up into three volumes—novelists have been stringing readers along like this since Victorian times, if not longer. Perhaps a better construction on it would be to view this as a serial. For it is true that the ending leaves you hanging, anxious to find out what happens next. Not very long story short: Young Darren, half-vampire assistant to Larten Crepsley, leaves the Cirque du Freak and follows his master on a gruelling trip through northern wastes to the hollow mountain where the vampire clan meets every twelve years. Though Mr. Crepsley resigned from being a vampire general long ago, he is treated with great respect, even by the princes who rule over the whole clan. But the tidings he brings, in the person of one of the spooky "Little People" who travel with the freak show, could shake the very foundations of vampire society. An enemy clan called the Vampaneze—blood-suckers who kill their human prey, giving all vampires a bad name—seems to threaten the more benign vampires with imminent destruction. And Mr. Crepsley's decision to "blood" Darren at such a young age adds another level of danger. Now Darren must face a trial to prove himself worthy to be a Vampire General—even though he remains only a half-vampire—while ominous signs of conflict and betrayal stir in the shadows.

It is a testimony to Mr. O'Shaughnessy's flair for storytelling that I cannot resist following this series, in spite of my irritation with the way it is split up. Also, as a low-level grammar Nazi, I twitch every time he uses something like "Mr. Crepsley and me" as the subject of a sentence. Surely a professional writer knows the language better than that. I can only guess that he does this (and does it persistently) as a character touch, while narrating the adventure in the first-person voice of young Darren, whose academic achievements ended with his mortal life at age 13. Placing all this alongside the series' unique take on vampire lore and its spooky, action-oriented storytelling appropriate for middle-school readers and up, I find that it is, after all, a series that holds my attention. I can't wait to find out what happens to Darren next, even though I suspect it may be dark, bloody, and violent. Vampire stories wouldn't be so popular if people didn't like them that way. Girls can have the "Twilight," "Vampire Academy," "Vampire Diaries," and "True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse" series. Boys (and some girls), meanwhile, may be looking for some of the same creepiness only without the ooshy-gooshy bits. If that sounds like you, step up and sink your teeth into this series!

Black Butcher Chima

by Holly Black
Recommended Ages: 14+

Subtitled "A Modern Tale of Faerie," this companion to Tithe transports the magical world of mermaids, trolls, and other fey creatures into present-day New York City. Parents concerned about "adult content" might want to evaluate this book for themselves before sharing it with their kids, or prepare to discuss it with them. This isn't your godmother's fairyland. It's a gritty, "ghetto" Faerie featuring runaway children and orphans squatting on an abandoned subway platform, getting mixed up in sex, drugs, and murder—plus an eensy weensy plot to assassinate the king of the Unseelie Court.

It's an underside of New York in which exiled fey folk cope with the deadly iron that surrounds them by taking a potion brewed by an alchemically-inclined troll who lives under the Manhattan Bridge. And when that troll, named Ravus, is framed for the poisoning murders of several members of the magical community, and the real killer cuts the heart out of his chest and makes a getaway, who will save him? Who, indeed, but a confused, angry, runaway junkie named Val who, against all odds, has fallen in love with him?

Val gets mixed up in this business after she catches her mum making out with her (Val's) boyfriend. Before she has time to think about what she's doing, Val shaves her head and moves in with a trio of flaky teens who live mostly by diving for junk in dumpsters and selling what they find. Luis has one messed-up eye, but can see through magical glamors. He serves Ravus in exchange for saving the life of his brother Dave, who was shot when their similarly gifted father went nuts and killed their mother. While Luis tries to protect his brother, Dave is making trouble of his own with the help of his sometime girlfriend Lolli. The two of them have been skimming the potion Luis is supposed to deliver to Ravus's clients. Why? (This part of the review is where parents might want to cover their kids' eyes.) Because they have figured out that when smoked or injected, this so-called Nevermore makes them feel groovy. It gives them not only weird hallucinations, but also the power to make people see, think, or do whatever they want.

