Chopsticks. By Jon Berkeley. Random House. $16.95.
The Five Ancestors, Book Three: Snake. By Jeff Stone. Random House. $15.95.
The settings of these books provide a good deal of their charm – and are integral to their story lines. Chopsticks is a lovely little story of a tiny mouse who helps a huge dragon, and the way they both benefit. It has faint echoes of Aesop’s fable of the mouse and the lion, but it soars on different wings – dragon’s wings, to be specific. Chopsticks, the mouse, lives on a floating restaurant in Hong Kong harbor – a restaurant whose entrance is flanked by two magnificent painted wooden dragons. One night, one of the dragons speaks to Chopsticks, telling of his deep desire to fly and his inability to do so because, after all, he is made of wood and lacquer. Intrigued, Chopsticks asks if he can help – and the dragon explains that Old Fu, who carved him, knows how to bring him to life. So Chopsticks sets out to locate Old Fu – who finds himself intrigued both by the mouse and by the wooden dragon (“I always knew that one would want to fly”). A bargain is struck: Old Fu gives Chopsticks the secret of awakening the dragon – which turns out to be a special musical tune, played when the moon is full – and Chopsticks promises to return and bring Old Fu the stories of his adventures with the dragon. And so he does. This is a simple story of wonder and friendship, rendered exotic in part by the setting and in part by Jon Berkeley’s illustrations of his own story, which feature unusual perspectives and effectively tell the tale from a mouse-eye view. It’s a lovely little fable.
The Five Ancestors is neither lovely nor little, but Jeff Stone continues to keep it fast-paced, intriguing and well-plotted in the third volume, Snake. This is the story of five young Chinese monks who must make their own way in the world after their monastery is brutally attacked, the buildings and older monks destroyed, and their teacher, Grandmaster, killed. Each of the five trainees has focused on a particular form of martial arts that reflects his heritage – a heritage known only to Grandmaster. After the monastery is razed, the five young monks set off to find out the reason for the attack, to learn more of their own martial arts, and to discover the secrets of their past and destiny as well. Secrets are particularly important to Seh, protagonist of Snake and a master of snake-style kung fu. His senses are sharp, his manner quietly watchful – until he must leave the temple, to encounter powerful bandits and meet his own father and a woman whose name means “cobra.” The plots of the Emperor’s nephew and the troops with which he marches become ever more intricate in this installment, and the hatred of Major Ying for Grandmaster and all that he stood for becomes even more intense. As Seh learns of the benefits and perils of secrets, and finds out more about the mysterious white monkey that appears again and again, the precious Cangzhen scrolls that the young monks are trying to protect continue to get passed from hand to hand, their importance uncertain and their ultimate fate unknown. Stone’s stories continue to grow: despite the umbrella title of this well-wrought series, there are now seven books planned for it.
July 06, 2006
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