The Poisons of Caux, Book One: The Hollow Bettle. By Susannah Applebaum. Illustrations by Jennifer Taylor. Knopf. $16.99.
The Clockwork Dark, Book 1: The Nine Pound Hammer. By John Claude Bemis. Random House. $16.99.
Malice. By Chris Wooding. Illustrated by Dan Chernett. Scholastic. $14.99.
First-time novelists Susannah Applebaum and John Claude Bemis both have the same basic idea: a sprawling, wide-ranging, multifaceted fantasy-adventure for preteens and young teenagers, packed with friendships and mysteries and the inevitable confrontation between good and evil. But Applebaum’s The Poisons of Caux and Bemis’ The Clockwork Dark approach their underlying quest tales in tremendously different ways. Applebaum uses the trappings of fairy tales to frame her story. There is an 11-year-old heroine, Ivy Manx, niece of an “apotheopath healer” who has disappeared from a kingdom now ruled by an evil king and queen. Ivy’s search for her uncle is the basis of the quest story, which takes place amid familiar character types: “In the ancient walled city of Templar, Arsenious Nightshade was suffering badly from a cramp in his royal foot. …It had been over a year since he’d drawn the country’s attention to his embarrassing disfigurement. …He’d endured smelly ointments and mustard poultices, bitter teas and mud baths. Still, he suffered so, enduring shooting pains and muscle spasms. …The King of Caux, the notorious King Nightshade, was a small man and painfully thin to look at. The dull light of the gray morning added nothing to his dreary complexion from the front and almost gave up entirely as he turned away.” Yet his queen is even more unpleasant – a regular Lady Macbeth for the preteen set. The king has a deaf, “gluttonous lump” of a brother, and servants bearing such names as Lowly Boskoop – no question who the bad guys are here. The king and queen have poisoned all that is good about Caux, and indeed, poisoning is common in the kingdom, which means food tasters are crucial members of the citizenry – while they live, anyway – and that fact helps Ivy get together with one taster, Rowan, who joins her on her quest after accidentally poisoning 20 of the king’s men. Among the other offbeat characters is a white boar named Poppy (“Rowan was easily endeared to pigs of any variety”). And of course there is a prophecy – “The Prophecy of the Noble Child,” which “was written long ago, but the ancient pages have gone missing from their binding.” The prophecy says “that a child of noble birth – a child of extraordinary circumstance – will banish the darkness from the forests, evil from where it dwells, and restore Caux to truth and light.” You can easily see where this is going – and young readers familiar with fairy tales and other fantasies will quickly see, too. Nevertheless, Applebaum’s clever, often humorous writing, and her willingness to twist genre conventions, make The Hollow Bettle a fast, amusing and enjoyable read. Oh – and the “bettle” of the title is a gemstone, not a misspelling of “beetle,” the insect.
The Clockwork Dark is much more intense and serious stuff, featuring characters out of American legends rather than ones patterned on fairy-tale types. Here the hero is a 12-year-old orphan named Ray, and his adventure calls on the romance of train travel, the attraction of the circus and the discovery (or rediscovery) of a world in which machines are used for evil and human strength is needed to fight them. The prototypical American tale of this type is of railwayman John Henry’s battle with a steam engine – a fight that the human wins, only to die afterwards with his hammer in his hand. This story has a direct parallel in The Nine Pound Hammer, one of whose characters is John Henry’s son – and the climax of which occurs atop a steam-powered locomotive. But Bemis pulls together a variety of other characters as well, notably a noble but loose-knit group called the Ramblers: sideshow performers and sworn enemies of an evil being known as the Gog. At one point, a peg-legged character named Nel provides some of Ray’s background and his own, saying that he himself was a Rambler “long ago. Until a Hoarhound took my leg off. …The Machine was destroyed, but not the Gog. I was a part of a band of Ramblers – along with your father, Ray – who hunted him down. There was a battle against the Gog’s army: men and beasts of clockwork and frost. Many Ramblers were killed. I was attacked by a Hoarhound. I was fortunate to only lose part of my leg. In the end, the Gog’s army was defeated. But the Gog escaped.” But not forever – and the eventual climactic confrontation involving the Gog, a Hoarhound and the Ramblers is a dramatic and effective one. Some of the characters, notably the sideshow’s crocodile-riding pirate queen, are effective as well, although neither the good guys nor the evil characters seem to have much motivation beyond being, respectively, good and evil: “‘There was a time when I would have considered [the Hoarhound] my greatest construction,’” the Gog reveals at one point. “‘But I have been working on another, one that will soon reshape this sad world into something truly great and useful.’” All that is missing is the nasty laugh of the melodramatic villain. The Nine Pound Hammer is indeed melodramatic, but its intriguing settings and folktale-echoing characters keep it interesting.
Malice is far from a first novel – Chris Wooding has more than a dozen to his credit – but it is the first volume of a series in which stories are presented through a combination of traditional narrative and comics. It’s a sort of partial graphic novel, told also through E-mails, instant messages, a newspaper story and other multimedia elements. There is a deadly comic book called Malice about which only a few people, some of them doomed, know; those who find the comic but are not ready to enter its world will find that “every – single – panel – was – blank” (with one word per page in Wooding’s book); to enter that world, there are rituals to be observed, including the repeated chanting of the phrase, “Tall Jake, take me away”; and within that world, for those lucky or unlucky enough to get there, are a variety of evil clockwork creations, including creatures that feed on time itself. And there is Tall Jake himself – first seen in 3-D, menacingly glaring from the book’s cover, then shown by Dan Chernett with skeletal thinness and an evil stare within the comic-book sections. Malice, the novel, veers between excitement and self-parody, with characters placed in real danger but also behaving – in the comic-book sections -- with comic-style aplomb. In the narrative, for example, a boy who has not yet found the Malice comic encounters a strange comic-book-store shopkeeper: “His heart was racing. He didn’t want to be caught back here. He wasn’t the kind of boy who was afraid of getting into trouble – ordinarily, the idea of getting shouted at by some fat guy was no big deal – but the shopkeeper was a different matter. Seth had looked into his eyes, and he’d seen emptiness. No passion, no pity. The dead eyes of a predator. That man could be very, very dangerous if he chose to be.” However, within a comic-book section, as characters are being chased by a mechanical monstrosity that throws things at them, one says, “Not a very good shot, is he?” And another replies, “You ever try throwing a MOOSE? They’re not built to be aerodynamic.” As a whole, Malice does not quite hang together, but its clever presentation and undeniable energy make it the thrill ride that Wooding intends it to be, and will undoubtedly and will have readers looking forward to the upcoming sequel, Havoc.