This is not a book that (no pun intended) glamorizes drug use. In fact, it depicts the harm these kids do to themselves so vividly that anyone brave enough to continue reading will squirm with discomfort while doing so. But also, by the way, it tells a compelling story of love that sees past surface appearances, of the girl power of one flawed yet fierce heroine, of powers too awful to be used for good, of a mystery with a solution that will sadden you, of a quest whose urgency will keep you on edge throughout the final third of the book. Though at first this book does not seem in any hurry to take you anywhere appealing or desirable to visit, it finally proves to be a fast-paced adventure. By the end, you will recognize some old friends, visit a place of wonderful danger, and witness a battle that will leave you buzzing with eagerness to explore the next book in the series: Ironside.

Ghost Story
by Jim Butcher
Recommended Ages: 14+

Book 13 of (so far) 14 in "The Dresden Files" finds Harry Dresden—detective, wizard, guardian of all things Chicago—tasked with solving his own murder. It's not easy, being dead. When you're only a shade of your former self—an intangible, invisible, inaudible presence made up of memories, thoughts, and a pinch of will—there isn't much you can do. Even with loads of raw magical power, you're limited to spells that affect denizens of the spiritual world. Unless... well, there are a couple of exceptions. Having friends who can see (or at least hear) dead people, for example. Friends like "ectomancer" Mortimer Lundquist, who doesn't even need a magically doctored walkie-talkie to converse with ghosts, and who is the first person who seems even remotely capable of helping Harry. But Morty hasn't done much helping when he is abducted by a super-ghost, backed up by an army of clairvoyant thugs, bent ghosts, and soul-eating wraiths. And now Harry has a new problem: Without Morty to control the city's most violent ghosts, Chicago could become a really dangerous place.

Not that it hasn't already become more dangerous in the six months(!) since Harry caught a sniper's bullet. In Harry's previous case, he single-handedly wiped out the entire Red Court of vampires. While this might sound like a good idea, other evil things were just waiting to rush into the power vacuum. Things such as the Fomor: an alliance of baddies from the Nevernever whose moves are backed up, in our world, by an army of turtleneck-wearing commandos with a fanatical but deadly lack of an instinct for self-preservation. Then there's the street gang led by a sorcerer who uses mind-control magic to force his teenaged minions to do his criminal bidding. And don't forget Superghost, whose plans for Morty are connected to yet another way a mere shade can reach out and touch the physical world: by being crazy enough, and powerful enough, to manifest in the flesh. What can a wizard whose spells pass straight through solid objects, and whom only a handful of his friends can see or hear, do about it?

About his friends: Harry understands the stakes of solving his own murder. He has it on good authority that unless he closes the case, at least three of his nearest and dearest will come to a horrible end. Could it be Karrin Murphy, whose career as a cop is over, and who now pursues paranormal baddies in an unofficial, vigilante capacity? Or Waldo Butters, the mild-mannered medical examiner who inherited Dresden's talking skull named Bob? Or maybe Harry's former apprentice Molly, who has transformed herself into a feared figure of underworld justice known as the Rag Lady? Molly, whose sensitive mind may not be what it used to since she witnessed the demise of the Red Court, has been under the dubious tutelage of Harry's fairy godmother—a creature who is not nearly as sweet and dainty as she sounds. Other former allies of the late wizard detective are doing what they can to fight the evil that has been raining down on Chicago since Dresden disappeared.

But their help may not be enough. Harry may need to enlist the aid of his own "army of darkness" if he's going to stop some serious badness from coming down. And even when his mission is complete, after a friendly archangel explains what the case was really about, after Harry makes the unsettling discovery of his murderer's identity and he is sent to his final rest... what comes next, even then, may not be what you expect. But expect this: a fourteenth book, titled Cold Days.

The Exiled Queen
by Cinda Williams Chima
Recommended Ages: 13+

In Book Two of the "Seven Realms" quartet, the author of The Warrior Heir and its sequels continues to amaze with her ability to keep a large-scale piece of world-building interesting, convincing, and hopping with action. This installment takes us out of the Queendom of the Fells and shows us more of the seven realms, particularly the Academy of Oden's Ford—a sort of multi-disciplinary university and an island of peace on the neutral ground between two war-torn kingdoms. It heightens the risk the main characters must face just to survive from day to day, aside from the complicated tangle of intersecting agendas, alliances, and enmities that keep them all on edge with each other. And it creates a powerful sense of the romantic and political possibilities in store for them—most of which fall somewhere in the range between "recklessly dangerous" and "hopelessly doomed." Forbidden magic, betrayal, assassination attempts, possession, blackmail, kidnapping, attempted rape, comportment lessons, and a deadly serious form of dormitory hazing are just part of the curriculum during Year One at a school that is most definitely not Hogwarts.

