April 11, 2013


Twice Upon a Time No. 3: Beauty and the Beast—The Only One Who Didn’t Run Away. By Wendy Mass. Scholastic. $6.99.

Marigold #3: Thrice Upon a Marigold—A Royal Kidnapping Caper. By Jean Ferris. Harcourt. $16.99.

The Cold Cereal Saga, Book Two: Unlucky Charms. By Adam Rex. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     Wendy Mass’ twice-told fairy tales just keep getting better. The third, Beauty and the Beast, is even better than Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty. This time the tale is twice told in almost too many ways to count. There are the alternating chapters narrated by Beauty and the Beast. There are the adventures of two characters named Beauty and Handsome (who is not the Beast). There are dual quests, with Beauty at the center of them both. There are two royal brothers, one of whom becomes the Beast and one of whom, despite sometimes acting rather beastly, does not. There are paired servants, one very old and one very young. There are – well, suffice it to say that many elements of this story are used in double, if not plural, ways. In fact, the familiar elements of the original beauty-and-the-beast tale are pushed into the background for most of the book, really becoming prominent only toward the end. Because Mass is writing for young readers – for whom fairy tales were not originally intended – she does have to make some compromises to avoid having the plot become too complicated or violent. In fact, the “back story” of the prince’s cursed transformation is completely changed here to make him entirely a victim of evil, not in any way complicit in what happens to him, and the Beast’s intense anger over the plucked rose is here put on, not genuine. Besides, Beauty is not especially beautiful – she has an older sister (another doubled element) who better deserves the name but is in fact called Clarissa. What Beauty and the Beast turn out to have most in common is a certain bookishness and a scientific bent – neither of which has much to do with the original story. The only slight awkwardness in this retelling is that both Beauty and the Beast are 13 years old – scarcely the age at which modern youths are likely to be seeking and finding happily-ever-after true love. Their ages are necessary to make the book appeal to readers of a similar age, but do not quite fit with the tale’s underlying love story. Still, there is so much excellent plotting here, and so many really delightful forays into humor (even in the eventual conquest of the meddlesome witch who has caused all the trouble), that Mass’ Beauty and the Beast is great fun from start to finish.

     Happily-ever-after is a lot harder to come by in Jean Ferris’ Marigold trilogy, which is now completed with Thrice Upon a Marigold. Here King Christian and Queen Marigold are well beyond the awkward-teenager stage that they were in when the first book took place: they are married, rulers of a joint kingdom, and have just become the parents of Princess Poppy. Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for the plot), they are not the only ones with a strong interest in the new little princess. The kingdom’s former poisoner-in-chief and its ex-torturer-in-chief both have their own reasons for caring about Princess Poppy – hence the subtitle of this book. It is always a little hard to figure out just why it seems like good revenge to kidnap a baby princess, but what matters here is not the motivation of the bad guys (their main motive is that they’re, well, bad) but the response of the good guys, including a bunch of new characters. The king and queen, after all, cannot go on a rescue mission alone, even with the royal guards aiding them. They certainly need the services of a certain rather inept retired wizard and his elephant (returning from the first book in the series), plus a fire-breathing dragon. Those do come in handy in a pinch. So do the children of the bad guys, a librarian and a blacksmith – it is important to realize that badness is not passed down from parent to child, so the good younger generation is here tasked with helping to stop the malfeasance of the older one. Ferris’ inventiveness here is not quite at the same level as in the earlier books, especially the first, which was exceptionally clever. Even the subtitle this time is on the ordinary side, much more so than the earlier ones. But there is still plenty of humor, as when it is proving difficult to light a fire and one character remarks, “I wish somebody would hurry up and invent matches. This is really tedious.” Or this comment about the former chief torturer: “He liked inventing new instruments of torture but he’d never clean up the clutter left over.” Or this typical comment from Ed, the troll who raised Christian, after it turns out (as it inevitably does) that all will end well: “I can tell you, when we heard that baby was going to be all right, there wasn’t a dry seat in the castle.” There are several family reunions by the end of the book, not just the royal one, and this time, there finally appears to be a real, honest-to-goodness happy ending for just about the entire cast of characters – an opportunity, no doubt, for Ferris to move on to some other equally enthralling rearrangement of fairy-tale elements.

     There is no happy ending, though, at least so far, for the characters in The Cold Cereal Saga, whose exceedingly improbable concept – even more improbable than the usual improbable ones – is that a manufacturer of breakfast cereal is plotting to take over the world. As fairy tales go, this is a distinctly modern one, complete with TV, computers and airplanes as well as magical creatures – which are being lured into the world through a rift in the time-space continuum. Scott (that is, 11-year-old hero Scottish Play Doe) is searching for that rift to try to save the Queen of England, who has been kidnapped and replaced by two goblins in a queen suit – a kidnapping that makes somewhat more sense than does that of Princess Poppy, since in this case the objective is to, you know, rule the world and all that. Anyway, if Scott does manage to locate the rift, he wants to rescue the Queen and persuade the fairies to stop doing what they’re doing, which involves using an ingredient called Intellijuice in Goodco Cereal Company products to turns kids into a zombie army. Oh, and Goodco is run by a fairy named Nimue, that being one of the names given to the Lady of the Lake in Arthurian legend; and if you think that connection far-fetched, it helps to remember that The Cold Cereal Saga also features an accountant/scientist/time traveler named, ahem, Merle Lynn. There is also a two-foot-tall leprechaun named Mick running about, but hey, no one said that Adam Rex needed to be consistent in following only a single set of stories or myths or fairy tales. Rex’s many illustrations, including a TV news broadcast and a commercial break, add to the hectic pace of this already hectic book, which unfortunately will be well-nigh unintelligible to anyone who has not read the first book in the series – and which therefore gets a (+++) rating. Rex keeps the plot moving – maybe “lurching” is a better word – from event to event, chase to chase, scene to scene, complication to complication – and it is not always easy to figure out just what is going on, although readers who enjoyed the first book will be able to make sense out of Unlucky Charms. Many of the problems here are typical in second books of trilogies: such books have to advance the story, but not too much; they have to set up the finale, but not too clearly; they have to bring back old characters and introduce new ones, but not to the point of confusion. Unlucky Charms does not quite succeed on those terms – there is a frantic-ness about it that at best is fun and at worst is simply, well, frantic. Some sort of happy ending is surely in store for everyone, even the kidnapped Queen, at the conclusion of this saga, but right now it is by no means clear just how that happy ending, or indeed the ending of the story itself, will come about.

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