December 12, 2012
The Tapestry, Book 4: The Maelstrom. By Henry H. Neff. Random House. $16.99.
The Keepers, Book 3: Path of Beasts. By Lian Tanner. Delacorte Press. $17.99.
Mr. Terupt Falls Again. By Rob Buyea. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
The Red Blazer Girls #4: The Secret Cellar. By Michael D. Beil. Knopf. $17.99.
Author/illustrator Henry H. Neff continues to deliver solid good-vs.-evil fantasy with an ever-enlarging cast of characters in the fourth book of his planned five-volume series, The Tapestry. There is nothing particularly new in the concept: a world at war, human and supernatural characters mixed together, and the future of humanity in the hands of young protagonists. But Neff does a better job than most authors of books of this type in making readers actually care about many of his characters – including some of the nonhuman ones. In The Maelstrom, which is emphatically only for readers already enmeshed in the series and will make no sense at all to others, the demon Prusias takes advantage of Astaroth’s weakness to create his own empire, leaving it to Max McDaniels and David Menlo to try to protect Rowan from Prusias’ army. Max has other troubles, too, having become the target of an unknown enemy: assassins are after him. Meanwhile, Mina’s largely untested abilities loom larger in determining the fate of Rowan. This all started when Max stood in front of an ancient tapestry in a Chicago museum and found himself in the world of Rowan Academy, and things have come a very long way since then. Neff does particularly well in blurring the lines between good and evil (at least some of the time), and his illustrations are seamlessly integrated into the narrative and often add a dimension to it. The most interesting thing about the series is the notion of a society in which humans live with ogres, wizards, demons and other nonhuman characters – and the ways in which the various types interact. Max has yet to reach his full potential – hopefully he himself will eventually be the world-saver in the series’ conclusion, rather than a brave also-ran as someone else comes to the eventual rescue of the forces of good, as happens in The Maelstrom and has happened before. For now, though, The Maelstrom is full of excitement, with notable battle-scene writing, and it neatly advances a story that Neff has been building effectively ever since The Hound of Rowan appeared in 2008.
Another variation on the good-vs.-evil theme, again with youths as the linchpin of the defense of all that is noble, is the Keepers trilogy, whose final volume, Path of Beasts, sums up and concludes the adventure begun in Museum of Thieves and continued in City of Lies. In this conclusion, the evil Fugleman has returned to the city of Jewel with his band of Blessed Guardians and an army of mercenaries, leaving Goldie and Toadspit to figure out how to free the city once again and once and for all – while avoiding bloodshed if at all possible, as Goldie insists they do. Instead of ogres and wizards, Goldie and Toadspit, along with Bonnie, make common cause with the spirit of a warrior princess, a dozen white mice, and a cat and brizzlehound – who, unfortunately, are mortal enemies, which complicates the alliance considerably. The drama here takes different directions for Toadspit and Goldie: he must fight a duel to the death, while she must travel along the mysterious Beast Road, a deadly and mysterious path from which no one has ever returned. There are some innovatively imagined characters here, notably Frow Carrion, a cannon with a mind of its own, and the slaver Double. The importance of the various unlikely warriors comes down to what Pounce says at one point: “We is as good as an army, the five of us. Ain’t no one else ‘ere as useful as we is.” Quite true, that, and quite necessary, too, with the usual almost-defeat of the forces of good, followed by the usual determination not to let evil triumph, which Goldie expresses forthrightly: “She mustn’t fail. Too much depended on her.” The climax, in which ghosts and animals are as crucial as the human defenders, effectively pulls all the threads of the story together, and if the conclusion is scarcely surprising, it is certainly satisfying and will resonate with readers. “We rebuild” is the final message, and it is a wholly welcome one.
The kids in Mr. Terupt’s sixth-grade class are rebuilding, too, but this being a reality-based story, what is happening is that they are deepening their relationships among themselves and with the teacher they had as fifth-graders. Rob Buyea’s previous book, Because of Mr. Terupt, introduced Jessica, Jeffrey, Alexia, Anna, Danielle, Peter and Luke, showing their interactions with each other, their teacher and other adults, and moving through a crisis in which Mr. Terupt was injured and there was concern that he might not survive – although Buyea did eventually bring that book to a happy ending. Mr. Terupt Falls Again has the seven students back with Mr. Terupt a school year later, getting along with each other somewhat better than they did as fifth-graders but also facing a whole new series of growing-up challenges. Camaraderie, the importance of sticking together, the understanding of the consequences of probing into one’s family’s secrets (and into one’s teacher’s past), the confusion of girls at the onset of puberty, the difficulty boys have coping with anger – all these topics and more are tackled here. Peter, for example, has trouble controlling his fists, and Danielle gets her period and knows nothing about what is going on. Mr. Terupt practically waves a magic wand in helping his students get through their age-12 crises, and while that is scarcely realistic, it may be reassuring to readers of the same age as the characters, indicating that everything works out just fine even, for example, when alcohol use is involved. This is scarcely realistic, and Mr. Terupt, who was slightly larger than life in the earlier book, seems even more of a miracle worker in this sequel. But there is enough reality in Mr. Terupt Falls Again – for example, in the peer pressure to which Alexia succumbs – to give a real-world feeling to the book, albeit a somewhat sanitized one. A bonus is the way Buyea has Mr. Terupt give reading assignments involving books that preteens and young teens really are likely to enjoy, so readers have some other places to go when they finish this story.
The Red Blazer Girls always have other places to go, too – since there are mysteries pretty much everywhere in their world. In The Secret Cellar, the fourth book in this series, one turns up inside a fountain pen – an antique that Sophie St. Pierre has bought as a Christmas gift for her father. The secret message leads Sophie, Rebecca, Leigh Ann and Margaret to the home of the pen’s original owner, a house that (not at all surprisingly) proves to be full of puzzles for the girls to solve. There is a hidden treasure somewhere, if the girls can figure out where, but to do that, they have to deal with a rude bookstore owner, a missing will, a walking stick that is also a key, and, oh yes, a school Christmas play: “Mr. Eliot’s latest harebrained scheme to torture his honor students is to force us to perform in a one-act Christmas play that he wrote just for us.” From the first chapter, “One does not argue with Fate, the Red Blazer Girls Code, or Andrew Jackson,” through “Okay, okay, I admit it – my loyalty to Perkatory might be the teensiest bit irrational,” “Okay, Rat Number Three – take one step forward and turn to the left,” and other chapters with similar titles, Michael D. Beil keeps the story amusing and fast-paced, determinedly superficial but quite harmless and at times even exciting. The bad guys’ dialogue is often laughable, apparently unintentionally: “I’ll get you, you little –” and “They’re calculating and conniving little miscreants” and “They’re not nearly as clever as they think they are,” and so on and so forth. All this leads, by chapter 25, to the entirely appropriate title, “When will these crooks learn to stop underestimating us?” Not in time to prevent the Red Blazer Girls from solving yet another mystery, that’s for sure, but in plenty of time to wrap things up during Christmas season and end the book with Sophie wondering what will happen in the new year, when she is 13. The only mystery about that, really, is what new mysteries are in store.