November 15, 2012


Century Quartet, Book IV: Dragon of Seas. By P.D. Baccalario. Translated by Leah D. Janeczko. Random House. $17.99.

The Five Ancestors: Out of the Ashes, Book 1—Phoenix. By Jeff Stone. Random House. $16.99.

Powerless II: Super. By Matthew Cody. Knopf. $16.99.

The Wars of Light and Shadow, Volume Nine: First Book of Sword of the Canon—Initiate’s Trial. By Janny Wurts. Harper Voyager. $9.99.

      It sometimes seems that fantasy adventure series will never end, but it was inevitable that the Century Quartet would, since it is identified, after all, as a quartet. These books by P.D. (Pierdomenico) Baccalario turn, like so many other fantasy series, on the old idea of the four elements: fire (Ring of Fire), earth (Star of Stone), air (City of Wind), and water (Dragon of Seas). Actually, the fourth book’s title and concept deserve some extra credit, since dragons would more often be thought of as associated with the other three elements: fire-breathing, earthbound and guarding treasure, or flying through the air. The four elements are overlaid in this series on four cities (Rome, New York and Paris in the first three books), and the adventures focus, one at a time, on the four young protagonists. The concluding book is set in Shanghai, where Sheng, Elettra, Harvey and Mistral must use a map, a top, a tile and some old coins to decipher clues that will bring their quest to a successful conclusion. Pursued from afar by a criminal mastermind who is too frightened of germs to leave his skyscraper (shades of Howard Hughes, but hyper-obviously named Heremit Devil), the four young people search both ancient and modern parts of Shanghai for the Pearl of the Sea Dragon, a stone they are sure is the last piece of the puzzle they have been trying to solve – to go with the mirror, star and veil.  Sheng has visions of a young boy who seems to understand what the protagonists are doing, and he is also experiencing a recurring dream, and Elettra and Mistral say, reasonably enough, “Maybe we should figure out why you have it in the first place,” but that leads to one of the young people’s periodic arguments, and further discussion of the mysterious Pact: “Not being able to talk to us is a part of the Pact,” but someone did talk to them, “but only because he’s dead. …I don’t know if the Pact still counts after you die.”  As laughable as this sounds, it is meant to be taken seriously; so too is the attractively colored central section of the book, a book-within-the-book called “Century Acqua” and containing maps and pictures and all sorts of cryptic items. Eventually Baccalario, in the able translation by Leah D. Janeczko, cooks up a satisfying climax that leads, interestingly, to a conclusion in which music by Gustav Mahler is of some significance – a nice touch. The Century Quartet is somewhat more erudite than typical adventures for teens, although its actual events are not particularly unusual. Dragon of Seas brings it to a fine ending.

      After the ending of The Five Ancestors sequence, which includes Tiger, Monkey, Snake, Crane, Eagle, Mouse and Dragon, there was nowhere else to go – at least, not in China in the mid-17th century. So Jeff Stone has now begun a followup series called Out of the Ashes, set this time – unfortunately – in the modern world. Because there is nothing exotic or even unusual about the circumstances surrounding Phoenix, the utilitarian plot stands out very clearly and the book is less interesting than the original seven. Phoenix Collins, the book’s protagonist, lives in Indiana with his grandfather, and although he is learning kung fu, what he really loves is racing his mountain bike. The past soon intrudes into Phoenix’s world: with his grandfather dying, Phoenix learns that the old man is really old, almost 400 years old, and is one of the legendary five Cangzhen monks from the earlier series. To save his grandfather, Phoenix must go to China, where he connects with a young woman named Hú Dié, who is a talented bike mechanic and seems to have a secret of her own.  The issues are whether she can help Phoenix, whether he can trust her, what her secret is, and how 21st-century events remain under the influence of things that happened 350 years earlier. Among Phoenix’s challenges is that he is only part-Chinese (“there weren’t many thirteen-year-old half-Chinese boys with reddish-brown hair, freckles, and green eyes in Beijing”) and not fluent in either Mandarin or Cantonese: “I had a translation dictionary with me, but it was next to useless because Chinese is a tonal language, and like most people, I have difficulty deciphering all the special marks used to identify the language’s numerous rising and falling tones.” Thanks to Hú Dié, though, Phoenix gets along just fine, if you don’t count the thugs and assorted bad guys with whom he has to contend as he searches for life-prolonging dragon bone and his own place in the ongoing story of the Cangzhen monks – which, unsurprisingly, turns out to involve, among other things, bike racing.  Phoenix is an odd book: clearly designed to appeal to both male and female readers and to bring elements of The Five Ancestors into the modern world, it ends up being no more than a very slightly exotic variant of innumerable other adventure stories.

