May 14, 2009


Beka Cooper, Book Two: Bloodhound. By Tamora Pierce. Random House. $18.99.

Sebastian Darke, Book Two: Prince of Pirates. By Philip Caveney. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     It has been two-and-a-half years since Tamora Pierce introduced Beka Cooper in the first book of a planned trilogy, Terrier. That book’s title reflected not only Beka’s tenacity but also one of the conceits of this saga – that the Provost’s Guard in the city of Corus is widely known as “the Provost’s Dogs.” The Dogs are law enforcers in a world of magic, and their rookies are deemed Puppies, as was Beka in the first book. Pierce gave Beka some magic of her own, dubbing her a listener: she hears the information that flows like air through the Lower City, where she herself was born – whether the whisperings come from people, pigeons or ghosts. Beka’s story is part of a much larger one on which Pierce has worked for many years: that of the land of Tortall. The new Beka Cooper book is the 16th novel set there and is, like the first Beka one, subtitled “A Tortall Legend.” It may take readers a little while to get into this lengthy (554-page) novel, as Pierce re-sets the scene and helps readers reimagine Beka herself and the animals with which she interacts in important ways. And the basic plot may seem a touch mundane for a book about a world of magic: Beka, now a full-fledged Dog rather than a Puppy, has to investigate a counterfeiting operation. But Pierce’s skill lies in characterization as much as in action, and as Beka follows the trail of counterfeit coins to Port Caynn, where she finds that that town’s Dogs do not seem to be doing much about the shady operation, she becomes a much more fully formed character as well as a far better member of the Guard. Pierce has an old-fashioned style of writing in which she does not hesitate to spend a paragraph or more simply setting a scene: “The noise swamped us. The smoke that floated along the ceiling made our eyes sting. It came from the fire in the great hearth where kettles full of wines and ales heated. Sweating mots wearing thin dresses and aprons filled pitchers from the kettles and handed them over to serving folk, then refilled the kettles to heat a new batch of drinks. I could smell spices, ale, wine, roasting meat, and hints of puke and piss.” It is through vivid imagery like this that Pierce makes this story come alive – and there is plenty of conflict and action, too, even if not of the nonstop variety. After all, Beka has made enemies in her fast rise in Corus; and now she is traveling with her mentor, Clary Goodwin, as well as with the scent hound Achoo and the pigeon Slapper (who keeps Beka in touch with the voices of the dead). The matter-of-fact use of magic, from balms to concealment spells, adds to the solidity of Beka and Tortall, while Pierce’s invented words (gixie, colemongery) keep the setting exotic. Beka even develops a romantic attachment in the midst of this adventure, although that particular “ache” goes nowhere, and Pierce ends by having Beka assert, “There’s plenty more trouble to get into” – as she no doubt will in the concluding book of this trilogy when Pierce gets around to writing it.

     The seriousness and intensity of Pierce’s writing stand in stark contrast to the lighthearted approach that Philip Caveney takes in his Sebastian Darke trilogy, which has also now reached its second book and which, like Pierce’s Beka tales, is intended for readers age 12 and up. The first Sebastian book, Prince of Fools, introduced the half-elf, half-human hero, who (like Beka Cooper) has some rather unusual traveling companions – in Sebastian’s case, a buffalope named Max and a fighting dwarf named Cornelius. By the end of that first book, Sebastian has realized that he will never make it as a court jester, so the second book, Prince of Pirates, takes him in an altogether different direction. Specifically, it takes him toward the port of Ramalat, from which he plans to take ship to search for the lost treasure of the Pirate King Callinestra. First, though, Sebastian and his companions have to avoid getting lost and waylaid themselves as they travel through the forest of Geltane (where a beautiful but dangerous sorceress awaits). And when, somewhat the worse for wear, they do eventually reach Ramalat, they find themselves dealing with kelfers (really dangerous, sharklike beasties: “not just pure evil, they’re cunning with it”) and a pirate called Captain Kid (real name: Beverly). As their quest proceeds, amid sea battles and pirate-infested islands and such, they are treated to such observations as, “There are many ways to rob somebody, and maybe being a pirate is the most honest method. At least you’re not pretending to be anything other than a crook.” There is a great deal of farce and a great deal of fun in Prince of Pirates, but always within the context of what really is a fast-paced swashbuckling adventure. And Caveney is a fine illustrator as well as a good writer, whether in a picture showing a battle with a huge-toothed, dinosaur-like creature called a yarkle, or in one giving individual character to each of the many faces crowded into a seedy tavern. Still, it is the humor of the writing that is most attractive here: “‘Well, that’s just typical, isn’t it!’ complained Max. ‘That just puts the ruddy cap on it! We go all that way, struggle through the worst odds, face the most terrible dangers, and for what?’” Well, for the amusement and enjoyment of readers, for one thing – and in the genre of heroic fantasy/quest tales, which tends to take itself very seriously indeed, Sebastian Darke’s adventures are especially welcome for their light touch.

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