The Magnificent 12, Book 1: The Call. By Michael Grant. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $5.99.
The Magnificent 12, Book 2: The Trap. By Michael Grant. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The Six Crowns, Book 1: Trundle’s Quest. By Allan Jones. Illustrated by Gary Chalk. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $5.99.
Preteens are luckier than teenagers when it comes to heroic fantasy: they get it with a dose of humor. Before the hyper-serious teenage years, with their angst and worry reflected in fantasy novels, the preteen years (ages 7-12) allow some amusement to be mixed with all the derring-do. Sometimes a lot of amusement. Maybe even too much amusement. It depends on your tolerance for this sort of thing. The Magnificent 12 has a very high amusement quotient; in fact, Michael Grant’s series is far less about plot than about twists and turns. The underlying idea – put forth in The Call, originally published last year and now available in paperback – is that a completely average 12-year-old possesses enlightened puissance (written in italics) and is therefore one of a dozen 12-year-old heroes destined to fight the Pale Queen and prevent her from asserting evil rule over, well, everything. Or something like that. The plot really doesn’t matter much, being mostly an excuse for totally average Mack MacAvoy to have adventures in which he is not totally average after all…accompanied by 15-year-old Stefan Marr, onetime bully and now friend…and advised by Grimluk, age 3,000, who appears to Mack in the shiny chrome pipes of bathrooms and offers admonitions, warnings, help, all that sort of stuff. You can see where this is going.
Well, no, actually you can’t, which is why The Magnificent 12 is fun. Because Grant does not feel obliged to pay much attention to the niceties of plot or characterization, he is free to produce a romp, taking Mack and Stefan and others in pretty much any direction he chooses. The Call fills in the quest’s background in alternating chapters while moving Mack’s story forward. So we get a little bit of Grimluk’s tale: “This put Grimluk in a rather embarrassing situation. He’d opened his big mouth and announced that he had something he’d never seen and wouldn’t recognize if he tripped over it. And every tear-brimmed eye gazed at him now with hope and anticipation.” And then some of Mack’s: “‘Hey, I’m not flying anywhere!’ Mack said. ‘I’m going home to kick the golem out of my bedroom and call the FBI or whatever and tell them what’s happening.’” And on and on: “Grimluk had seen some ugly in his life, but this was more ugly in one place, all together, than he could ever have imagined.” “Risky’s head was hanging by a thread. Her sharp hands melted to reform her own fingers. (Well, Mack assumed they were her own.) And then, to Mack’s utter horror, Risky, her head horizontal, smiled and said, ‘Ooooh, that pinched.’” And so on, into The Trap, where it turns out that one of the magnificent 12-year-olds is a dragon – whose father is the Dragon King, and is given to heroic pronouncements: “‘The Pale Queen rises again. And who will stop her now? Long has she waited and plotted and prepared. Her allies are many. Her powers great. Her evil without limit. And her foul daughter has come fully into her own.’ Still no question. But Mack was amazed to hear all this. Because it was kind of convincing when you heard it from a spectral bathroom apparition. But it was really, really convincing when you heard it from the King of Dragons.” The telling, more than the tale, is the attraction here, and although Grant does tend to overdo things a bit, piling action on action and event on event to such an extent that it can be hard to keep up with everything, The Magnificent 12 manages to remain enjoyable pretty much all the time – simply because it refuses, absolutely refuses, to take itself, its characters, its plot or the conventions of its genre seriously.
The Six Crowns pays more attention to those conventions, but Allan Jones too leaves plenty of room for humor – and in the case of Trundle’s Quest, first book in the series, Gary Chalk’s detailed illustrations add a great deal to the humor. The heroic characters here are not humans but hedgehogs, and the setting seems like a small-scale version of Tolkien’s Shire: a little town called Shiverstones, where Trundle lives simply and quietly until Esmeralda shows up at his house one night. She informs Trundle – quickly, because she is being pursued by pirates at the time – that he is destined by prophecy to join her on a quest to find the Six Crowns of the Badgers, icons of power that have the ability to unite the Shattered Lands (which are shattered because, according to legend, a once-round world was smashed into separate pieces by a tremendous explosion in the dim past). Trundle’s Quest, undertaken unwillingly (as usual) by the timid (as usual) hero, leads the partners into a whole series of perils, from which Trundle usually escapes through luck more than skill; and eventually into dismal mines that are worked by slaves whom Trundle promises to help – an impossible task that, at the end, he fulfills in appropriately explosive fashion. Oh…and if it hadn’t been for the mines, the first of the crowns would never have turned up. So there’s more of that “luck” element. By the end of the book, one crown in hand (or in paw), Trundle and Esmeralda have been joined by a squirrel named Jack Nimble and are headed – with the pirates in pursuit – toward their next adventure. The story is simple and fast-paced, with plenty of amusing byways (such as a store called “Honesty Skank’s Gold Star Pawnshop,” where an important plot element not surprisingly turns up). The first book of The Six Crowns sequence is scarcely challenging reading, but it is both amusing and exciting enough to have preteens eager to follow Trundle and Esmeralda through what is sure to be, eventually, a successful quest.