The Keys to the Kingdom, Book 6: Superior Saturday. By Garth Nix. Scholastic. $17.99.
Phoenix Rising, Book Two: Elissa’s Odyssey. By Erica Verrillo. Random House. $16.99.
Arthur Penhaligon has moved through the days of mystery, darkness, pirates, war and fear to a day of sorcery in Super Saturday, the sixth of the seven books in the much- altered retelling of Arthurian legend called The Keys to the Kingdom. Like all the later books in this series, Superior Saturday represents a poor entry point for new readers – with its casual references to Denizens, Nithlings, Trustees and more. But it is a fine continuation of a complex story, as Arthur confronts the most powerful sorcerer within the House. This is more-or-less literally a house, albeit a mystical one – it has levels, of which the Upper House seems to be impossible to enter, while “the weather was broken in the Middle House.” And in it are wonders galore, not only the ones introduced before but also some new ones brought forth for the first time in this book, such as the four Drasils, which are huge trees that “hold up the Incomparable Gardens and [are] always growing.” This is surely a reference to the distinctly non-Arthurian Norse legend of Yggdrasil, the world-ash; yet it is also part of the world Nix has created for Arthur, which in truth does not fit the old Arthurian legends – or any others – particularly closely. What this Arthur is searching for is the Will of the Architect, which despite being distinctly magical is intimately bound up with letters and “long threads of type.” In Superior Saturday, Arthur is sufficiently self-aware as Rightful Heir of the Architect so that he can survive the most intense challenges yet – Nix has done a good job of ramping up the difficulties Arthur faces in each book. Arthur ends up in an ongoing discussion with the Will, which is in the form of a not-quite-fully-fledged raven and which, surprisingly, ends up devising schemes that Arthur finds helpful even though it says, “I’m not so good with plans.” Arthur’s eventual claiming of the Sixth Key is coupled with what may be disaster and is certainly a lead-in to the upcoming and presumably conclusive Lord Sunday.
There is one book to go in the Phoenix Rising trilogy as well, now that Elissa’s adventures have moved into the second volume, Elissa’s Odyssey. In the first book, Elissa’s Quest, the 13-year-old heroine, her mother dead and her father’s identity kept from her by her caretaker, lived as a healer’s apprentice while concealing her gift of speaking to animals. Elissa, not surprisingly in a coming-of-age tale, dreamed of more excitement in life and of finding her father. Then she left home with a royal guest who unexpectedly showed up one day, and found herself to be a pawn – or perhaps more than a pawn, as readers surely suspected – in a battle for the kingdom. She discovered that she could be the key to the Prophecy of the Phoenix, one of many things that everyone in Elissa’s world except Elissa herself seemed to know about. That mysteries-everywhere approach was a weakness in Erica Verrillo’s first book, which was her first book, and it continues to be a major element of the plot in Elissa’s Odyssey, in which the young girl – who now knows that she is a princess (likely to the surprise of no readers) – finds that her talking-to-animals ability is growing stronger and changing in strange ways. Now she not only can talk to creatures but also can control things in the natural world. She knows who her father is (Lord Falk) and has found a true friend with a Gift of her own (Maya), although the friends become separated; and Elissa now undertakes a voyage – hence the “Odyssey” part of the title – in which she meets still others with special Gifts who may, collectively, represent pieces of the puzzle of the mysterious Prophecy. Most of the plot elements here are very familiar ones, involving family and friendship and treachery and elements of self-discovery. But Verrillo does a good job of keeping them together and keeping her narrative moving, and preteens looking for a series with a strong young woman at its center will enjoy the continuation of this one.