March 16, 2006


Children of the Lamp, Book 2: The Blue Djinn of Babylon. By P.B. Kerr. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

Montmorency and the Assassins: Master, Criminal, Spy? By Eleanor Updale. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $16.99.

     Fast-paced, crisis-filled, set in exotic lands, filled with intriguing if not always fully believable characters, these two novels for ages 9-12 epitomize top-notch adventure writing for preteens.  Both are continuations of series, and both will leave young readers waiting anxiously for the next installment.

     The Children of the Lamp series focuses on twins John and Philippa, who find out in the first book (The Akhenaten Adventure) that they descend from a long line of djinn or genies called the Marid tribe – and have great magical powers.  Their self-discovery leads them to adventure in Book 1 – and Book 2 is all adventure, all the time.  Here the twins fall into a trap while trying to retrieve a potent book of djinn magic called the Solomon Grimoire.  The book is bait – it’s not really missing at all – and the twins’ entrapment leads to their separation and sends John, along with his uncle Nimrod, on a perilous journey to save Philippa from the Blue Djinn.  P.B. Kerr is the sort-of-pseudonym of the thriller writer who creates books for adults as Philip Kerr.  Kerr is more a master of plot twists than of plots themselves: the separation of two heroes and the epic quest of one to save the other is scarcely a new idea.  But Kerr handles it exceptionally well, making excellent and always-exciting use of the young djinns’ powers to grant wishes, change into animals or inanimate objects, and travel where they wish in an eyeblink.  The places they wish to go tend to be exotic, adding to the sense of mystery and otherworldliness of the book: “Nimrod’s whirlwind took them south, down the River Bosporus until, at the confluence with another river, the Golden Horn, they saw Istanbul’s distinctive skyline…. Nimrod steered the whirlwind across the busy Galata Bridge, just to get his bearings, before taking a sharp turn left along the south bank of the Golden Horn.”  The action and excitement continue nonstop throughout this well-paced thriller.

     The rivers are not quite as exotic in Montmorency and the Assassins, but there is something appealing in knowing that the hero crawled out of the London sewers that lead to the Thames 20 years before the start of this novel.  We met this hero first in Montmorency, and his adventures continued in Montmorency on the Rocks.  He is, or was, a criminal, transforming himself into a gentleman and thus moving up in the world socially after he literally moved up in it from the underground sewer network.  Eleanor Updale at first makes this book seem like the conclusion of a trilogy, given the fact that Montmorency is two decades older and has left his criminal past far behind.  But of course, if he had left it altogether, there wouldn’t be much of a story.  What happens here is that Montmorency and his friend, Lord George Fox-Selwyn, accept the job of tracing some rare specimens stolen from a reclusive naturalist.  The search takes them from London to more-exotic locales on the Continent, where they stumble upon a plot by anarchist conspirators to create widespread terror and panic in the closing years of the 19th century.  Parallels with the 21st century may be inferred by the reader but are scarcely the point here: Updale knows she is writing a period piece, and she does so quite well, with slightly old-fashioned dialogue and the occasional inclusion of letters (which now seem old-fashioned themselves) to move the plot along.  Montmorency’s triumph in this novel is far from unalloyed, and Updale’s intense ending of the book makes it clear that, far from being a trilogy’s conclusion, Montmorency and the Assassins is the start of new adventures at the dawn of a new century.

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