October 04, 2007


The Prophecy. By Hilari Bell. Eos. $6.50.

Knight and Rogue I: The Last Knight. By Hilari Bell. Eos. $16.99.

Dead Water Zone. By Kenneth Oppel. HarperTeen. $6.99.

Darkwing. By Kenneth Oppel. Eos. $16.99.

      Here are two book pairs, each providing an opportunity to visit (or revisit) an older novel that is now in paperback, and to encounter for the first time a new book by the same author. When that author is Hilari Bell, the novels are likely to be of consistently high quality, as are these two. The Prophecy, originally published last year and now available in paperback, is the story of Prince Perryn, a book-loving scholar who cannot manage to get the hang of weaponry and cannot rely much on magic, either, since it seems to be disappearing. The prophecy of the title tells Perryn how to kill a dragon that the attacking Norsemen have bound to their will. But the prophecy relies, as all such things seem to, on the very magic that is leaving the world. There are elements of both comedy and tragedy here, but by the end, the overall tone of the tale has become serious – and although Perryn’s eventual emergence as a blend of king and scholar will surprise few readers, the adventures through which he reaches his goal do contain plenty of surprises.

      The Last Knight starts a new Bell series, with elements that will be familiar to her readers – those of The Prophecy and her other books. This is the story of a rescue of a damsel in distress that goes seriously awry when it turns out that the damsel was imprisoned for what seems to have been good reason: she was awaiting trail for murdering her husband. The pairing of characters that gives this book, and the series it introduces, the title Knight and Rogue, melds Sir Michael Sevenson (a nobleman’s younger son who, like Don Quixote, has taken up knighthood and heroism centuries too late) with Fisk (a streetwise con artist who has ended up as Sir Michael’s squire). These two are teenagers – Sir Michael is 18, Fisk 17 – and not nearly as worldly wise as they think they are. Lady Ceciel, for one, seems to pull the proverbial wool over their eyes rather neatly. The book is narrated in alternating first-person chapters, and the contrasting viewpoints of the characters make The Last Knight particularly enjoyable to read.

      There is nothing enjoyable in Watertown, where 16-year-old Paul goes to look for his younger, weaker brother, Sam, who has disappeared after taking a job as a research assistant. Kenneth Oppel’s Dead Water Zone is dystopic science fiction about pollution and urban deterioration – and about what happens in a place where you can trust no one. Originally published in 1992 and now available in paperback, the book follows Paul into Watertown’s eerie streets, where he meets a girl named Monica who seems helpful, but who clearly isn’t telling him everything about her reasons for assisting him. Paul not only has to search for Sam but also has to confront Sam’s determination to do something for himself by using strange “dead water” that changes people’s metabolism. “You can’t understand the pull of the dead water, even the weakest of it,” one character tells Paul, but Paul must learn about that pull and confront it if he is to have a chance to save both Sam and himself – and perhaps Monica as well.

      Oppel’s new Darkwing is fantasy, not science fiction, and it returns to the world of his Silverwing trilogy about bat clans (Silverwing, Sunwing and Firewing). Darkwing is a prequel to the other books, taking place as the age of dinosaurs ends. Indeed, the winged saurians of the dinosaur age are believed to be extinct – until Dusk, the protagonist of this novel, sees one while exploring in the tree canopy. In his clan, Dusk alone can fly and see in the dark, but these are not seen as positive evolutionary adaptations by the clan, where being different leads to, at best, being shunned by other clan members. Dusk is fortunate: he is the son of the clan leader and therefore protected, at least for a time, from the others’ enmity. His status as a clan outsider, and the “outsider” status of the remaining winged saurians, are set against the plans of a creature called Carnassial: a predator who also has reasons for being concerned about the winged saurians, and who leads an attack on Dusk’s island that results in a massacre and forces Dusk and the few other survivors to leave their homes forever. The predator-and-prey relationships and dominance bids are the standard stuff of heroic fantasy; because the plot proceeds pretty much straightforwardly, Darkwing earns a (+++) rating. Still, Oppel’s setting (65 million years ago) and his decision to choose bats (actually “pre-bats” that he calls “chiropters”) as protagonists give Darkwing additional interest, especially for those who enjoyed the modern bats featured in the Silverwing trilogy.

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