The Book of Lies. By James Moloney. HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Magician Trilogy, Book Three: The Chestnut Soldier. By Jenny Nimmo. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $9.99.
James Moloney’s The Book of Lies is twice-aptly titled. First, there is within it, as a central character (so to speak), a volume called The Book of Lies, and this book-within-the-book is the prime mover of the highly convoluted plot. Second, Moloney’s The Book of Lies is indeed a book filled with lies, in which characters are not what they seem to be, treachery lurks everywhere, and the traitors who betray the most are those who lie even to themselves. This is a heady brew indeed, worthy of a fantasy novel for adults, but Moloney’s straightforward style and very fast pace keep his work appropriate for its target age range of 8-12. The book begins with the first of many lies: delivery of a boy to an orphanage in a mysterious way, after which an attempt is made – using The Book of Lies – to turn him into someone else by erasing his memories and substituting others. The attempt fails because of a girl at the orphanage named Bea, who hides unseen as the attempt to make the boy’s life a lie proceeds; and Bea is not who she seems, either, nor even what she seems. Later adventures of the boy – whose true name is Marcel, but to whom everyone lies about who he is and where he comes from – involve another boy at the orphanage, who first seems an enemy, then a very close friend, then (by the end of the book) perhaps an enemy again. And there is a horse that is not at all what it seems; and a wizard, creator of The Book of Lies, who may be good or evil, or both or neither, or sometimes one and sometimes the other; and a rescue from the orphanage that may be a great boon or something more sinister; and on and on spins the web of lies, entrapping every character in the book in one way or another, at one time or another. Moloney cheats at the novel’s end, being so determined to set up a sequel that he lets the web tear in a way that makes no sense within the book’s context. But there is more than enough skilled storytelling and inventive plotting here to forgive the final slipping of some strands.
And speaking of webs: those of Arianwen, the Snow Spider in Jenny Nimmo’s Magician Trilogy, are not enough to resolve the problem of The Chestnut Soldier, the final book of the series. Arianwen has been guarding the last of the five gifts that were given to Gwyn by his grandmother in the trilogy’s first book, The Snow Spider – four years before The Chestnut Soldier begins. This gift is the one Gwyn’s grandmother told him never to use: a broken toy horse. Now the horse’s time has come – or, rather, the time of the evil spirit inhabiting it: “Efnisien, prince of madness and the dark,” as the character is described at one point. Breaking free of its imprisonment, the soul of the cold and brutal Efnisien wreaks havoc in a search for revenge against long-dead enemies – or their modern descendants. This is not an especially inventive plot in a tale for ages 8-12, but Nimmo handles it so skillfully that its rough edges rarely show. Efnisien’s escape coincides with a visit by a soldier named Evan Llŷr, who claims to be a distant cousin of Nia, the shy girl who helped Gwyn so much in the trilogy’s second book, Emlyn’s Moon. The relationship among Evan, Gwyn, Emlyn and Nia proves crucial to the plot complications and their eventual resolution – which not only involves Gwyn coming to terms with magic, but also allows him to start growing physically again, after not doing so since he received his grandmother’s gifts. Part of Nimmo’s point, of course, is that Gwyn has grown – quite a bit, in mostly unseen ways – and at last his physical stature can start to match his emotional, psychological and magical growth. Excitingly written and filled with vivid characters and scenes, The Chestnut Soldier concludes this trilogy strongly by reaching both into the past – Gwyn calls on the strength of an ancestor to fight Efnisien – and into a future in which Gwyn will have even more of his own strength on which to rely.