April 29, 2010

(++++) ADVENTURES IN THE GRAND STYLE

The Keys to the Kingdom, Book 7: Lord Sunday. By Garth Nix. Scholastic. $17.99.

Sebastian Darke, Book Three: Prince of Explorers. By Philip Caveney. Delacorte Press. $17.99.

     As epics for young readers go, The Keys to the Kingdom is one of the longest-lasting: Garth Nix has taken 10 years to get from Mister Monday to Lord Sunday. That is as long as it took for the full set of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books to be published – but in those books, the hero and his friends grow up chronologically and pull the readers along with them, while in the Nix series, it is fair to guess that young readers who enthusiastically embraced the first few books are likely to have moved beyond The Keys to the Kingdom after a decade. The growth here is more emotional and metaphysical, almost spiritual, than it is physical: Arthur Penhaligon, Leaf and Suzy are not significantly different on Sunday from what they were the previous Monday. The nature of the decisions that Arthur has to make has changed, to be sure, and the nature of the forces opposing him in his role as Rightful Heir to the Architect of the House has changed as well – becoming more complex and, in this final book of the series, significantly stranger. Lord Sunday is a cold, calculating and inflexible opponent whose motivations Arthur has difficulty determining. “‘I do not interfere unnecessarily beyond these Gardens,’ said Lord Sunday. ‘It is unfortunate that events have so transpired that I must take a hand, to impose order where others have failed to do so.’” Lord Sunday has bizarre methods of negotiating: “‘Consider that allowing the puppets to take your eyes is only one of many things I can do to make you reconsider. While I will not stoop to menace mere mortals, I do hold your mother prisoner.’” Arthur, of course, has powers of his own, and such allies as Leaf, Suzy, Elephant and Dame Primus. The grotesquerie is ratcheted up a couple of notches in this book: “The tattoos on [Dr. Scamandros’] face became tumbling Catherine wheels trailing sparks as they careened across his cheeks and crashed into each other.” Arthur’s biggest worry here is that he is “afraid because he felt his human life slipping away from him.” This is no mere identity crisis – it is a key, so to speak, to what Arthur must finally decide and finally become. Longtime readers will have no trouble with prose that may seem unintentionally funny to series newcomers: “‘It was just that my savagesword broke on a Newnith’s helm.’ …‘It does not matter. We must move onward and upward. The Drasils have wilted, and this tower now projects fully into the Incomparable Gardens, which has allowed Saturday to mass far more force there, with the Piper’s army hot on her heels.’” Nix gets credit for consistency: his characters and his prose stay in the same channels here as in earlier books. And Arthur’s eventual discovery of what he must do, what he must become, is skillfully handled, although it may disappoint readers who saw The Matrix film trilogy years ago. In the end – and this gives nothing away – we have…well, the beginning, or a new beginning, just as the end of one week heralds the start of the next one. So Nix brings The Keys to the Kingdom to a very satisfying conclusion, if not an altogether surprising one.

     The more lighthearted adventures of Sebastian Darke show no sign of ending anytime soon, even though Philip Caveney intended to write a trilogy: Prince of Fools, Prince of Pirates and Prince of Explorers. Caveney hedges his bets here, though, having Sebastian say, near the book’s end, “There’ll be no need to go adventuring, ever again,” and having another character – the ever-faithful buffalope, Max – sigh and reply, “Now, why do I find that so hard to believe?” To be sure, Sebastian’s adventures contain enough fun – for readers, and sometimes even for Sebastian himself – so that readers will likely want more of them. Prince of Explorers is about the hunt for a legendary lost city called Mendip. Never mind why – the search itself is the point here. And search Sebastian does – along with Max, Cornelius (a good fighter to have at your side, or in front of you or behind) and sundry new characters. Some events are genuinely harrowing, such as a battle with zombies called Night Runners, but Caveney is careful to keep a lot of the book, and its dialogue, light: “‘For a Chosen One, you’re not all that knowledgeable, are you?’ …‘I’m very knowledgeable…about some things. I tell you what, I know more jokes than you could shake a stick at.’” Indeed, the half-elf, half-human Sebastian is declared the Chosen One of a tribe whose chief’s very attractive daughter becomes a traveling companion and complication. And there is an Indiana Jones-style whitewater-rafting adventure, plus many other hazards and some very long stories along the way – but as Cornelius sagely points out, “If adventuring were easy, everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they?” Cornelius and Max do a good job of providing comic relief even when the doings are dark. For example, Max discovers that an ark that is being built is actually the third such craft, the first two having met less-than-pleasant fates – and when he is told “third time lucky,” Max replies, “Yes…I believe I’ve heard several idiots saying that.” It’s fun – and often exciting – to stay with Max, Cornelius and of course Sebastian right through to the end of Prince of Explorers, and to look forward to wherever Caveney (the original “trilogy” plan notwithstanding) will take them next.

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