If you read The Demon King, you may remember that the Seven Realms were once a united Queendom... Until the wizards of the Northern Isles invaded and tried to subvert the sovereignty of the queen. Sometime between then and the dangerous romance between one Queen Hanalea and a great wizard, now remembered as the Demon King, things got really bad. The magic almost destroyed the world. Since the Breaking, as that period is known, the queenly line, the wizards' council, and the upland clans who control the making of magical amulets have been held in tension by a magically-enforced accord known as the Næming. As this story unfolds, the Næming continues to come unraveled, drawing the Fells closer to the brink of a civil war—which would be especially disastrous, given the ambitions of the cruel and warlike kings of the neighboring realms.

It is through those realms that Raisa, the Princess Heir of the Fells, must ride on her way to the military officers' school at Oden's Ford. So, obviously, the trip to school is full of danger for her, even protected as she is by the young cadet who is the love of her life—though the magic that binds him to her means they can never be a couple. But there is danger behind her and ahead as well. The High Wizard wants to force Raisa to marry his son, cementing his control over the royal line. If he can't catch her, he may have Raisa killed and then focus his designs on her younger sister instead. Much depends on Raisa getting past the border checkpoints, through hostile territory, and into the Academy without being captured or recognized... and then, somehow, getting the education she believes the future Fellsian Queen will need while, at the wizards' college just across town, the children of her worst enemy are learning to use magic.

Meanwhile, at that very wizard's school, former street-lord and Raisa's sometime kidnapper Han "Cuffs" Alister is fending off the same wizardly Bayar twins and their equally odious cousins, studying magic on the dime of the same upland clans who helped raise him, and who are now sworn to kill him if he crosses their interests. His only confidant is Fire Dancer, a clan youth who—unlike any uplander before him—has also gone to school to study magic. But while Dancer obsesses over how to create trinkets for storing magical power, Han finds himself forced to study defensive and offensive magic, just to keep his head on his shoulders and his neck out of the noose. The headmistress of Mystwerk House (Han's college) wants to use him as a pawn in her intrigues within the Wizard Council. A mysterious tutor named Crow comes to Han in the dreamworld, promising to make Han the perfect wizard assassin—while operating his own, sinister agenda. Fiona Bayar offers herself to Han, asking in return that he help put her on the throne.

And then there's the girl Han knew in his his street-lord days, who stirs up trouble of her own... not to mention Raisa, whom he knows as Rebecca. As a romance develops between this strangely matched pair, it becomes increasingly obvious that the secrets they don't know about each other could destroy any chance of happiness for both of them—could even destroy the Queendom itself. But this book doesn't show us where all this leads. It takes us only as far as the end of their first year at school, when Raisa falls into the worst hands you could have imagined... and then she and her kidnappers, together, fall into even worse hands... and when Han, outraged by the disappearance of his friend Rebecca, yet still oblivious to her identity as the princess the clans are now forcing him to protect, must leave school with his wizard training unfinished.

For the time has come for Han to face the danger written in his fate, whether he is ready for it or not. And as for Raisa, the question at this crisis is whether she, and the queenly line in which she stands, will survive. Somehow, though these characters are not always as high-minded as you might wish, you'll reach this point caring enough about what comes next to be on the lookout for Book Three: The Gray Wolf Throne. And for those of you who can't wait to see the saga through, Book Four, The Crimson Crown, became available in October 2012.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Flora's Dare

Flora's Dare
by Ysabeau Wilce
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the sequel to Flora Segunda, Flora Fyrdraaca ov Fyrdraaca, fourteen-year-old heroine of an alternate-history version of San Francisco called Califa, finds out what her true name is. And while I'm mentioning it, I might add that the full title of this book is Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room). Now take a deep breath, for three reasons: first, because that title was a lungful; second, because you're about to follow Flora on an adventure that will take her underwater for quite some time; and third, because Flora's world (designed by an author who boasts a graduate degree in military history) is so strange, so distinctive, so full of quirky surprises, so closely crammed with unfamiliar language and opportunities to boost your word power, that most likely you will almost—but not quite—give up. Almost, because it's going to make you work. Not quite, because it's so convincing and entertaining.

