March 22, 2007


The Edge Chronicles VIII: The Winter Knights. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $12.99.

Arthur and the Invisibles. By Luc Beeson. HarperEntertainment. $7.99.

      There is genuine regret in stating that the eighth volume in the wonderful Edge Chronicles is by far the weakest of these novels to date. This is true even though Paul Stewart continues to write with style and Chris Riddell’s astonishing illustrations seem to spring from an inexhaustible store of characterization through detail. The Edge Chronicles is one of the truly great adventure series for preteens and young teenagers, but in The Winter Knights it comes up short. The problems are manifold. The seventh book, Freeglader, ended with the escape of refugees from the ruins of Undertown and the long-since-crashed, one-time-floating city of Sanctaphrax. Challenges would no doubt remain, but a great journey had been completed, the balance of power in the world of The Edge had been altered forever, and it was clear that a happier future would lie ahead. Where to go next in this 10-volume series? The answer in this eighth volume is: backwards. Back to a time when Sanctaphrax floated, when the wounds of the battles between Sky Scholars and Earth Scholars were fresh.

This might work as a way to fill in some of the narrative holes left by the end of the seventh book, but that is not how Stewart and Riddell handle The Winter Knights. Instead, they use it to pick up the story originally told in the fourth book, The Curse of the Gloamglozer – a novel that was already weaker than the others, with a less interesting cast of characters. Those characters are not much more intriguing with the additional focus on them here. The major protagonist is Quint, son of a sky pirate and aspiring Knight Academic. Unfortunately, he is na├»ve to the point of stupidity, determinedly seeing only good even when evil stares him in the face; he quickly becomes merely tiresome. Quint is separated at the start from his friend, Maris, daughter of the Most High Academe, and that is too bad, because Maris is a more interesting character – when she eventually shows up again, she makes the whole book brighter, although her own situation is grim. Part of the problem is that the bad guys here are bad simply because – well, because they’re evil. There is none of the depth of characterization here found in other parts of this series. Instead, there is simply Vilnix Pompolnius, a fellow student who passionately hates Quint for no very good reason and undermines him constantly without Quint having the faintest idea of what is going on. In fact, the leaders of Sanctaphrax never quite figure Vilnix out, either – they’re a pretty dim bunch – and when Vilnix is eventually exposed, they do not even banish him from the city, but merely demote him, leaving him a venue from which to continue doing mischief. That will surely be a subject of the ninth book – which will undoubtedly retain the charming Riddell illustrations, but seems unlikely to rise much above the admittedly exciting but less-than-enthralling tale told here.

      There are beauties in the world of the Minimoys, too, but Luc Beeson’s two books about them – Arthur and the Minimoys and Arthur and the Forbidden City – are just a bit too formulaic to belong in the top tier of fantasy writing. Arthur and the Invisibles collects the two novels in a single volume, its design tied into Beeson’s not-terribly-well-received film based on his Minimoy stories. It is certainly not necessary to see the movie to enjoy this book, which starts with Arthur’s discovery of the one-inch-tall Minimoys and continues as he shrinks to Minimoy height himself and has two adventures: searching for his missing grandfather and a stolen treasure, and visiting the forbidden city of Necropolis to confront the evil wizard, Maltazard. The names themselves reveal elements of Beeson’s plot formula: Minimoy for miniature or miniscule people, Necropolis for a kind of city of the dead, Maltazard as a combination of mal (= bad) and wizard. Intended for readers ages 8-11, the books are likely to appeal more to the younger end of that age range, to readers who find words such as Koolomassai and Balong-Botos exotic in and of themselves. This is not to deny Beeson’s considerable cleverness in pacing the books and keeping the unidimensional characters within (modest) expectations. The good guys stay good, the bad guys stay bad, and everything comes out all right – but it has to be said that Arthur is not the most interesting hero. “Arthur sighed. He didn’t know what to do,” is a typical remark, and a lot of the events consist of Arthur not knowing what to do but still being brave about doing whatever it turns out to be. That approach to adventure is intermittently appealing, but it does wear rather thin when Beeson presents more than 400 pages of it.

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