September 22, 2011


The Last Apprentice, Book Seven: Rise of the Huntress. By Joseph Delaney. Illustrations by Patrick Arrasmith. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $7.99.

The Queen’s Thief, Book 4: A Conspiracy of Kings. By Megan Whalen Turner. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $7.99.

The Family Hitchcock. By Mark Levin & Jennifer Flackett. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.

     The paperback publication of two entries in long-running series provides a chance to revisit some interestingly created fantasy worlds, or visit them for the first time. The Wardstone Chronicles, a British dark-fantasy series being published in the United States as The Last Apprentice, has had eight U.S. volumes so far. The seventh, Rise of the Huntress, takes place after apprentice Tom and his master, the Spook, have returned from Greece to find their home burned to the ground – and with it, the Spook’s library of knowledge about the dark and how to fight it. Like the other books in the series, this one is intense and fast-paced, as Tom and Alice – who are now bound to each other by a blood charm that keeps the Fiend at bay, but only as long as they stay together and keep it close – are accused of witchcraft by a creature called an abhuman, then forced to deal with a buggane, “a demon that usually lurks near a ruin” but “can roam quite a distance from this central point,” and which sometimes appears as a huge bull, sometimes as a gigantic hairy man. Picking up some help along the way, as they usually do – from people who, as often happens in these dark works, are doomed – Tom, Alice and the Spook fight through the various dark forces until they eventually must confront and deal with a key evil character: Alice’s mother. Joseph Delaney’s books have distinctions that often earn them (++++) ratings, including characters with genuine depth, a sense of the ways in which duty and life itself can be compromised by ties that bind in unpleasant ways (such as Alice’s with her mother), and excellent Patrick Arrasmith illustrations in which the artist makes Delaney’s world come to life with considerable intensity. The drawings are particularly good in Rise of the Huntress. One simply shows a man – rendered eerie by the fact that the picture begins just below his waist and ends at his nose. Another is the head of a woman, her lips sewn together – it looks like a severed head, although readers soon learn that it is not. Another shows a tree, its black branches covered with black birds. And for contrast, there are such pictures as a mundane one of food and drink upon a table. Delaney paces his books well, and includes enough lore about denizens of the dark to give the stories a feeling of underlying solidity, if not reality: “A buggane takes the animus, the life force of a human, and stores it at the center of its labyrinth. …It whispers, it threatens, then it sucks out the animus and kills its victim, but we don’t know why.” The wonders of these books – most of them frightening – make for harrowing reading and considerable excitement.

     The adventure is of a different sort in The Queen’s Thief, a four-book series named by its fans rather than by author Megan Whalen Turner. The first three books – The Thief (1996), The Queen of Attolia (2000) and The King of Attolia (2006) – set the scene in a time period more or less like that of ancient Greece, but in a civilization that has produced such modern inventions as rifles, glass windows, telescopes, cannons and printed books. The central character is Eugenides, the Thief of Eddis, but in A Conspiracy of Kings, the focus is equally on Eugenides’ friend, Sophos, heir to the throne of Sounis – who has mysteriously disappeared. It turns out that he has been sold into slavery, a state of affairs with which he finds himself surprisingly content. Eventually, though, he escapes, assumes his land’s throne, and turns to Eugenides for assistance in securing his kingdom. A Conspiracy of Kings, which gets a (+++) rating, follows reasonably well from the three previous books, and somewhat expands their canvas by refocusing a good part of the story on Sophos. But it is not, in and of itself, an especially interesting book – the plots and counterplots, battles and conspiracies have a quality of formula about them. Still, fans of The Queen’s Thief sequence will enjoy this addition to it.

     The Family Hitchcock, a hardcover that reads like the start of a new series, is an adventure of a lighter sort, with some fairly mild mysteries that are quite obviously hinted at by giving the family that particular name. This (+++) book is all about a European vacation gone awry, as the Hitchcocks do a house swap with a French family named the Vadims (surely a reference to French film director/screenwriter Roger Vadim: first-time novelists Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett are husband-and-wife moviemakers and TV writer/producers). Pretty much everything that happens here is surprising in an unsurprising way: the Vadims turn out not to be the people they seem to be; strangers show up, uttering threats and demanding a mysterious object; there are family troubles, including financial matters that led to the house swap in the first place; and there is the usual sort of bickering, such as this father-and-daughter exchange: “He turned back to Maddy. ‘You ask him. You’re the French speaker.’ ‘I’m also the girl who just told the driver to speed up. I’m the C-minus student, remember?’ ‘Because you don’t apply yourself.’ ‘Because I’m not into it.’” Readers who like this kind of dialogue will find plenty of it here. Husband Roger and wife Rebecca are estranged and may even be in the process of planning a divorce – a worry, of course, for son Benji and daughter Maddy – and the parents are, in their bumbling way, trying to solve the mystery alongside their kids: Roger “didn’t want to jeopardize the gains he had made with his wife that afternoon and evening. But when the first screw [of the cabinet] came loose in his fingers, he dropped it on the kitchen counter and moved right on to the next. Yes, an otherwise fine day had taken a sharp turn into the world of scary and strange. But now that he was taking action, he couldn’t stop.” Action is the main point here – there is nothing really interesting about anyone in the Hitchcock family – and the story piles unbelievability upon unbelievability until, by the time the family tells it to someone at the American Embassy, it sounds as ridiculous as it is. But of course it is all true – the two sets of Vadims, the mean dog, the man atop the Eiffel Tower, and all the rest of it, including the not-explained-until-the-very-end vial of MGF that lies at the heart of the whole story and that is unbelievable as everything else in the plot. The Family Hitchcock is not quite a romp, not quite a mystery, not quite a spy story, but is an attempted combination of the three genres. It never quite works in any of its guises, but young readers looking for some enjoyable (if easily forgettable) entertainment will have fun with it.

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