October 11, 2007


Spells & Sleeping Bags. By Sarah Mlynowski. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

The Last Apprentice, Book Two: Curse of the Bane. By Joseph Delaney. Greenwillow/HarperTrophy. $7.99.

The Last Apprentice, Book Three: Night of the Soul Stealer. By Joseph Delaney. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Magic can be a great deal of fun, if it’s the kind practiced in Bras & Broomsticks, Frogs & French Kisses and, now, Spells & Sleeping Bags. Sarah Mlynowski’s teen-witch stories have plenty of heart and amusing complications to go with the hocus-pocus. The newest book is a summer-camp story, and it starts with Rachel and her younger sister, Miri – who is also a witch – heading off to camp together. Rachel has gotten over her jealousy of Miri, whose powers emerged at a much younger age, and is just settling into her own abilities – which sets the stage for funny magical mistakes ranging from the predictable (she zaps away her own clothes) to the unpredictable (she tries to split a bunk bed into two separate beds and instead splits it down the middle, so it collapses – luckily, while unoccupied). Rachel, who has just finished ninth grade, gets to deal with everyday camping problems (voracious mosquitoes, kids who pee in the lake) and everyday teenage trouble (a major crush on a boy named Raf, who is also at the camp). Oh, and her stepmom sends her care packages of feminine-hygiene products. And there’s a traitor – okay, a typical camping arch-enemy – in Rachel’s bunk, making her life miserable. And Rachel makes a Best Friend Forever, but her BFF gets kicked out of camp. And through all this, Rachel is learning how to use her magic and learning what magic won’t do: “If there’s ever been a time when I needed Miri, it’s now. Not because she’s a witch. Because she’s my sister.” The book does get more serious toward the end, with an identity exchange and family crisis intruding into the lightheartedness; but the eventual resolution is upbeat, and the overall feeling is light, frothy and warm.

      On the other hand, there are the books of The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney. Brrr. The second volume, originally published in England in 2005 and in the U.S. last year, is now available in paperback. It continues the adventures of Thomas Ward, apprentice to the Spook, who is not a scary character but a protector against scary characters. And those characters can be chilling indeed. Curse of the Bane focuses on a frightening creature living in the catacombs of a cathedral. But the church powers-that-be do not want the Spook, whom they consider evil, to do anything to dispose of it. The danger of the Bane is that it can take over and corrupt people’s minds, so Tom cannot be sure who is on what side. And there are other dangers. Winter is getting longer and the dark stronger in this book, and a girl named Alice, who helped Tom in the series’ first book, Revenge of the Witch, reappears to help him again – but at the cost of a dangerous deal with the Bane.

      The story moves onward and becomes darker still in Night of the Soul Stealer. The Spook is sure that Alice – who comes from a family of witches – cannot be trusted, partly because he knows secrets that he is not yet willing to share with his apprentice. But when the two go to the Spook’s winter house on a moor called Anglezarke, Tom starts to figure out some of those secrets on his own, and be exposed to parts of others. They are not mere arcana – although the theft of a grimoire from the Spook’s home is an important element of the story. These are very real, very immediate dangers, partly in the form of dangerous witches; partly because of a necromancer named Morgan; and partly because of an evil creature called the Gorgoth that surely cannot be real – or can it? The coldly atmospheric illustrations by Patrick Arrasmith add to the sense of foreboding in these books and deepen the story, which can easily go four books more – since Tom mentions toward the end of Book Three that he has four more years of apprenticeship before becoming a Spook himself. Alice retains her importance and is clearly bound to Tom in important ways – although, with Tom and Alice both being 13 and with Delaney’s books aimed at readers ages 10 and up, there is no overt romance. Tom’s tangled family relationships get some level of resolution in Night of the Soul Stealer, but the result of that is the opening of new mysteries – or rather the expected opening of them in the next book, since these mysteries reside in trunks that at this point remain shut. The terrors – some of them quite scary – are sure to mount as Tom’s apprenticeship continues.

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