September 16, 2010


The Red Blazer Girls #2: The Vanishing Violin. By Michael D. Bell. Knopf. $16.99.

Oracles of Delphi Keep #2: The Curse of Deadman’s Forest. By Victoria Laurie. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Poisons of Caux, Book Two: The Tasters Guild. By Susannah Applebaum. Illustrated by Jennifer Taylor. Knopf. $16.99.

The Clockwork Dark, Book 2: The Wolf Tree. By John Claude Bemis. Random House. $16.99.

     Sequels are tough. Whatever inventiveness an original book contained is already known by the time of the sequel; whatever personalities have been developed are in place already; whatever striking oddities made a first book attractive are no longer unusual. An author’s task in a sequel is to develop themes further, show new facets of characters’ personalities, send known characters in new directions while perhaps introducing some new ones to balance or expand the originals, and maintain whatever pacing and special elements presumably made the original book a success (“presumably” because otherwise, why publish a sequel?). All four of these books continue interesting stories their authors set up earlier, but none of them has quite the impact of its predecessor.

     The Vanishing Violin, for example, revisits skilled-in-different-ways detectives Sophie, Margaret and Rebecca after their successful sleuthing in The Ring of Rocamadour. After gaining their 15 minutes of fame and finding that it mostly brings in dull job offers, the girls once again find themselves involved in something big: the disappearance of a rare violin. And once again, their intertwining friendship (important for the target age group of about 10-13) and complementary abilities must be brought into play as clues pile on confusing clues until the girls come up with a prime suspect – who, they then figure out, didn’t do it. So they have to reverse course, clear the suspect’s name, and find the real baddie, all while riding scooters and coping with crushes. (Well, not while, but these are all parts of the same mix.) Here as in the first book, much of the fun comes from descriptions, as when the girls revisit the family to which they previously returned the ring and encounter the mother, Elizabeth: “Elizabeth maintains her dignity – well, as much dignity as you can maintain when you’re wearing lime green riding pants with knee-high boots and a paisley blazer (a typically daring fashion choice for her).” This is in a chapter called “Where’s Vanna White when you really need her?” – the chapter titles being another element of the style here. One chapter heading here neatly encapsulates the whole book: “In which we take one step forward, two steps on a slight diagonal, pivot on our heels, and repeat.” But all the bouncing about does lead to a conclusion that will be satisfying to readers who agree that “sometimes we just need a determined girl in a red blazer” to solve mysteries and “make your life extraordinary.”

     The Curse of Deadman’s Forest, followup to Oracles of Delphi Keep, continues the tale of what happens to the brother-and-sister team of Ian and Theo, and to Ian’s best friend, Carl, after the discovery of a dire prophecy. The prophecy warns of danger that can be overcome only by gathering six uniquely gifted children – setting up a typical adventure background for a multi-book series. Nominally set in Dover, England, in the years leading up to World War II, The Curse of Deadman’s Forest includes characters from all times, back to an oracle of ancient Greece. The basic plot involves the search for a child with the power to heal. The search requires entry into the magical portal first used by the young adventurers in the initial book, despite the prophecy’s warning about Ian’s death if he uses it again. The unpredictability of the portal and obliqueness of the prophecy are fairly standard elements in fantasies for preteens. Much of the dialogue is fairly standard, too: “We have to try, Theo.” “Looks like we picked the wrong day to sleep in.” “You played a very good game, Colonel…but this evening, luck was on my side.” Sorcery, Nazism and demonology all get mixed together here, and the book’s end clearly signals the next quest to come – to which fans of the burgeoning series will surely look forward.

     The second Poisons of Caux volume seems at first somewhat unnecessary. The first book, The Hollow Bettle, ended with good overcoming evil and the true ruler of the land of Caux restored to the throne after a long interregnum marked by deceit and poison. Here too, though, there is a prophecy that must be fulfilled and a quest that must be undertaken – and the route to completion of that quest, which involves travel to a world called Pimcaux, lies within the Tasters Guild. At the center of all the activity are 11-year-old Ivy, who is a Noble Child and healer – and her friend and taster, Rowan. There are all sorts of complexities here involving the prophecy from the first book, Ivy’s abilities with plants , and the reemergence of one particular deadly plant called both Kingmaker and “scourge bracken.” Although there are schemes aplenty here – most revolving around the evil and corrupt Tasters Guild leader, Vidal Verjouce – the book is actually a pleasure to read, because readers will know that things will turn out all right…and because the volume’s physical design (blue type on cream-colored paper, with interestingly odd illustrations) is such an inviting one. This is quite definitely not the end of The Poisons of Caux – just when you think one of the baddies is finally gone for good, for example, he turns up somewhat worse for wear but very much alive and as determined as ever to do evil. So even if The Tasters Guild is not quite as intriguing as The Hollow Bettle, it is more than enough to whet the appetite for another episode.

     As for the second book of The Clockwork Dark, it picks up in the legendary American South where the first book, The Nine Pound Hammer, left off. That hammer was the property of none other than John Henry, the “steel driving man” of folksong, but it was broken in a climactic battle with the evil machine-creating Gog. In The Wolf Tree, it turns out that although the Gog appears to be dead, his machine lives on (so to speak), poisoning everything around it and changing good people into bad ones. So 12-year-old Ray – now a full-fledged member of the Ramblers (sideshow performers and erstwhile heroes) – takes on the task of stopping the Gog’s machine for good. This requires finding the tree of the book’s title, said to be a gateway to the spirit world. A limb of the tree, it is believed, can repair the broken hammer and make final destruction of the evil machine possible. This is all somewhat more far-fetched than most preteen and young-teen fantasy, but that is because it draws on a different sort of magic from that used in most books targeting this age group. It is the magic of American tall tales, of Appalachia, of Native American stories, of spreading darkness and heroic attempts to restore the light – and also the magic of humans holding out against the inexorable march of technology, as in the original John Henry folktale. In fact, there is a deliberate line drawn between the magic of The Clockwork Dark and that of more-familiar fairy tales, as in a scene of a dying something-that-looks-like-a-wolf: “‘He ain’t a wolf. You’re right about that. And he turned into this wolf, but I can’t tell if he’s really a man. Seems like he is and he ain’t at the same time….’ ‘Maybe he’s under an enchantment,’ Sally said. ‘Like in “Snow White and Rose Red.”’ ‘Ain’t never heard of it,’ Hethy said.” The events in the story are not especially surprising – the usual good-vs.-evil battles with the usual uncertainties and surprises – but the setting is something special, and readers who were fascinated by The Nine Pound Hammer will enjoy returning to the same outrĂ© world in The Wolf Tree.

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