Flora was born in the aftermath of a devastating war between Califa and the Huitzil Empire, which practices human sacrifice and includes a race of winged, bird-headed people. The Birdies, as Flora's folk pejoratively call them, now rule Califa through a puppet Warlord, and keep an eagle eye on the city. The first sign of resistance to Huitzil rule could bring death and disaster to the city. So when Flora meets her elder sister Idden at a rave, and learns that Idden has deserted from the Army and joined a radical resistance group, the horror Flora feels is surpassed only by that of the slimy tentacle that attacks her in the club's filthy toilet.

The tentacle proves to be a sign that the Loliga—a massive, indescribable creature currently in the shape of a giant squid, that has long been trapped and magically bound in the watery caves beneath the city—is struggling to break free. Its struggles are already causing a series of increasingly devastating earthquakes. Unless the Loliga is freed, and soon, Califa will be destroyed.

The trouble is that Flora is the only one who can do anything about it; but she doesn't know what to do. She seeks the advice of the strangely magnetic Huitzil Ambassador, from whom she also hopes to learn enough Gramatica (magical words of power) to become a Ranger (sort of a secret agent/wizard), like folk hero Nini Mo. But after an unplanned bit of time-travel reveals Flora's real identity—a secret her Mamma has kept from everyone else—Lord Axacaya proves to be an even more immediate threat to Flora's safety. Now, with a deadly enemy closing in behind her and the destruction of her city looming ahead, Flora must bet her life on the Ultimate Ranger Dare in the haunted home of a ruling family, long thought to be extinct. And she can look for help to no one but a small red dog, a toy pig, a terrifying blue butler, and a boy possessed by a pair of demonic bouncing boots (which is a whole subplot I haven't time to explain).

Flora is a hilarious and endearing narrator: gifted with a quirky sort of folk-wisdom fed by yellowback novels; plucky and heroic, yet honest enough to own up to her own moments of pettiness and vulnerability; impatient yet forgiving of the foibles of her ex-drunk-now-all-too-responsible father, her tough military mother, her get-rich-quick-scheming best friend, her often-whining ectoplasmic butler, and the crazy fashions and customs of her bayside city. Her adventure strains at the seams with impressive (and sometimes scary) magic, weird creatures, macabre humor, blood-chilling danger, and a whole spectrum of character and cultural colors that you won't see most anywhere else.

This is Book 2 of the trilogy titled either "Crackpot Hall" (based on the website listed on the back cover) or "Flora Fyrdraaca" (based on title of the omnibus edition). It won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, an honor shared by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and several other books I have reviewed. The third book of the trilogy is titled Flora's Fury: How a Girl of Spirit and a Red Dog Confound Their Friends, Astound Their Enemies, And Learn the Importance of Packing Light.

Mull Neff Riordan Sage

Keys to the Demon Prison
by Brandon Mull
Recommended Ages: 12+

It's the fifth and final "Fablehaven" adventure, and the world is coming to an end. More of the world's magical game preserves are falling to the Society of the Evening Star, which is collecting the five hidden talismans needed to open the demon prison of Zzyzx. Young Kendra and Seth Sorenson, along with their family and friends, are charged with protecting these powerful objects, and the five "Eternals" who must die before the bad guys can turn the key in the lock. But after a death-defying visit to the Australian preserve where the last artifact is housed, Seth is taken prisoner by the so-called Sphinx—actually a centuries-old Ethiopian slave who rebelled against his masters and now holds most of the keys to Zzyzx. At that point, the score stands thus: The Knights of the Dawn (read: "good guys") have two of the five artifacts—the ones that give people the power to time-travel and to teleport over vast distances—but the Sphinx has the ones that give the power of healing, long life, and seeing anything you want to look at, not to mention his hostages, such as Seth. Now the Knights plan a daring raid of the Sphinx's lair, hoping to steal back those artifacts and rescue Seth. Guided by a traitor from within the Sphinx's organization, relying on a spy embedded in ditto, and armed with a gizmo that can take three passengers around the world in the blink of an eye, there's no way they can fail. Right?

