Septimus Heap: Book Five—Syren; Book Six—Darke. By Angie Sage. Illustrations by Mark Zug. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99 each.
Falcon Quinn: Book One—Falcon Quinn and the Black Mirror; Book Two—Falcon Quinn and the Crimson Vapor. By Jennifer Finney Boylan. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $7.99 (Mirror); $16.99 (Vapor).
The Septimus Heap series keeps getting better as it keeps growing. Starting with Angie’s Sage’s first novel, Magyk, which had some intriguing elements and a welcome smattering of humor but also some awkwardness of style and characterization, the series grew into a tetralogy that was really more a double helping of two-book sets. The second book was Flyte, and it was followed by Physik and Queste. The fifth and sixth books, though, go off in somewhat different directions, and need not be thought of as paired; indeed, their connection to the earlier books is frequently minor, except for the reuse of characters – and that is a good thing, because it makes the Septimus Heap series accessible at many points, which was not the case with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, of which Sage’s is strongly reminiscent. It is the echoes of Rowling (who, to be fair, herself echoes many other stories of the young man with tremendous unrealized power who gradually comes into full self-awareness and conquers a great evil) that make Sage’s books seem derivative at times and may render them less than fully involving to some preteen readers. Furthermore, the books really are directed at preteens: their sensibilities and the frequently overly naïve beliefs of their characters give them little resonance beyond the stories themselves, so teenagers and adults are less likely to retain an interest in Sage than in Rowling. Yet this is no reason to dismiss the adventures of Septimus, which are filled with offbeat characters, splashes of humor, and pithy observations that enhance the strangeness of Septimus’ world of magyk (as Sage spells it). For instance: “The Grim removed its tentacles from its hearing tubes – which doubled as its nose – and it now smelled food. Fresh food.” Or: “Jakey Fry liked Lucy even though she was rude to him and called him weevil-brain and bug-features.” These bits appear in Syren, whose plot has Septimus stranded on a lovely island with his injured dragon, Spit Fyre, and companions Jenna and Beetle. Also on the island are a cat-shaped lighthouse and a something that sings to Septimus – plus a girl named Syrah who has some magyk of her own. Syren is really three adventures that Sage eventually knits together, the other two involving Lucy and Wolf Boy (who are at sea with some unpleasant nautical characters) and Milo Banda (Jenna’s father – who has hold of some sort of treasure chest). And there are plenty of encounters with the ghosties, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night (or daytime) at the Wizard Tower and elsewhere; and all of them have strongly delineated personalities and rather emphatic attitudes: “Jillie Djinn made a noise of which an angry camel would not have been ashamed.” The excellent chapter-opening illustrations by Mark Zug provide an additional reason to enjoy both the adventure and the amusement here.
Zug’s work nicely complements Darke as well. The sixth Septimus Heap book involves not only a Darke Domaine and a darke dragon but also the Darke itself – which Septimus finds he must enter in order to, well, save the world. Again, the basic plot here is one that has been used umpteen times before; but again, Sage, who continues to grow as a writer with each of these books, piles adventure on mystery on humor in a winning way that will quickly make preteen readers forget that the plot structure is one they have likely encountered before. In Darke, Septimus must get help not only from the expected “good” characters (Marcia Overstrand, Alther Mella) but also from an unlikely one: his estranged brother, Simon Heap, who has more than a little of darkeness in him and who caused Septimus no end of trouble earlier in the series. Once again, this is not especially unusual in fantasy novels: a good character must reach out to an ambiguous one and either bring him to the side of what is right or at least make use of his talents to defeat a greater evil. But Sage handles the relationship of Septimus and Simon well, and in fact the whole book is brimful of twists, turns and surprises, plus what is now a characteristically forthright but well-modulated writing style: “Of all the alleyways that led off Wiz Way, Dagger Dan’s Dive was the worst. The twisting, narrow passage was named after a notorious mugger and cutthroat who had used it as a foolproof escape.” Or: “Sir Hereward knew that if anyone had the strength to get rid of the Things, to get the Palace back for the Princess, it would be a Living young man, not an ancient one-armed ghost. And besides, he didn’t like bullies. He’d had Simon Heap down as one, but now the boot was on the other foot. Or feet. If Things had feet.” By the time the various characters have worked their ways through all the complexities and brought back a measure of peace (“In the shadows two ghosts looked on contentedly”), readers will already be looking forward to more from Septimus. Oh – and the end-of-book explanations in the fifth and sixth books (“Histories and Happenings” in Syren, “What Happened in the Dark Domaine – and Afterward” in Darke) are appendices as interesting as those in the first four novels, if not more so.
As Sage and Septimus stride along, Jennifer Finney Boylan and Falcon Quinn are just getting going. Falcon Quinn and the Black Mirror, Boylan’s 11th book (she originally wrote as James Boylan, her birth name and gender), was published last year and is now available in paperback. Together with its newly released sequel, Falcon Quinn and the Crimson Vapor, it tells the story of a monster – well, a kid, really, but one destined to turn into a monster. That would be Falcon, who in the first book finds himself transported, with his neighbors Max and Megan, to the Academy of Monsters on Shadow Island. In their school bus, yet (it bears the number 13, so they probably should have known). Boylan, like Sage, leavens her stories with a great deal of humor; also like Sage, she uses and reuses many elements from the Harry Potter books (including some that Rowling reused from elsewhere). For example, Potter fans will immediately relate Falcon’s Black Mirror, in which he is supposed to “find himself,” to Rowling’s Mirror of Erised, in which Harry nearly gets lost as he gazes at that which he most ardently desires. Indeed, the whole setup of the Falcon Quinn books – a journey to a special school where one must discover and uncover one’s innermost nature and be trained in how to use it – may be a little too close to the whole Hogwarts experience to keep readers entirely entertained; hence the Falcon Quinn books get a (+++) rating. And yet they do, despite their derivative nature, have much to recommend them. Take the scene in Black Mirror in which the “tall, gaunt man in the tattered cloak” demands information from a student, after announcing that he is Crow, the headmaster. Refused what he wants, he says, “‘Never mind. …I’ll suck it out of your brain myself.’” Within a few lines, “Her face went blank, and then salt tears began to flow down her cheeks. With a molten hiss, she began to dissolve. ‘You’re – you’re sucking my brain…’ The headmaster nodded. … ‘Exactly.’” This is a fair sample of the balance of humor, oddity and scariness that Boylan seeks throughout both Falcon Quinn books – although the elements are not always as balanced as all that. By the end of Black Mirror, Falcon has come to accept that he is indeed a monster, and not just because of his one blue eye and one black eye. Yet Falcon is, of course, different in his particular monstrousness from the other students. “‘This test of the first year of the Academy has brought you suffering, has brought you sorrow. But it has made you strong!’” exclaims a character late in the book. So the students, Falcon included, believe. But of course the first year merely sets up the second, and in Crimson Vapor, Falcon is caught between the two sides of his nature – because his parents lead opposing groups, Monsters and Guardians, and Falcon himself contains a little bit of both. Torn between the two elements of his heritage as well as between his mother and his father, Falcon goes on a quest (no surprise there), rescues a friend (also no surprise), and works to end the battle between the two factions (nope, no surprise). There is enough humor and enough oddity in the Falcon Quinn books to please many young readers, but there is less heart in them than in the more-recent Septimus Heap books and in some other fantasies for preteens and young teenagers. Yet those who do not mind the derivative nature of Boylan’s series – or do not notice it – will enjoy being pulled along with Falcon and his friends through what promises to be a multi-year, multi-book set of lessons in the redeeming qualities of monstrosity.