      There is something offbeat about Super, the sequel to Matthew Cody’s Powerless, in which the kids of Noble’s Green all turned out to have superpowers – all, that is, except protagonist and town newcomer Daniel Corrigan, who nevertheless came through when the chips were down to save all his newfound friends from a power-stealing villain called the Shroud.  Thanks to Daniel, the town of supers stayed super and the Shroud was destroyed (maybe). But of course things could not end so neatly. In Super, Daniel seems at last to be developing powers of his own  – or maybe not his own. “I steal powers and use them for myself,” he realizes. “I can’t help it – I don’t even realize that I’m doing it. …I can’t be trusted. …I’m the real Shroud.”  Well, that’s the plot, but it isn’t really as bad as all that. It certainly seems to be for a while, though. In addition to Daniel’s power issues, there is another new kid in town – the grandnephew of Herman Plunkett, aka the Shroud.  And there are things called Shades showing up. The saga of the town and the Plunkett family turns out to be more complicated than previously thought – and defeating the Shades turns out to involve some trust and some rethinking.  Also some significant family issues: “Daniel had escaped a pair of superpowered bullies and a cave full of shadow monsters, only to be trapped in his living room by his parents.”  Getting away from that, Daniel finds himself with a whole new set of issues to handle, eventually managing to do something quite heroic even in the absence of superpowers – that being the theme of both this book and its predecessor. The ambiguous ending has significant comic-book-style-plotting elements (as does the book as a whole), and a third book in this series is certainly a possibility.

      And if series for preteens and teenagers sometimes seem to go on and on, they have nothing on heroic-fantasy series aimed at adults – and less than nothing on The Wars of Light and Shadow, which Janny Wurts seems determined to turn into a sequence so lengthy and complex that even the titles take up a great deal of the page. Now we have The Wars of Light and Shadow, Volume Nine: First Book of Sword of the Canon—Initiate’s Trial, which is about as convoluted a title as readers will find anywhere.  And it is, at that, much easier to read than the book itself, which gets a (++) rating – and barely that – because it is very close to unreadable.  This is only in part because of the enormously sprawling and overly intricate plot – followers of the “master series” of which this is a subsidiary will expect that and presumably like it. But they still will find this book almost unreadable, because all 578 pages of narrative are set in what appears to be 8-point Palatino type, or perhaps even 6-point, and reading them is far beyond a chore – it is the sort of thing that will require even people with 20/20 vision to consider using a magnifying glass.  Clearly the book is so long that producing it as a single volume would have been impossible without shrinking the type to near-illegibility. But why produce a nearly illegible book at all? Surely not for the writing style: “Before he left the room, she would swear his great oath, and take on the spirit mark of his arcane protection.” “The rarefied heights of his current achievement inflamed the Matriarch to a fever pitch of ambition.” “‘I’ll stake their gizzards to the last man,’ one brute husked, as though strangled.” “Which quandary had plagued him ever since birth, magnified by the social walls raised by his ruling class isolation.”  This hyper-formulaic, dull, quasi-old-fashioned prose is in the service of an equally formulaic plot that includes all the usual suspects: a captive prince, a set of wraiths, a debt oath, fanatics bent on conquest, a curse that must be fought, a dragon.  The book is utterly without sense except in the overall context of The Wars of Light and Shadow, and there is zero possibility that it will be of the slightest interest to anyone not already familiar with that sequence’s eight earlier (and also very weighty, or at least long) volumes.  This is mindless fantasy, “heroic” only in the sense of the trappings within which it is clothed and because of the heroic effort that readers will need to make to decipher it, much less comprehend what is going on.

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