May 17, 2007


Evil Genius. By Catherine Jinks. Harcourt. $17.

Tomorrow’s Magic. By Pamela F. Service. Random House. $15.99.

The Darkwar Saga, Book Two: Into a Dark Realm. By Raymond E. Feist. Eos. $25.95.

      The goals that fantasists set for themselves frequently determine how well their books come out. There is safety in hewing closely to well-worn formulas, but little likelihood of breaking new ground or luring readers who have not previously been interested in the genre. But there is risk to moving beyond the clichés of the field – the risk of alienating fantasy lovers while still failing to find an audience among people who do not usually read books of this type.

      Catherine Jinks takes the risk, and if she had only had the courage of her convictions and carried through her unusual and entertaining idea for the entire novel called Evil Genius, she might have brought forth something really special. As it is, the book is well written, fast paced and exciting, but once it moves into familiar good-but-misunderstood-boy-in-danger mode, it is far less intriguing than it might otherwise have been. For Evil Genius begins with a fascinating premise: where do the bad guys, the really smart bad guys, go to get educated? Cadel Piggott is a genius, and one without many scruples. He lives with adoptive parents; his true parentage is a mystery. He “could picture systems of all kinds in three dimensions, with perfect accuracy,” and uses his ability to cause railway problems, traffic jams and such. He is small for his age – nine when the book starts – and has a girlish look about him that turns into movie-star attractiveness when he becomes a teenager. What he wants is to make ever-increasing amounts of mischief, not actually to hurt anyone but to understand better how complex systems work and how they can be manipulated – and if people do get hurt, that is just part of the process. In fact, Cadel starts looking at social interactions as just another complex system, soon figuring out how to get other people to make mistakes, start fights, get into arguments, and so on. Clearly he has a talent that can be channeled, and the first part of the book shows where he goes to expand and exploit his abilities, and how good he becomes at subjects ranging from explosives to guerrilla skills to forgery of old documents. This is great stuff, more so because Jinks keeps Cadel (whose name means “battle” in Welsh) endearing even as he learns how to do bad things and revel in them. But then Jinks loses her way, turning the book into a “misunderstood youth” story in which Cadel makes friends, reaches out to people, is kidnapped by real bad guys, and is eventually reduced to blubbering fear from which he needs adult rescue. This descent into conventionality turns Evil Genius into a far lesser book than it could have been. The planned sequel, Genius Squad, sounds even more goody-two-shoes and thus even less interesting.

      There is plenty that’s interesting in Tomorrow’s Magic, but it is less intriguing now than when Pamela F. Service’s work was first published in two volumes: Winter of Magic’s Return in 1985 and Tomorrow’s Magic in 1987. The new edition of the combined work includes Service’s whole story of post-nuclear-holocaust Britain and a bold attempt to return the nation to rule by King Arthur, whose reappearance in a time of great need has long been predicted. Service is a top-notch writer, and this tale of mutants, Merlin, Morgan Le Fay and the ordinary (or perhaps not-so-ordinary) humans caught in the midst of a good-vs.-evil battle is excitingly told and very well paced. In a world of fell-dogs and ordinary sheep, where roses and unicorns are both equally extinct, the attempt to re-establish order by returning to an age of good rule – and changing the outcome of the final battle in which Arthur and his forces were destroyed – is a noble calling that makes for a fine piece of high fantasy. But it was a better story 20-plus years ago. Aftermaths of nuclear holocausts were already the subject of far too many tales by the mid-1980s. Retellings of Arthurian legends have sprouted weedlike in the years since. Tomorrow’s Magic will enchant readers who have encountered few, if any, post-holocaust and Arthur-returns stories. But most of today’s fantasy readers have surely seen this sort of thing quite often enough. The creativity of Service’s book has largely evaporated, mainly because of circumstances beyond the author’s control. But for whatever reason, Tomorrow’s Magic now reads mostly like a well-wrought relic of yesterday.

      Raymond E. Feist doesn’t even try for anything particularly new in The Darkwar Saga, of which Into a Dark Realm is the second book (after Flight of the Nighthawks). There is nothing inadequate in the plotting or pacing of this book, but there is nothing distinguished, either. Feist is a master of a formula, and makes no attempt whatsoever to color outside the lines that the formula dictates. The description of Into a Dark Realm could fit many other fantasy books, with only some specific names changed: a murderous brotherhood’s reign of terror and attempt to foment civil war was stopped in the first book, but the victors have no time to rest, for a mad and powerful sorcerer has escaped, and the realm is threatened not only by him but also by “the most vicious warriors in the known universe,” who are bent on conquest because that, after all, is what vicious warriors are always bent on. A good sorcerer, his brave helpers and a mysterious outsider must join together to seek a way to defeat the enemy – and to do so must journey into the heart of the enemy’s own empire. This formula has served Feist and other writers well for years, and Into a Dark Realm will not disappoint readers who like Feist’s writing style (which is quite good) and hunger for a tale with whose outlines they will be familiar from the first page to the last. There’s little unexpected in this book, but little that will disappoint devotees of its genre.

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