May 13, 2010


The 39 Clues, Book 7: The Viper’s Nest. By Peter Lerangis. Scholastic. $12.99.

The 39 Clues, Book 8: The Emperor’s Code. By Gordon Korman. Scholastic. $12.99.

Young Jesus Chronicles. By Spencer Smith and Mark Penta. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.

     By now, anyone who is going to get sucked into the multimedia whirlpool of The 39 Clues is, like Poe’s narrator in A Descent into the Maelstrom, thoroughly trapped and “going down.” But down into what? The complexities of this 10-novel, online-game, playing-card series start to come together in its seventh and eighth books, which will only whet participants’ appetites for the final two volumes (both due out this year) and their extensive and inevitable tie-ins. Peter Lerangis, who also wrote The Sword Thief (Book 3), and Gordon Korman, who also did One False Note (Book 2), are thoroughly familiar with and comfortable in the world of Amy and Dan Cahill and the seven teams of members of the far-flung and amazingly prominent members of the Cahill family – all of them competing for clues that will eventually bring ultimate power to those who solve the mystery. The Viper's Nest is full of partial solutions, some of which attentive readers may already have guessed. For example, in Book 6, In Too Deep, it turns out that Amy’s hero, Amelia Earhart, was not only a Cahill (no surprise: just about everyone famous or notorious in world history seems to have been a Cahill) but was also a Madrigal (a member of the most mysterious of the seven Cahill groups). So when, in Book 7, Amy and Dan finally learn where they fit into the Cahill clan, the surprise may not be especially surprising to readers, although it shocks Amy and Dan. Some revelations about Amy and Dan’s parents are perhaps less expected, such as the fact that they traveled under the name of a murderer. The books of The 39 Clues take Amy and Dan around the world, with Book 7 landing them in South Africa, where they learn about a famed warrior – all the books intertwine bits of real-world history with the fictional Cahills and their clues chase.

     Book 8 takes place in China and features one of the periodic separations of the two protagonists, allowing each to go his or her own way for a while and make separate discoveries. In The Emperor’s Code (the title refers to a note written on silk by a Chinese emperor), Dan is captured by Team One (the Kabras) and rescued, or maybe kidnapped, by Team Six (the Wizards). Team Two (the Holts) turns up as well – climbing Mount Everest. Korman certainly gives readers their money’s worth of people rushing all over the place in this book. Amy and Dan get back together in time to use a helicopter to climb Earth’s highest aboveground mountain, “soaring past altitudes far beyond the ceiling of any other helicopter in the world.” But of course the mystery is not solved atop Everest – although the essential goodness of Amy and Dan is made clear yet again when Amy finds an object that may be vitally important, then loses it while rescuing one of the Kabras. Dan, however, has found another important object – which points them toward the Caribbean and Book Nine. Clearly all will be revealed in the not-too-distant future, although not just yet.

     A far greater mystery than anything in The 39 Clues gets a far lighter treatment in a set of cartoons from friends and fellow catechism school attendees Spencer Smith (writer) and Mark Penta (artist). It happens that the Synoptic gospels tell nothing of the life of Jesus between birth and the start of his ministry in adulthood; nor does the gospel of John have anything substantive to say about this time period, which represents the greatest part of Jesus’ life. Enter Young Jesus Chronicles, a book of mild but respectful irreverence and absolutely-not-to-be-trusted speculation. It is divided into three parts. In “0-VI A.D.” we find Joseph and Mary, covered with hay, turning in their keys at the hotel’s front desk and being told they misunderstood – they were supposed to go to the manager’s suite, not the manger. Also here, Mary looks into the sky while complaining, “The least you could do is change a diaper once in a while!” In “VII-XII A.D.,” Jesus delivers “The Sermon at the Jungle Gym” and offers an enormous tie to an overhanging cloud on Father’s Day. And in “XIII-VXIII A.D.,” those awkward teenage years, Jesus wins a swim meet by running on top of the water and goes on a date with a stereotypical ditz, leading to the comment, “He could cure the blind, but He couldn’t cure the blonde.” Young Jesus Chronicles is, shall we say, a bit of an acquired taste – and in truth, it is neither the first nor the best cartoon-style speculation on Jesus’ life (The Adventures of Jesus [1962] and The New Adventures of Jesus [1969], both created by Frank Stack – under the pseudonym Foolbert Sturgeon – are minor classics). The Smith-Penta book will offend the easily offended (that is why they are called the easily offended), but in truth, it is pretty silly and harmless stuff, occasionally a trifle tasteless but never overtly vulgar or disrespectful. Far worse has been done in Jesus’ name.

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