Well, guess who ends up with all five keys to the Demon Prison. If you guessed "the Sphinx," you're wrong. The answer is even worse. Now, even with Seth on the loose again, the Sorensons and friends are faced with the imminent threat of Zzyzx being opened by demons, for demons. The human race may be an endangered species if they don't stop it somehow. Seth, knowing that his own mistake may doom mankind, leads two satyrs and a vampire on a quest for a sword that may give him an eensy-weensy chance of saving the world. Kendra, meanwhile, joins a team of rescuers in a last-minute effort to save the surviving Eternals from a team of supernatural assassins. Both parties are armed with a variety of weapons and powers, but none are more essential than the two Sorenson children: the one a "shadow charmer" who can communicate with the undead, the other able to restore power that has drained from magical objects and creatures. For the fate of the world will depend on a few people arriving at an island that can only be reached via ghost ship, summoning an army of dragons, unicorns, and fairies, and wielding a magical sword that draws its power from the character of its wielder. And they will be all that stands between our world and the huge, hideous, powerful demons that will soon swarm out of Zzyzx.

The chances of Fablehaven's friends could be better. But don't count them out just yet. It's amazing what can happen when a kid as daring and unpredictable as Seth is involved. His sister is no slouch, either. And their allies, both human and non-human, have some surprising and clever tricks in reserve. Junk-food-munching satyrs Newel and Doren lighten the tension with their humorous patter, including battle-cries of "Frito-Lay!" and "Hostess!" (Alas, Twinkie fans, they were not quite accurate in their prediction that Hostess would never die.) The Fairy Queen makes a sacrifice of cosmic proportions. The dream guy of every girl who loves unicorns smiles at Kendra. And one huge battle determines the future shape of the world. Some authors know just how to end a series! For another example of Brandon Mull's strength in this area, see the third and last "Beyonders" book, Chasing the Prophecy, going on sale on March 12, 2013. His other books include The Candy Shop War and its sequel Arcade Catastrophe, which came out in October 2012.

The Second Siege
by Henry H. Neff
Recommended Ages: 12+

Book 2 of the "Tapestry" quartet continues with Max McDaniel's second year at the Rowan Academy, a school for magically talented teens somewhere on the east coast of the U.S. I have already noted that Rowan has as much in common with Hogwarts as almost any school for magic. In this book, however, the apparent similarities between the two schools take a backseat to the intriguing differences between them. Not that we get to see much of what goes on in the classroom, this year. Max and his frail, vulnerable, yet super-sorcerous roommate David Menlo miss most of the school year between one perilous adventure overseas and another to the world of the Sidh (which I take to be something like Faerie), where they spend more time than passes in our world. Not long after they come back, the whole campus finds itself under siege by the powers of the enemy—the enemy being an ancient, powerful, surprisingly non-hideous demon named Astaroth, who wants a book of power that has been guarded by Rowan for the past thousand years.

Astaroth has awakened, thanks in part to a traitor on Rowan's faculty and in part to an undead sorcerer who has also betrayed the cause. Now he is taking over the world, toppling governments and terrorizing whole populations with the aid of his army of ogres, goblins, and vyes (shape-changing creatures who, in their natural form, look like bipedal werewolves). Rowan's best lines of defense are its two star second-year students. Max, the "Hound of Rowan," has superhuman fighting abilities comparable to such heroes as Achilles and Cúchulainn. Already by the start of his second year, he can beat any sixth-year in a training simulation without even trying, and is the match of the Red Branch's deadliest agent, the rock-hard Mr. Cooper. By the end of the year, particularly after his training in the Sidh, Max's abilities have grown to include the closest thing to a nuclear explosion that can happen in hand-to-hand combat. David, meanwhile, matches him kiloton-for-kiloton, making up for the weakness of his body in sheer magical power. It is David whose spell to hide Rowan from the outside world keeps Astaroth away for most of this year. It is David whose talent for summoning spirits enables the pair to find the Book of Thoth, or Origins, before Astaroth does—though, thanks to some diabolical trickery, it was only in danger of falling into Astaroth's hands while the two boys were getting closer to finding it. And it is David, even more than Max, on whom the defense of Rowan depends in the crucial, final confrontation with Astaroth.

