September 06, 2007


The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel I: The Alchemyst. By Michael Scott. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Billy Hooten #1: Owlboy. By Thomas E. Sniegoski. Illustrated by Eric Powell. Yearling. $5.99.

      Some young readers casting about for an antidote to post-Harry-Potter blues may enjoy fastening onto either of these two books, both of which are the beginnings of new series. The Alchemyst is intended for ages 12 and up and has more of the seriousness that J.K. Rowling built into her Potter novels. There is a germ of truth underlying it: there really was a Nicholas Flamel, who lived from 1330 to 1418 and was a highly esteemed alchemist. Alchemists were seeking, among other things, the Philosopher’s Stone, which could change base metal to gold and provide eternal life (the object’s name is part of the title of the first Potter book, although it was changed to “Sorcerer’s Stone” for the American edition). Michael Scott takes off from the idea that Flamel could indeed have discovered the secret of eternal life, hidden within a volume called The Book of Abraham the Mage, which Flamel has kept throughout the ages and continues to protect. Now, in the modern world, the sinister Dr. John Dee – once a spy for Queen Elizabeth I – is determined to get his hands on the book for his own nefarious purposes; but according to a prophecy, young twins Sophie and John Newman have the power to help Flamel protect the book, and the world, from Dr. Dee’s evil machinations. This is pretty straightforward magical-adventure stuff, but Scott keeps the plot moving ahead briskly and maintains a sense of familiarity of place and circumstance: for example, the twins ride in an SUV across the Golden Gate Bridge while serious magical matters are afoot. Scott does, unfortunately, have an irritating tendency to slip into cliché: “The smile curled her lips, but did not light up her eyes.” “These are creatures that have no right to exist outside of myth.” “We really should be leaving. And right now would be a good time!” But he does a nice job of arraying the good guys against the bad, and of creating such characters as the Morrigan, Hekate and the Crow Goddess to make the battles interesting.

      Younger Potter fans, ages 9-12, and aficionados of the more juvenile jokes in Rowling’s books, may have some fun with the humorous fantasy in the first book of the Owlboy series. Here, put-upon Billy Hooten makes the mistake of answering a cry for help from a cemetery, and finds himself transformed into a superhero whose job is to protect Monstros City, a bizarre, creature-inhabited place underneath Billy’s mundane town of Bradbury, Massachusetts. Much of the humor in Thomas E. Sniegoski’s book is of the self-deprecating sort. After Billy’s first foray as Owlboy, he returns to the coffin entryway to Monstros City and calls down, “Archebold, it’s me, Billy. I’ve come to give you back the costume. It doesn’t fit and I look like a dork in it.” Later, in the everyday school world of the gym, facing the bullies who always dominate dodgeball, Billy refuses to take the easy way out by letting himself be hit, and actually manages to catch “a ball thrown by Killer Kulkowski. You could’ve heard a fish fart in the gym, it was so quiet, and Billy looked around to see everybody watching him.” These scenes are typical of ones that are not the book’s finest moments. Better are ones in which Billy hobnobs with goblins and uses his new dodgeball courage to fight back against a cannon that just happens to be firing – dodgeballs. Also here are cockroach chunk cookies and elevators that stop so quickly that “Billy wondered if it was possible to live with his intestines up in his throat” – plus many other scenes that are certainly not to be taken seriously, but that produce a number of chuckles and the occasional outright laugh.

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