March 22, 2007


Corydon & the Fall of Atlantis. By Tobias Druitt. Knopf. $15.99.

The Five Ancestors, Book IV: Crane. By Jeff Stone. Random House. $15.99.

      These “continuing adventure” tales raise the questions of what is human and what is not, and of ways in which humans can – and, for their survival, must – learn from nonhuman animals. Neither book is the slightest bit preachy, but both have quite a few lessons to teach.

      Corydon & the Fall of Atlantis is a followup to Corydon and the Island of Monsters, in which Greek legends were turned every which way by an authorial team that knows them inside out (“Tobias Druitt” is the pseudonym for mother-and-son writers Diane Purkiss and Michael Dowling). The earlier book was if anything a touch too steeped in Greek legends to be immediately intelligible to young readers who have not studied and been fascinated by this deep and highly influential mythology. The new book is more of a straightforward adventure story, and is likely to have even more immediate appeal than its predecessor. The plot flows from the kidnapping of the Minotaur – a peace-loving inhabitant of the Island of Monsters, which is constantly under attack by self-aggrandizing, often self-proclaimed mythological heroes. Evidence suggests that the Minotaur has been taken to the city of Atlantis, so the other monsters – led by Corydon – journey over Poseidon’s waters, managing hairsbreadth escape after hairsbreadth escape, and finally arriving at Atlantis, where they are told: “Many centuries ago, the people of Atlantis lost their city thanks to the malice of a god. They decided to build a new city that would be the wonder of the world. Their cleverest man, a man named Daidalos, designed it…but the people were few. To build it, they needed strong backs. …[So Daidalos] determined to build his own race of giants…. He learned the secret of creating life, discovered that he must paint each clay figure with an animating rune in human blood.” So Daidalos murders to make it possible to create golem-like creatures to construct the wonderful city, and readers know the glories of Atlantis are thus built on the most unstable foundation imaginable. Questions about Atlantis become intertwined with a plot to make the monsters mortal “by catching [them] in mortal life. The Minotaur with drugs, Euryale with art, Gorgos with hero-power…and me with love, thought Corydon.” This is a complexly woven fable, with role reversals throughout (the monsters, the reader must constantly remember, are the good guys); and the monsters’ narrow escape from Atlantis’ destruction portends further adventures in a promised third book.

      The Five Ancestors is into its fourth book with Crane, and Jeff Stone shows no sign of reducing the intensity of this well-wrought series. It is about five young 17th-century warrior-monks-in-training who survive the destruction of their school at Cangzhen Temple, and must find their way in the world while developing, on their own, their special martial-arts styles. Then they must learn why the temple was destroyed, along with the benevolent Grandmaster who trained them. The hero of Crane is, surprisingly, a heroine: Hok, whose crane-style kung fu requires her to be constantly aware of even the smallest changes in others without requiring her to spend much time looking inward. Hok was disguised as a boy to enter Cangzhen – otherwise she would not have been allowed to train there – and in Crane she starts to wonder what she gave up when she allowed the cutting off not only of her hair but also of her name: OnYeen, which means Peaceful. For things are anything but peaceful for Hok and her comrades, Fu and Seh, as they try to free Malao, who has been captured. All four find themselves forced into the fight-club scene in the city of Jinan, where their individual martial-arts styles are intensely tested as they try to survive and continue their seekings – which are, ultimately, searches for themselves. A worthy successor to Tiger, Monkey and Snake, this fourth book ends with an intense escape scene that will make readers of the series very eager indeed to read the fifth volume, which will be called Eagle.

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