Heck Series No. 4: Fibble—The Fourth Circle of Heck. By Dale E. Basye. Illustrations by Bob Dob. Random House. $16.99.
Troubletwisters, Book One. By Garth Nix and Sean Williams. Scholastic. $16.99.
The Last Dragon Chronicles, Book 6: Fire World. By Chris d’Lacey. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $18.99.
The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel V: The Warlock. By Michael Scott. Delacorte Press. $18.99.
Sometimes it takes a bit of a real-world connection to bring out the very best in a fantasy series. Not that Dale E. Basye hasn’t come up with twisted elements of reality throughout the Heck Series – his puns and satires of everything from school to shopping malls are legion. But in Fibble, Basye seems really to have hit his stride, because this weird book is largely based on the fallacies and foibles of advertising – and Basye is, among other things, an advertising copywriter. So when he has twins Marlo and Milton Fauster (whose souls are in other’s bodies as this book opens, for reasons sort of explained at the end of the previous book, Blimpo, although in truth not made particularly clear there) in an ad-venture (“ad-venture,” get it?) like this one, Basye gets to satirize something he knows especially well. It is worthwhile to get past (or revel in) Basye’s usual overdoneness of plot and character here: the evil machinations of P.T. Barnum, who wears burning pants and runs Heck’s circus for liars (and several of whose real-world exhibits, including Tom Thumb and the “Feejee Mermaid,” appear in the book); the Iron John-style teaching of how to be misleading, led by three American Presidents (Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and Richard Nixon, although why he chooses the first two Basye never explains); Orson Welles as supervisor of a devilishly cunning plot (which is in fact plotted by the Devil) with the acronym T.H.E.E.N.D.; and so on. The meat of this book lies beyond the slapstick, beyond the wholly expected adjustment problems of a boy in a girl’s body and vice versa (let’s all smirk at the different ways boys and girls place their legs while sitting). It lies in Basye’s skewering of the advertising business, “the massaging of perception for fun and profit,” which he clearly knows very well indeed: “Advertising is about creating problems that aren’t real so that they can be solved by otherwise pointless products.” This sort of satire, though, is clearly for older readers (and any adults out there who get past the vomit jokes and the clothing made out of lice). A reference to Christopher Marlowe’s play about Doctor Faustus – which, when added to a nod toward the creator of Paradise Lost, gave Basye the names Marlo and Milton Fauster – is also for grownups, as is the mid-book introduction of Basye himself as a character being pushed by another character to write the books he is in fact writing (a bit of circularity that is fun to follow but can be dizzying). There is plenty for younger and less-thoughtful readers in Fibble, too, including “The Man Who Soldeth the World,” a devilish plan for which “the perfect crime requireth the perfect team,” and Principal of Darkness Bea “Elsa” Bubb and her “precious moopie lunkin chunkalunks” Cerberus, an especially nasty incarnation of the famed three-headed dog that guards the gates of h-e-double-hockey-sticks in other mythologies. Fibble is as packed with sillinesses, unsubtleties and internal inconsistencies as the three earlier Heck volumes, but it has enough genuinely pointed satire to balance the generalized raspberries of the previous volumes, making this book a cut above (or below) its predecessors. Even Bob Dob’s illustrations are less repetitious and more pointed here (although the pitchsporks carried by Heck’s demons look the same, which is to say pretty dull). Basye may finally be hitting on all cylinders on the road to Heck, which is clearly paved with bad intentions. Or at least very sarcastic ones.
There is some amusement as well in Troubletwisters, but this start of a series about twins Jaide and Jack Shield is primarily a straightforward, well-written fantasy. As usual in such novels, young heroes who do not yet know their heroic nature get swept up into strange circumstances in which they have to grow up quickly (at least in some ways) and “find themselves” while also saving the world, or at least pieces of it. The setup here is the most intriguing part of the book: the twins start having trouble with weather (that is a twist), and then face a series of magical disasters (including the explosion of their house). Then they find themselves living with a mysterious woman called Grandma X (that name is a tad overdone, yes?), and the oddities increase at her house (talking cats, disappearing doors, that sort of thing). Garth Nix and Sean Williams keep the pace moving swiftly and the surprises appearing regularly, but the kernel of Troubletwisters is resoundingly familiar and is contained in Jack’s comment to Jaide in the midst of one strange happening: “‘We’ll think of something when we know more about it – her – everything!’” That is really the whole point of Troubletwisters and similar books: ongoing self-discovery and learning about peculiar happenings and the protagonists’ previously unsuspected powers and importance. The book gets a (+++) rating for style and pacing above the ordinary, and some interestingly offbeat elements; at bottom, though, it is a fairly typical fantasy adventure of the “what’s going on here?” type. Not that there is anything wrong with that – the approach is appealing to many preteen and young teenage readers.
