March 30, 2006


Grey Griffins, Book 1: The Revenge of the Shadow King. By Derek Benz & J.S. Lewis. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $10.99.

The Keys to the Kingdom, Book 3: Drowned Wednesday. By Garth Nix. Scholastic. $5.99.

The Keys to the Kingdom, Book 4: Sir Thursday. By Garth Nix. Scholastic. $16.99.

     The Arthurian legends are, when you come right down to it, very strange.  The Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur love triangle is a later accretion – the legends originally dealt with early Christianity, the search for the Holy Grail, unhealing wounds, and a wide variety of mysteries and oddities (how about the knight who carried his head with him after it was cut off?).  The old oddities have continued to spawn new ones, ranging from Richard Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, to modern books for readers ages 8-12.

     The Revenge of the Shadow King starts with a game of Round Table.  Yes, that Round Table – or at least a game reputed to have been invented by King Arthur.  It is played in an ordinary Midwestern town by Max Sumner and his three best friends, Harley, Ernie and Natalia.  Just a game, right?  Wrong.  Somehow, the game is calling forth monsters into Minnesota, including goblins, fairies and unicorns straight from the list of Round Table characters.  Fantasy and reality start to intermingle, with fantasy rapidly (and unnervingly) gaining the upper hand.  Max and his friends form the Grey Griffins to battle the evil creatures, who appear to be led by Morgan Le Fay (of Arthurian legend, of course) and King Oberon (from a different sort of legend altogether, but what the heck).  The plot is somewhat over-complex in this first novel by two best friends: it includes a magical book, the magical game itself, a powerful jewel holding the secret of life and death, and an unknown history (well, unknown when the book starts) linking Max and his friends in the past as well as their present.  It sometimes seems as if Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis are more concerned with setting up the sequel to The Revenge of the Shadow King than on knitting the book itself together.  But the rest of the time, the book presents a series of neat puzzles and exciting adventures – and it does deserve a sequel.  Or several.

     The Keys to the Kingdom is all about sequels.  Garth Nix has a thing for the number seven – among his previous works is a series called The Seventh Tower.  Now he is producing books tied to days of the week.  The third volume, Drowned Wednesday, was just made available in paperback; the fourth, Sir Thursday, is new.  Talk about a weird world: Nix certainly has one here.  The books are the story of Arthur Penhaligon (King Arthur, as the son of Uther Pendragon, was Arthur Pendragon), and a mysterious House to which Arthur is trying to return.  This is not just a once-and-future-king story, though.  It’s a lot stranger.  In Drowned Wednesday, successor to Mister Monday and Grim Tuesday, Arthur is in a hospital, and a ship is sent to get him out – which would be all right, except that his home town is miles from the ocean.  There are storms, pirates, and plenty of Nothing – dangerous stuff that turns what it touches into…well, nothing.  Arthur claims the Third Key in this book and, in Sir Thursday, searches for the fourth.  This time, one of his big problems is a doppelganger that has assumed Arthur’s identity and is slowly but surely taking over his life.  Arthur’s friend Leaf has to tackle the impostor problem, while Arthur must deal with the title character, who forces Arthur into the Glorious Army of the Architect.  If all this sounds confusing…well, it is.  But Nix handles it expertly, keeping the plot points coming constantly and filling the surreal world with so many twists and turns that readers will feel as if they are on a roller coaster in Wonderland.  All these books are building toward an eventual confrontation with Lord Sunday – but until Nix takes readers there, he will be pushing and pulling them down an apparently endless succession of rabbit holes.

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