May 15, 2008


Twice Upon a Marigold: Part Comedy, Part Tragedy, Part Two. By Jean Ferris. Harcourt. $17.

Genius Squad. By Catherine Jinks. Harcourt. $17.

      There are limits to what you can do with a sequel. You have to keep the main characters from your original book, and have to continue the original plot – otherwise, to what is the sequel being written? You can introduce a few new characters, but they should not overshadow the ones whose tale you are continuing from before. And unless you want to create an ongoing series, you really do need to wrap things up satisfactorily by the end of your sequel.

      So whatever the luster of an original book – and Once Upon a Marigold shone unusually brightly – the sequel is likely to be a bit dim. And so it is with Twice Upon a Marigold, a book that would not have needed to be written had Jean Ferris allowed a happily-ever-after in her earlier work. Once Upon a Marigold was a wonderful sendup of fairy tales, and it also was a fairy tale, complete with troll, unrevealed prince, eight-foot-tall palace guard, evil queen, and beautiful daughters (plus one, Marigold, considered less beautiful). It had delightfully bent language, lots of inventiveness (such as “p-mail,” carried by pigeons), and a thoroughly satisfying ending in which the evil queen went over the castle wall and into the river while trying to prevent hero and heroine from marrying. Yay! But…Ferris, perhaps too kindheartedly, allowed the queen to wash ashore far downstream, still alive. And so readers, naturally enough, wanted to know what happened next. And so Ferris, naturally enough, wrote Twice Upon a Marigold. And it, naturally enough, comes nowhere near the earlier book. Queen Olympia had, in the first book, kept good King Swithbert under her thumb with potions. Now the queen is simply evil, screaming at everyone constantly, and Swithbert is weak and boring, acquiescing in everything up to and including his own imprisonment. Marigold and Chris – now married, and now queen and king of the land next door – have become largely colorless, and so susceptible to Olympia’s aura of evil that they bicker and pick at each other. Ed (Edric in the first book), the four-foot troll (three-foot-four in Book One), has achieved his aim of getting into competition with the Tooth Fairy and plays only a small role in the sequel. There are a few new characters – Lazy Susan, who learns how not to be lazy; Wendell, an inept wizard who rides an elephant; and Stan Lucasa, a chef and dressmaker who turns out (not very amusingly) to be on the verge of turning into a famous personage. But mostly this story is Olympia’s, and she is such an unendingly unpleasant character that you just want her over and done with – which, however, all the other characters agree must be done without violence. Ferris does eventually get to that “happily ever after” here, thank goodness, and the quality of her writing keeps the book flowing better than it would in less-skilled hands. Marigold’s thoughts sum it up best: “Sometimes things work out the way they’re supposed to, even if at first it seems like they haven’t.” True – but sometimes it’s better to have that happen in one book than in two.

      Genius Squad is only the second of what could become many books indeed – and here, too, the creativity of the initial volume, Evil Genius, has largely worn off. Actually, it wore off part of the way through the first book, when Catherine Jinks changed that novel from the story of a young genius being trained to be evil in a school that offered such instruction – quite an offbeat idea – into one of the boy, Cadel Piggott, being in danger and needing to be rescued before he could enter a life of evil. Oh, now that’s original. Genius Squad takes the formulaic part of the first book even further into uncreativity, placing Cadel in foster care to await the trial at which he will have to testify against jailed evil genius Prosper English. Readers of the first book, who may wish to see Cadel back at the Axis Institute for World Domination, will have to be content here with his meeting the Genius Squad of the title: the group approaches him to do a little genius-level thinking about how to stop an evil project. Cadel is so bored that he agrees, even though he has (well-founded) misgivings. So we meet new characters, explore new plots, and have Cadel’s supposedly secret whereabouts discovered. And then (not surprisingly at all) Prosper English escapes, and he is a nasty piece of work who is determined to recapture his son, Cadel – who, however, turns out not to be his son after all. By the end of Genius Squad, Cadel finds himself within a real family for the first time (a heartwarming but thoroughly conventional ending), and the stage is set for the next book, Genius Wars. The problem with all this is that the manufactured excitement and unending derring-do have been done many times before, by many other authors, and the “genius” angle is really a rather minor one. There is nothing wrong with Genius Squad as an action-adventure book for preteens and young teenagers, but there is nothing really special about it either – and it doesn’t take a genius to see that.

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