It is also the approach of The Last Dragon Chronicles, which take off in an entirely new direction in the series’ sixth book, Fire World. The previous books have focused on dragons and on the characters David Rain, Lucy and Zanna. Not so here – those characters disappeared at the climax of the previous book, Dark Fire, and Chris d’Lacey’s new novel opens somewhere readers have not visited before: a place called “Co:pern:ica.” There is no hint of how to pronounce those internal colons, which seem to permeate this world’s language (“ec:centric,” “de:constructed”); in fact, the odd spellings quickly become both cumbersome and tiresome, commingled as they are with words whose pronunciation is familiar but whose spelling is not (“katt”) and others whose meaning is clear even though the words themselves differ slightly from English ones (“librarium”). The stylistic affectations work against this (+++) book, but it does have many intriguing elements. Its focus is this world’s David, who is 12 years old, and who (like Jaide and Jack Shield and many other protagonists of similar books) does not quite fit in, and needs to discover who and what he really is and why he is important to his world and those who rule it (here called “the Higher”). David lives in the aforementioned librarium, to which he is sent because of some disturbing-to-authorities elements in his mental profile and his “imagineering” (a Disney term here co-opted for other purposes, perhaps unknowingly). This is a world where “honesty is beauty, and beauty is perfection. Perfection maintains the Grand Design.” But David, not surprisingly, sees things differently, believing that imperfection confers “character,” and this is his central differentiation from those around him. In the main part of the plot, David and his friend Rosanna, who also lives in the librarium and whose name not coincidentally reflects that of Zanna earlier in the series, are involved with firebirds that spend their time in the upper levels of the librarium. One firebird, it turns out, has been taken over by the evil Ix. David and Rosanna need to work with the remaining firebirds to save their world – and (here is the plot tie-in to earlier books) this involves calling across the universe to the dragons, of which the firebirds are mysteriously aware. The dragons are “something beyond our reality” for the inhabitants of Co:pern:ica, but are crucial to saving the planet; and of course the Ix miss their chance to get rid of David when (in typical villainous fashion) the chief evildoer says, “‘Let the boy work for us first. …When the moment comes, he will be no match for me.’” Fire World blends surprising elements with thoroughly familiar ones: existing fans of The Last Dragon Chronicles will enjoy the way this book opens up new vistas, but there is little here to draw new readers to the series.
Nor is there anything especially gripping about The Warlock, the fifth book in Michael’s Scott’s six-part The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. This book also gets a (+++) rating, but it will be a must-have for fans who have followed the series from the beginning – because without it, the upcoming sixth book, The Enchantress, will not tie into the sequence properly. This is a very tied-together series, which is both a strength and a weakness. It is essentially a single lengthy story (some 2400 pages in all) that just happens to be broken up into six pieces. The piece called The Warlock uses a very old plot device: protagonists who are strong together are forced apart and kept that way. In this case, it means Sophie is on her own with Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel – who, however, are steadily weakening as dark forces close in on them. Josh, meanwhile, is involved with an element of the series that is one of Scott’s favorites: lots of characters from history, introduced pretty much willy-nilly and developed pretty much as Scott wishes (neither his Joan of Arc nor his Shakespeare could ever be confused with the historical figures). The bad guys are characters from history, too, and while Machiavelli works rather well because of the incessant plotting and ongoing chess game that is the complex plot, Billy the Kid – who was essentially a thug – does not fit comfortably into Scott’s attempts at subtlety. The series in general, and The Warlock in particular, are at one level a fantastic romp through and around San Francisco: in this book, for example, the release of monsters from Alcatraz is imminent. Stylistically, Scott remains far too fascinated with his ongoing incarnations of gods and monsters out of myth as well as people out of history. Consider this brief bit of dialogue, one among many: “Mars Ultor looked from Odin to Hel and then turned to the driver. ‘Am I still dreaming?’ ‘If you are, then this is a nightmare.’ The driver held out his hand, revealing his muscular forearms. A thick turquoise band encircled his wrist. ‘I’m Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak.’ He was dressed in worn jeans, old cowboy boots and a faded Grand Canyon T-shirt. ‘But you can call me Black Hawk. My master is Quetzalcoatl.’” The names spin dizzyingly about, but the parade of characters ends up adding little to the narrative other than a passing sense of exoticism (which was stronger in earlier books; it has worn somewhat thin by now). Still, fans of Scott’s style and approach will not be disappointed in The Warlock and will surely find that it whets their appetite for the series’ upcoming final volume.