June 24, 2010


A Dignity of Dragons. By Jacqueline K. Ogburn. Illustrated by Nicolette Ceccoli. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

Goose Chase. By Patrice Kindl. Sandpiper. $5.99.

The Magic Thief, Book Two: Lost. By Sarah Prineas. Harper. $6.99.

The Magic Thief, Book Three: Found. By Sarah Prineas. Harper. $16.99.

     Who, reading these books, could possibly think that there is nothing new under the magical sun? All these authors take new angles on magic, producing works that will delight even readers who thought magic had gone about as far as it could go through the Harry Potter books and the innumerable spinoffs of J.R.R. Tolkien. Indeed, Tolkien himself never came up with a good collective noun for dragons – perhaps because there weren’t really many of them in his books. But Jacqueline K. Ogburn has thought carefully about what you would call groupings of many magical creatures from all around the world – some of which will likely be totally unknown to readers. Yes, “a dignity of dragons” makes sense: even when considered evil, the beasts have a certain majesty about them. And “a riddle of sphinx,” “a splash of mermaids” and “a resurrection of phoenix” are eminently sensible descriptions (although legend has it that there is only one phoenix, so finding an entire “resurrection” of them would be quite a feat). Clever in a surprisingly adult way – replete with wordplay – are “an amazement of minotaurs” (because the minotaur lived at the center of a maze) and “a pandemonium of fauns” (because they are associated with the god Pan). But how many readers will understand “a judgment of kirin,” “a wisdom of Chi’lin” or “a dazzlement of Quetzalcoatls”? Ogburn briefly explains every magical creature at the end of the book, so a puzzlement of readers (so to speak) should not last long: kirin are scaly Japanese unicorns, Chi’lin are spiritual creatures of Chinese culture, and Quetzalcoatls are Mexican feathered serpents. Furthermore, Nicolette Ceccoli renders the various creatures with a rare combination of beauty and mystery, whether showing hovering manticores, chimeras breathing fire at a fighter flying a winged horse, a were-fox glancing alluringly out of the page, or “a storm of thunderbirds” and “a thundering of rocs” descending from the clouds in heavy rain. Clever text and outstanding illustrations combine to bring their own sort of magic to A Dignity of Dragons.

     There is little that is dignified in Goose Chase, and that is Patrice Kindl’s whole point. This is a hilarious and very well-plotted sendup of innumerable fairy tales, from the obvious one about the Goose Girl through a whole set of Grimm and not-so-grim others. The book starts – starts – with the title heroine stuck in an impenetrable tower, wooed by an awful prince and even more awful king, both of whom want her for her magical wealth-making powers. This is almost but not quite a story of what happens after the presumably happily-ever-after ending of the original Grimm story, in which the Goose Girl – a princess betrayed by an evil maidservant – is restored to her true condition and (in the original tale) marries a prince. Kindl will have none of that, and in fact touches on elements of the original story only when she darn well feels like it. This Goose Girl finds her own way in the world, escaping from the inescapable tower and promptly running into three ogresses, whose servant she becomes after talking back to them so saucily that they decide not to cook and eat her. Fairy-tale motifs are tossed about adroitly here. For example, portents regularly come in threes in the old stories, but Alexandria (the Goose Girl’s name) refuses to let them be. Told that a noise is the wind in the trees, she responds, “But there is no wind.” Told that a second noise is “a blackbird dropping down to its nest,” she responds, “But blackbirds do not fly at night.” Told that a third noise is “the stream roaring and rushing o’er the rocks in its path,” she exclaims, “But the stream is before us, not behind us.” This Goose Girl is no goose – and the goose chase in which she leads the other characters, although not a “wild goose chase” in the original sense of a futile pursuit, is certainly wild enough. Through chapter after chapter – all headed by appropriate proverbs and occasional apt aphorisms (even one from Herodotus) – Alexandria makes her not-always-merry way toward an ending that is perfectly labeled “happily ever after, more or less.” It is quite a journey, combining wit with magic and stirring up the result into a most appetizing concoction.

     Sarah Prineas’ The Magic Thief trilogy is delicious, too, in a different way. The first book, which shares its title with the whole series, introduced Conn (short for Connwaer, but might as well be short for “con man”), a thief who is apprenticed to the wizard Nevery Flinglas after successfully picking the wizard’s pocket without being killed. This was Prineas’ first novel, and a remarkably sure-handed debut. It ends with Conn in trouble, for which he has a penchant: he loses the locus device that lets him communicate with the magic of the city of Wellmet, where the story is set. The second book, Lost – now available in paperback – finds Conn seeking other ways to get in touch with the city’s magic; his experiments, predictably, are a good deal less than successful; and he makes such a mess of things that he is exiled. He then joins a mission to the city of Desh, which may be the source of the evils plaguing Wellmet. Conn proves his value on this mission, using his street knowledge and magical abilities to seek information on the evil Shadowmen and the power behind them. Prineas does a good job of varying the expressed viewpoints of these books: they are Conn’s first-person narratives, but also include letters from Nevery and other characters that show things from different angles and help fill in information that Conn could not possibly know on his own.

     And now comes Found, in which the adventure is brought to a climax and the humor continues (not as strongly as in Goose Chase, but effectively enough). Conn, imprisoned at the end of Lost, escapes, but cannot go home – for the very good reason that he has no home, having blown it up doing magic. Nevery is less than happy with the wayward apprentice. And because Conn is exiled, he must stay away from Wellmet – but he knows the city is in deep danger, and is determined to counter the evil threatening it by finding some countervailing magic of his own. That is the quest here; and as usual in books for readers ages 10 and up, there is an inner quest as well: Conn must find his own courage in order to prove that he is truly a wizard and not merely a thief after all. “A thief really was a lot like a wizard,” Conn eventually concludes – having hinted at the similarity several times already. And it is a combination of Conn’s magical and thievish abilities that allows him finally to emerge triumphant – although, in a particularly interesting twist, this is one young hero who must completely lose himself in order truly to find out who and what he is. Clever throughout and nicely sprinkled with amusing elements, The Magic Thief trilogy is an unusually successful foray into magic-not-quite-as-usual writing. And the books’ presentation, including “A Guide to People and Places” and a variety of supplements and oddments at each volume’s end, adds to their considerable charm.

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