Septimus Heap: Book One—Magyk; Book Two—Flyte; Book Three—Physik; Book Four—Queste. By Angie Sage. KatherineTegen/HarperCollins. $17.99 each.
A land filled with magic, created by a British woman author, where a young boy finds out at age 10 that he is born to be a wizard; where an evil magician from the past seeks to return and assume supreme power; where a feisty girl and ever-helpful boy are companions of the young wizard as he comes into his powers; where there are issues of family bonds and invisible rooms and a building filled with nooks, crannies and dark secrets… No, this is not J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series but Angie Sage’s 2,200-page saga of Septimus Heap, seventh son of a seventh son and therefore (by a longstanding tradition in arcane lore) possessor of astonishing magical (here spelled “magykal”) powers. Sage is no Rowling, although Magyk was Sage’s first novel – just as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (“Sorcerer’s Stone” in the U.S.) was Rowling’s. The Septimus Heap tales are fun to read and have many commendable elements, and if they had not been written when Rowling’s novels are still fresh in so many minds – and had not contained so many parallel elements – they would seem more innovative than they in fact do. As is, they come across as a sort of “Harry Potter Lite,” highly enjoyable for readers ages 8-12 but unlikely to develop an audience among older lovers of fantasy.
The matters that make this tetralogy both easy to read and easy to dismiss as suitable only for preteens have to do with consistency, characterization and motivation. This is one of those tales in which evildoers do bad things because…well, that’s what evildoers do. Good characters are so good that they are utterly naïve – to the point of stupidity (this is particularly clear in Flyte, in which Septimus’ evil oldest brother, Simon, commits a kidnapping right under everyone’s nose, but everyone except Septimus refuses to believe the evidence of his or her eyes because, well, Simon couldn’t possibly be a bad guy, could he?). Furthermore, Sage seems to think her young readers will take longer to figure things out than they in fact will. At the start of Magyk, it is thought that Septimus has died right after being born, but of course readers know that cannot possibly be true; yet when a boy of exactly the right age turns up, who has been given a number instead of a name (the number 412, with 4+1+2 adding up to, yes, seven), it is not until hundreds of pages later that the boy is revealed to be – yes! – Septimus.
To be fair to Sage, it has to be noted that after Magyk (2005), the other books, produced at the rate of one a year (2006-8), become increasingly self-assured and stylistically more appealing. And even in Magyk, the two most interesting characteristics of Sage’s writing are already present: forays into humor (often broad humor) and end-of-book chapters that tell, in very pithy form, what happened after the book’s events (Magyk), what set them in motion (Flyte), what the main narrative has not revealed about some characters (Physik), and how some things ended and others began (Queste). Each of the books is largely self-contained, although the tetralogy can perhaps best be looked at as two two-book series: in the first two books, Septimus comes into his magykal inheritance and starts learning the extent of his powers; in the second two, he and his friends go on an adventure in Time. By the end of the final book, when ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand rescues all the principal characters from the House of Foryx, where all Time meets, humor has assumed a much larger role in the narrative; and even the forces of darkness (such as the dead Queen Etheldredda, who is seeking eternal life, and the evil ghost, Tertius Fume) have their wry moments – as is emphatically not the case with the evildoers of the first two books, Simon and the dark (here, Darke), blustering but largely feckless wizard, DomDaniel.
A number of the subsidiary characters tend to steal the scenes in which they appear: the Dragon Boat, a half-living creature; Spit Fyre, an actual dragon hatched by and bonded to Septimus and often to be found pooping in inconvenient places; Alther, a dead former ExtraOrdinary Wizard who now, as a ghost, helps the living to the extent possible (which is a greater extent than you might expect); the Message Rat, who has to be properly commanded before he will talk and is then nearly impossible to shut up; and the Port Witch Coven, a sort of Keystone Kops of magyk. Septimus himself tends to be less interesting than those around him – one way in which this series is quite different from the Harry Potter tales. Yet Septimus is the linchpin of all the action, and as he grows and matures, so does the story and, happily, so does Sage’s ability to tell it. The result is that this very handsome matched four-volume set of Septimus’ adventures will be an excellent addition to the bookshelves of readers in the target age range, even if they are likely to tire of it by the time they become teenagers.