April 16, 2009


The Demonwar Saga, Book One: Rides a Dread Legion. By Raymond E. Feist. Eos. $26.99.

The Diamonds. By Ted Michael. Delacorte Press. $8.99.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian—A Capital Adventure; Larry’s Friends and Foes; To the Rescue!; The Quest for the Golden Tablet; Made You Look! HarperEntertainment. $4.99 each (Adventure; Made); $3.99 (Quest). HarperTrophy. $3.99 each (Friends; Rescue).

     There is a certain comfort level about returning to well-worn paths in well-known nonexistent realms, even when – perhaps especially when – the journey involves a frisson of fright. Fans of Raymond E. Feist’s many Midkemia novels will welcome the start of his new series, The Demonwar Saga, and will probably realize immediately that the title is intended as familiar rather than confusing. The uninitiated might wonder, who rides a dread legion? But of course the title is really Feist’s quasi-archaic way of saying, “a dread legion rides.” This book takes place a decade after the Darkwar, at a time when Midkemia is briefly at peace (peace is always brief in this land). The Dread Legion of the title is pursuing an ancient race of elves called the Clan of the Seven Stars, which has fled through a galactic rift and is determined to preserve itself by brutally subjugating Midkemia (negotiated live-and-let-live treaties among races being as uncommon in this land as peaceful boundary agreements). This puts the Clan’s leader, the conjurer Laromendis, on a collision course with Midkemia’s erstwhile defender, the magician Pug – and to make matters more complicated, in one of Feist’s typical plot arrangements, it turns out that Pug is familiar with the Dread Legion and its Demon King, Maarg, and knows that he is not strong enough to withstand the Legion’s onslaught. So he must forge a magical alliance – which requires him to work with a variety of magic wielders who are his enemies and not very fond of each other, either. “Find allies, Pug,” advises a character called the Oracle. “Find those who in the past you have not sought out. Seek strength where you are weak, and find those who have knowledge where you are ignorant.” And so it shall be. There is plenty of material here for multiple books, and as usual, Feist keeps his novel’s pace fast and the majority of his dialogue easily comprehended and colloquial, so readers can return to this land they know well and enjoy their latest adventure within it.

     You might think that a modern high school has little in common with the land of Midkemia, but high schools as envisioned in the many Mean Girls variants are also lands of fantasy, involving too-perfect queen bees given their comeuppance by too-perfectly-positioned, too-honest good characters who just happen to have the knowledge needed to emerge triumphant. The veneer of the real world is strictly on the surface in these books – including The Diamonds, Ted Michael’s first novel. This book is fun on a strictly formulaic level: the girl quartet of the title rules at Bennington School, a private and (of course) oh-so-exclusive establishment. A well-meaning but (of course) clueless teacher suggests that the Diamonds join the mock trial team, and the girls use that bit of school-sanctioned power to monitor and manage the social fates of their classmates. In the middle of all this is basically-nice-girl Marni, who is best friends with Diamonds leader Clarissa until she gets on Clarissa’s bad side by getting a little too close to Clarissa’s ex, in whom Clarissa retains a proprietary interest because, well, that’s just the way things are. So Clarissa immediately starts taking oh-so-petty but oh-so-typical revenge on Marni, but Marni is just too spunky to take that lying down forever, and she knows how the Diamonds work, and she knows who some of their victims are, and she knows how to pull some of those victims together, and…well, you can imagine where all of this goes, and that’s just where it does go. “We have to prove the Diamonds are actually doing the opposite of what the administration thinks they’re doing,” says Marni as she thinks about “how Clarissa had twisted all the privileges she’s been given.” With help from journalist Tommy, daughter-of-a-police-detective Darcy, and other good-guy co-conspirators, Marci hatches a plan; but there is a traitor in her group (of course), and things go awry (of course), but eventually the Diamonds are conquered (of course) and all ends less-than-happily (of course). But Marni gains self-knowledge and personal growth. Of course.

     And speaking of familiar fantasy worlds, the Hollywood approach to films and their nearly inevitable sequels is returning moviegoers to the Museum of Natural History next month – not the real one, but the one in which an ancient curse causes animals and exhibits to come to life and make a big mess of everything. That was the plot of Night at the Museum, released in 2006, so of course it is also the plot of the new Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, except that this time the living exhibits have been moved to Washington, D.C., and some new characters have been introduced (along the lines of the 2006 ones, of course). There’s nothing remotely serious about this frothy concoction, but it may produce a couple of hours of fun for kids up to about age 10. And, not coincidentally at all, that is the age group at which a number of already-available movie-spinoff books are aimed. A Capital Adventure, by Jasmine Jones, is a novella-length retelling of the story of the new movie. Larry’s Friends and Foes and To the Rescue! – both by Catherine Hapka – are “I Can Read” Level 2 picture books giving simplified, large-type elements of the story. The Quest for the Golden Tablet, by A.J. Wilde, includes multiple movie stills and is designed to be read to preschoolers. Made You Look! – by Lucy Rosen – is a “find the differences” book, also for preschoolers, using slightly altered movie scenes whose changes kids are supposed to pick out. These are all essentially movie-souvenir books, worth (+++) ratings for families that decide this is a highly enjoyable film worth remembering long after leaving the theater. For everyone else, the books will be of no interest and get no rating at all.

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