Which is too bad.

It's too bad, for starters, because just when everything depends on Max and David, the witches—an offshoot of the Order of Rowan who live in the Himalayas and depend wholly on pure magic, without any modern technology—show up and demand that the two boys be handed over to them. Evidently they have a right to claim up to three students from Rowan, as payment for the role they played in hiding the Book of Thoth long ago. They couldn't have chosen a worse time to assert their rights, however. Luckily, a shocking kidnap by another offshoot of the order (the Frankfurt Workshop, which specializes in technology without the use of magic) turns into an opportunity for the boys to escape. After returning from two journeys—first a visit to nightmare-ridden Europe, where the obtain the key to finding the Book of Origins; then their strange, time-bending visit to the Sidh, where they find not only the Book but also Max's long-lost mother—they find things at Rowan have grown even worse. Max has no sooner found his mother than he loses her again, forever. One of his best friends turns out to be possessed by a demon loyal to Astaroth. The witches, losing patience with the school for refusing to hand over the boys, plant a curse on it. The head of the Red Branch, of which Max is now an agent, has decided to negotiate with the archfiend. And with David too gravely wounded to hold up his share of the school's defense, Rowan is practically defenseless when Astaroth lays siege to it.

Those of us who faithfully audited seven years worth of classes at Hogwarts may be disappointed at how little classroom time our heroes spend in their second year at Rowan. And although none of Harry Potter's school adventures from year 3 to year 6 had a particularly upbeat ending, the outcome of all the fighting and striving and resisting this year at Rowan may surprise you with its bitterness. In fact, the fortunes of Max and his friends fare steadily worse from about the midpoint of this book to the end. Each time you think their chances can't sink any lower, they sink lower still. Face it, Year 3 (titled The Fiend and the Forge) is going to be tough. But from the fact that there is at least a fourth year to look forward too (titled The Maelstrom), I reckon our Rowans still have some fight in them. And with the world already tottering on the brink of doom, the danger can only become greater, along with the expectations riding on David and Max. The question isn't so much whether they will have the power or courage to face the challenges ahead, as whether you will have the guts to look on!

The Red Pyramid
by Rick Riordan
Recommended Ages: 12+

This is the first book of the "Kane Chronicles," a series that does for Egyptian mythology what the same author's "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" and "Heroes of Olympus" series did, and continue to do, for Graeco-Roman ditto. And in case you missed that memo, it gives teens a crash course in a whole range of Egyptian history, customs, gods, and monsters, all washed down with a kid-friendly blend of streetwise attitude, laugh-out-loud humor, rip-snortin' action, and a special-effects budget limited only by your own imagination. There is even a hint that the Egyptian godlings in this series dwell in the same magic-haunted universe as the young demigods of Camp Halfblood. I don't know, maybe it's the veiled reference to the goings-on at the Empire State Building in Manhattan, across the East River from the Brooklyn mansion where the Kane siblings come to live with their mysterious Uncle Amos after... well, there's a lot to summarize.

To start with, Carter (age 14) has been living out of a suitcase for the six years since their mother died in what now turns out not to have been an accident. Their globe-trotting Egyptologist father, whom Carter has been following around the world since then, also proves to be more than he seems. They only see Sadie (age 12) a couple times a year, due to the custody deal with her London-dwelling grandparents. On the latest visitation day, their family situation quickly progresses from "vaguely disappointing" to "terrifyingly weird." Dad blows himself up in the British Museum, along with the Rosetta Stone, and unleashes five ancient deities from the Duat, or magical realm, where they have been cooling their heels. Now two of those gods—Isis and Horus—are trying to possess Carter and Sadie. Another god, Osiris, has become trapped with their father. And that leaves the way open for Set, the Egyptian god of evil, to plan a birthday blow-out for himself—which will pretty much wipe out the world as we know it.

Now the kids are on the run, marked for death by the only magicians who know how to cope with the power of Egyptian gods. They are just starting to understand their new powers. They can barely hold off Horus and Isis from possessing them completely. And they have to start an apocalypse that will spread evil from a red pyramid inside a mountain in Phoenix, Arizona, while monsters and minor gods in the service of chaos are coming at them from all directions, including up and down.

