July 16, 2009


The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel III: The Sorceress. By Michael Scott. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

Oracles of Delphi Keep. By Victoria Laurie. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     These are big books, each running more than 500 pages, in the modern-fantasy vein for preteens and young teenagers. That is, they are filled with brave young people coming to terms with ancient powers that threaten not only the protagonists but also the entire world. Structurally, the books are quite similar, even to their protagonists: Michael Scott’s novel, the third in his Nicholas Flamel series, continues to focus on fraternal twins Sophie and Josh Newman, while Victoria Laurie’s book, first in a new sequence, features orphan twins Ian and Theodosia Wigby. The pairing of a boy and girl of roughly the age of the target readership is of course intended to pull in both boy and girl readers; and both these authors, in line with modern expectations, are careful to make their two central characters equally intelligent, plucky, brave and central to the narrative. The result is that readers who enjoy either of these books will likely enjoy the other as well, even though the two works have slightly different age targets: Scott’s for ages 12 and up, Laurie’s for ages 10 and up.

     The Sorceress takes us to the middle of a projected six-book series that started with The Alchemyst and progressed to The Magician. Readers really need to know the earlier books to appreciate this one, since it picks up pretty much where The Magician left off. Nicholas Flamel – made immortal by discovering the Philosopher’s Stone – is aging rapidly since the theft of the book of Abraham the Mage (in which the Stone was kept) by the evil Dr. John Dee. Dee, once a spy for Queen Elizabeth I, is trying to complete the Final Summoning that will bring him and his ilk ultimate power and disprove the prophecy that indicates that Sophie and Josh will have the power to help Flamel protect the book, and the world, from the evil Dark Elders. Unfortunately for Dee, two pages of the book are missing – the very two he needs to complete the Summoning. Unfortunately for Flamel, he is the not only one aging one year every 24 hours (a side effect of each day without the book): so is his wife, Perenelle, who is imprisoned at, of all places, Alcatraz. Also unfortunately for Flamel, there is a significant obstacle in the way of his doing what he must do, which is to teach Sophie and Josh the third “elemental magic.” The problem is that the one Elder with that magical ability is not to be trusted. And neither, of course, is Dee – at one point, Josh almost gets the better of him, so of course the bad guy throws out a typical bad-guy temptation: “Kill the Archon and you will experience millennia, hundreds of millennia, of knowledge. You will know the history of the world from the very beginning. And not just this world either. A myriad of worlds.” This is, of course, all nonsense, and nonsense of a particular “Harry Potter wannabe” kind. Scott’s rather overwrought prose does not stand up particularly well when compared with J.K. Rowling’s spare, straightforward writing, and his characters are far less fully formed than hers. “With every magic I learn, I feel more and more complete,” says Sophie at one point. “It’s as if parts of me have been missing all my life and now I’m becoming whole again, piece by piece.” Well, yes – and for young readers interested in magic for its own sake, The Sorceress is as well-paced and thrilling as Scott’s two prior Nicholas Flamel books. But the characters themselves remain rather thin, defined more by what they do than by who they are, and even the strutting villainy of Dee is one-dimensional. Scott is a good genre writer, but genre writing is ultimately all that this series has to offer.

     Nor does Oracles of Delphi Keep rise above the same formula. Here the ancient prophecy underlying the story is discovered among the White Cliffs of Dover, and it tells of a quest on which the fate of the world depends. Who must go on the quest? Why, two named Ian and Theodosia – the very discoverers of the prophetic writing. There is a great deal of bustling about in this first book of Laurie’s series: a hunt for a mysterious beast, a fair amount of standard orphanage trouble (cruel adults, young bullies, and so forth), and some scene-setting to establish the book as taking place between World Wars I and II. At one point, for example, during a history class about the Great War, Theo suddenly insists on telling the teacher, “You’re a fool to believe that there won’t be another Great War. …Only the next one will be far worse than you could ever imagine!” The teacher, not surprisingly, insists that “this is a lesson in history, and not a lesson in fortune-telling,” but Theo’s comments get wilder and wilder: “The great wolf will rise up from the east and sweep down upon us, bearing his crooked black cross on a sea of blood! He’ll call himself the Fury and he’ll hang his banner from every hill and building, and where it hangs, all will know that a tyrant of death rules the land!” Readers, of course, will know that Theo is predicting World War II, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and in fact the history teacher realizes that Theo’s apparent ravings have real-world parallels. But in the context of Oracles of Delphi Keep, Theo’s ravings – if they are ravings – are merely one part of a mystery that traces back to ancient Greece and ahead to…what? “As Darkness Looms and Shadows Cast,” as one chapter is called, the future seems as murky as the past is indecipherable. There is certainly excitement in Oracles of Delphi Keep, and danger, and magic – much from the evil sorcerer called Magus the Black. Indeed, Laurie’s book is rather over-complicated, as if she is determined to get all the threads of her story into place within the first volume so she can spin them out at her leisure in later ones. The realistic scene-setting – Laurie is familiar with Dover, and her orphaned grandfather told her stories of a poorly run English orphanage – is sometimes jarringly juxtaposed with the fantasy themes. And neither Ian nor Theo really develops much character in the book – both are too busy having things happen to them. Still, Oracles of Delphi Keep has enough intensity and wonderment in it to satisfy its intended young audience and likely bring readers back for the next installment of Laurie’s series.

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