December 20, 2007


The Rune of Unmasking, Book Two: A Dark Sacrifice. By Madeline Howard. Eos. $14.95.

The Midnight Library, Volume VII: I Can See You. By Damien Graves. Scholastic. $5.99.

      There is something satisfying about variations on a theme. In heroic fantasy, you know what the elements will be: good guys, bad guys, a quest, great daring, and eventual triumph of good over evil – but only after much pain and sacrifice. Madeline Howard’s The Rune of Unmasking trilogy has more of a feminist (or perhaps post-feminist) slant than most heroic fantasies, but it otherwise contains the usual ingredients. Like a well-wrought set of variations on a theme in music, Howard’s books let readers know where they stand at all times while keeping things interesting by being just unpredictable enough so you do not know precisely what will happen to precisely whom at precisely which instant. What happened in the trilogy’s first book, The Hidden Stars, was the discovery of a prophecy. There had been a great war between wizards and mages that ended with them destroying each other, followed by the rise of a dark empress-goddess named Ouriana; and then portents revealed the existence somewhere of a young girl destined to end Ouriana’s evil reign. A Dark Sacrifice focuses on the search for the princess by the band of heroes formed in the first book – and the growing toward adulthood of the princess herself. The vaguely medieval setting, the use of magic combined with old-fashioned weaponry, the names of the characters – all are typical of this genre. So is the writing: “She found him indescribably loathsome: his wide, sneering mouth and aggressive nose; the thick fingers, curving nails, and silvery fish-scale backs of his hands. Yet, it was more than physical deformity that made him hideous. Had that been all she would have pitied him, but every instinct told her there was mental and spiritual deformity as well.” Readers fond of strong female characters in a world of familiar heroism will fine Howard’s writing and pacing effective.

      The Midnight Library is for younger readers – preteens and perhaps some young teenagers – and consists of three unconnected stories per book. The cover story in the latest volume, I Can See You, in which the “Damien Graves” pseudonym is assumed by Shaun Hutson, is about a game played outdoors at night – a game that, unsurprisingly in the context of these books, proves deadly to basically nice kids. “Picture Perfect,” the second tale, has identical-twin protagonists named Jake and Brandon Taylor. They have a grandaunt named Lucy who is a mysterious character and in whose house they find an old mural, which they uncover when helping to strip old wallpaper. It would have been better, much better, to leave it covered… And then there’s “True Colors,” in which Carrie Peterson buys a magazine from a mysterious old lady. It comes with a free gift: a mood ring that reflects Carrie’s moods a little too well, almost as if it is creating them. You get the idea – the frights are mild and mostly predictable, the characters indistinguishable from each other, and the book designed for quick reading if you’re after a mild rush of fear.

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