Cringe with them as the goddess of scorpions swarms them in New York City. Shake in your blue suede shoes as a pair of magically deadly good-old-boys chases them through the Graceland museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Spew milk out of your nose when a rampaging lion goddess turns into her sleepy cow aspect and begins making "Moo-zzz" sounds. And bask in the glow of puppy love as the Kanes encounter a pretty girl whose duty is to kill them, and a cute boy who happens to be the god of death.

You'll feel like you're right there as Carter and Sadie take turns narrating all their wild and weird adventures, from fleeing the upper deck of the Washington Monument in the form of birds to facing an army of demons, beasts, and animated sculptures (called shabtis) on one side and the unfriendly magicians of the House of Life on the other. Who knew there was more to Egyptian mythology than shambling mummies and cursed tombs? Well, you'll know now—you'll be amazed how much you can learn when you're having this much fun—and you'll be glad to know that there is more to come in the sequels: The Throne of Fire and The Serpent's Shadow.

by Angie Sage
Recommended Ages: 12+

The fifth book of the "Septimus Heap" series carries on the adventures of apprentice wizard Sep, princess Jenna, ex-manuscriptorium scribe Beetle, and their growing circle of sidekicks in the same wacky, wild, magically dangerous spirit as the previous four books. By now Septimus has survived his Queste, tamed his dragon, and rescued his brother Nicko from a time-travel-related exile. He has just been promoted to the rank of Senior Apprentice. Now all he has to do is fly his scaly friend Spit Fyre across the sea and bring back Jenna, Nicko, Beetle, and company. But his plans go awry when his passengers meet up with Jenna's merchant captain father first.

The party then splits up. Sep and his group fly on dragonback into a storm in which an unfortunate thunderbolt leaves them marooned on an island. Nicko, meanwhile, stays on board Milo Banda's ship, along with his girlfriend Snorri and her feline familiar. They end up lured onto a sandbar off the very same island—lured by a crew of wreckers who have evil plans for Milo's precious cargo. The wreckers' villainy includes the theft of an ancient beacon light, the attempted murder of the strangely feline fellow who guards it, a bargain with an evil ghost, a spirit whose song lures sailors to their doom, and a tunnel under the sea that could prove the fatal weakness of the Castle that Sep and his friends call home.

Meanwhile, Sep's old Young Army buddy, now known as Wolf Boy for reasons I haven't room here to explain, is on a sort of quest himself. If he completes his task, he may become the next White Witch of the Marram Marshes, succeeding Sep's quirky, cabbage-pushing Aunt Zelda. But before Wolf Boy can safely escape the den of the Port Witches' Coven with the required piece of magical ickiness, his task gets tangled up in the fate of Lucy Gringe, fiancee to Sep's ne'er-do-well brother Simon. The two of them end up having an adventure of their own, partly in an underwater craft that raises questions about exactly when and where this fantasy world is located. After all, "the Small Wet Country Across the Sea" isn't a very specific place name, is it? Hmmm.

And then, of course, there is a possessed girl from five hundred years in the past, and a self-steering sled that answers to a high-pitched whistle, and a cat that changes form every time the sun rises or sets, and a naughty wizard wannabe who intercepts a Jinn meant for someone else, and a pair of evil twins who resemble the number 10 when viewed in profile, side by side. There are spells that have to be said backward, and warriors with weapons growing out of their arms, and a ceramic gnome that magically drips water out of his spout, and an absolutely scandalous amount of FizzFroot and Banana Bears to tempt readers who have a sweet tooth. By the end of the tale, Sep and his ilk have faced down as great a danger as ever, making you wonder why some people are always having great adventures like this, and leaving behind an even larger cast of odd, weird, and funny characters whom we can expect to see in the next book. To be sure, there will always be a next book, as long as there are more words to be cunningly misspelled in the title. The next one in this series, for example, is titled Darke; a seventh book, Fyre, is due to be released in April 2013. Also, a novella called The Darke Toad, part of the Septimus Heap canon but not of the sequentially numbered series, is expected in February 2013.