January 04, 2007


Dirty Magic. By Carol Hughes. Random House. $17.95.

The Will of the Empress. By Tamora Pierce. Scholastic. $8.99.

     There is so much magic out there (in books for young readers, anyway) that you would think it would take more forms.  But no – much of it takes the typical pseudo-Arthurian, pseudo-Tolkienian or pseudo-science-fictional forms that seem to be default settings for even the best novelists writing for young people.

     Certainly both Carol Hughes and Tamora Pierce have pacing and style to spare.  Hughes’ Jack Black & the Ship of Thieves was a taut thriller with some genuinely unusual elements.  Pierce’s many novels and novel cycles, including the Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens books, are filled with wonder and interesting characters.

     But both authors’ new books fall a little flat.  There is a sense in which they are retreads, either of approaches that have gone before or of earlier novels.  Thus, Dirty Magic features a strange, pale girl in a military uniform who brings the hero, Joe, into a parallel world where trench warfare is largely conducted by frightening self-propelled tanks.  The book’s cover, by Jon Foster, encapsulates that world neatly, but the world itself is not especially interesting.  Yes, there is a quest here, both for a way to bring peace to the warring armies in the “nearby” world and to find Joe’s sister, Hannah, who is in that parallel world and whom Joe needs to rescue.  Ho-hum.  No, the book itself is not ho-hum reading, since Hughes writes well and the basic story is exciting.  But the ideas underlying it are ho-hum.  Here, for example, is what one bad guy tells Joe in an attempt to lure him to his (the bad guy’s) side: “We’re very alike, you and I.  I understand you.  We want the same things.  We appreciate the same things.  We treasure the same things.  I want you to be my student, my heir, my closest ally.  There is no reason to create an empire if there is no one to share it with.  Think of the machines we could create!”  Now, how many bad guys, in how many books, have said essentially the same thing?  That’s the problem with Dirty Magic: it’s all-new, but reads as if you have read the same thing many times before.

     In the case of The Will of the Empress, which is now available in paperback, you have read the same thing before – or much of it, anyway – if you are a fan of Pierce’s works.  Here the reader meets – or, more likely, re-meets – the four mages of Circle of Magic and The Circle Opens: Daja, Briar, Tris and Sandry.  The four have grown up since the earlier books and have grown apart, but now all are thrown together into another quest, at the behest of Sandry’s uncle.  This is a magic-vs.-magic book, in which the four onetime friends are in jeopardy because of the machinations of mages working for the Empress of Namora.  Can Sandry get the four working together again so they can defeat the Empress?  Well, of course she can: she is captured and separated from the others, who naturally unite to save her.  And Sandry herself is scarcely helpless: “Sandry gathered up a blanket of her power and flung it over them all.  It separated as it draped over each person, trickling down into that man’s or that woman’s clothes.  Threads in their garments broke free and linked themselves together.  With her magic to shape them, the fibers sped as garments unraveled and rewove.  She was so angry that her will did not falter once…”  By the end of the book, it is not surprising when one of the friends comments, “We remade us.”  And so they did – in writing as stylish as Pierce usually provides.  But the quality of the writing in The Will of the Empress and Dirty Magic is not quite enough to conceal the fact that both books are rather tired in the innovation department.

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