July 20, 2006


The Prophecy. By Hilari Bell. HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Wizard Test. By Hilari Bell. Eos/HarperCollins. $5.99.

Grail Quest #2: Morgain’s Revenge. By Laura Anne Gilman. Parachute/HarperCollins. $10.99.

     By the time they get to be age 10 or older – that is, by the time they reach the target age range for these books – most young readers will know the basic elements of fantasy: a hero or heroine, a quest journey, magic, an unblinkingly evil nemesis, some coming-of-age and finding-yourself elements, and so on.  Writers in this genre, for this age group, can take the easy way out by mixing and scrambling all these elements and creating a passable piece of entertainment.  Or they can do more than is usual – as does Hilari Bell.

     Bell’s latest book, The Prophecy, is funny enough, fast-paced enough, and fantastic enough to interest young readers who usually have only a mild liking for swords and sorcery.  It’s the story of Prince Perryn, a book-loving scholar who cannot manage to get the hang of weaponry and cannot rely much on magic, either, since it seems to be disappearing.  The prophecy of the title tells Perryn how to kill a dragon that the attacking Norsemen have bound to their will.  But the prophecy relies, as all such things seem to, on the very magic that is leaving the world.  And it requires Perryn to find a unicorn, a true bard and a singing sword.  This could be a recipe for comedy or tragedy, but Bell chooses to use elements of both: the threat to Perryn’s homeland is real, his drunken father cannot stop it, and the dragon is scary enough; but the sword, when Perryn eventually unearths it (that’s a clue), is a character of high comedy, and there is plenty of lightness to leaven many of the proceedings.  On balance, though, The Prophecy tells a serious story – the usual one of coming of age, but with enough twists and turns to make it unusually enjoyable.  Perryn’s eventual emergence as a blend of king and scholar will surprise few readers, but the adventures through which he reaches his goal – including a very harrowing final confrontation with the dragon – contain surprises aplenty.

     Bell’s previous book, The Wizard Test – now available in paperback – includes less balancing of serious and amusing elements; it is an altogether darker story.  The hero here, Dayven, is a born wizard who unwillingly proves himself through the test of the title.  Then, after he learns of his unwanted magical ability, he finds that a more important test is only beginning, for dangerous political intrigue may force him to do what he knows he must not: alter people’s true destinies.  Early in the book, Dayven must break one oath to fulfill another, and another character tells him, “I understand that you had to make a choice.  And your choice was right.  But it shouldn’t be like that, Dayven.  You shouldn’t have to choose between oaths.”  Yet Dayven must choose between oaths, and between loyalties, throughout the book, in order to pass the greater test whose nature becomes clear only at the end of the story.  Readers will not be surprised that he does pass – but the cost of his success is one that sensitive readers will find themselves thinking about seriously.

     It is harder to take Laura Anne Gilman’s Grail Quest series seriously.  The work is formulaic, using the same basic elements used by Hilari Bell but presenting them in a much more standardized way.  The second book of the series, Morgain’s Revenge, is well enough written to earn a (+++) rating, but is scarcely a must-read.  Anyone who does not know Grail Quest #1: The Camelot Spell will have some trouble making sense of the characters and motivations here, although knowledge of the legends of King Arthur certainly would help, since Grail Quest is a version of them.  In a sense, the Grail Quest title is a misnomer, since the quest never happens – the first and second books are both about ways it is delayed.  The delays are caused by the machinations of Morgain le Fay (in other Arthurian books, usually called Morgan le Fey), who uses magic and kidnapping and other nefarious doings to interfere with King Arthur’s knights.  To target the book at young readers, Gilman makes most of the story turn not on highborn derring-do and chivalry but on the adventures of Camelot’s servants.  Three of them – Gerard, Newt and Ailis – bear the brunt of the action and the brunt of Morgain’s anger here, while the knights plan their important and glorious quest and end up going not much of anywhere.  The setup for Grail Quest #3 is quite clear: an ending featuring a character saying “something’s wrong” makes it plain how the next volume will begin.

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