April 12, 2007


Fire Star. By Chris d’Lacey. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $15.99.

Odalisque: Book I of The Percheron Saga. By Fiona McIntosh. Eos. $14.95.

      Sometimes a heroic fantasy intended for younger readers can be more enthralling than a well-written one aimed primarily at adults. Fire Star is the third Chris d’Lacey book about of a world of dragons, potent polar bears and Arctic mysteries – and the power of stories. This is the world of The Fire Within and Icefire, and it is a very rich one indeed. Nominally intended for ages 7-10, d’Lacey’s latest book runs a whopping 549 pages, which is quite a bit for most readers in that age range to handle (although the type is on the large side). In this case, though, the book is worth its length, as d’Lacey uses it to return his hero, David Rain, to the Arctic – fresh with a contract for a new book that he is writing. But this is not an Arctic of mundane dangers, as the book’s frightening opening scene makes clear. Yes, there are bears, and there is danger from them; there are men, hunters, and there is danger from them. But there is also something else – a shapeshifter, a not-bear that can look like a bear and that seeks a certain bear talisman with an intensity bordering on fanaticism. As David writes about bears and dragons and the Fire Star of the title, he realizes that his fiction is becoming real, or reflecting the real, and that an old and implacable foe, Gwilanna, is coming back: “My writing is the key,” he realizes. True, but the key to his writing may be Gadzooks, the small and reasonably cooperative dragon. And the relationship between dragons and bears, one of longstanding enmity, may be the key to unraveling what is happening – that, and the Fire Star. Included here are “A Close Encounter of the Dragon Kind” (one chapter title), a vision of birdlike spirits with fire in their mouths, the creation of a “natural healing dragon,” and various other wonders. And there is enough depth to the characters to keep the purely human element of the story interesting, as when David is told: “You tapped into the universal auma of the north… You’re a loose cannon, David…. Discipline and patience are not your strengths.” Eventually – but be disciplined and patient enough to read the book to find out what happens eventually. It’s a more-than-worthwhile literary journey.

      Fiona McIntosh is an old hand at heroic fantasy, and with Odalisque she embarks on a new trilogy, The Percheron Saga. It’s going to be a good one – and also a reasonably standardized one, which is why this is a (+++) book (although McIntosh’s fans will surely rate it higher). McIntosh slices and dices all the traditional fantasy elements here: palace, harem, an outsider whose protection is fatefully withdrawn, defiance, and a role for the gods themselves. The hero, Lazar, captured by slave traders, fights his way to freedom and a high position under the Zar of Percheron, Joreb. But when Joreb dies and his 15-year-old heir, Boaz, takes the title of Zar, the ambition of Boaz’s mother – a former harem slave – comes to the fore and threatens Lazar, and perhaps Percheron itself. Then a new girl, Ana, is brought to the harem, destabilizing things further by captivating both Lazar and Boaz; and then the gods themselves get into the act as they prepare for a battle of their own; and everything becomes intense and complex and very well-written – and very familiar to anyone who has done any heroic-fantasy reading. This is a fine book for a hearty helping of exoticism – but it is a typical helping, with McIntosh effectively mining the many clichés of the genre without making any attempt to rise above them.

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