October 27, 2011


The Inquisitor’s Apprentice. By Chris Moriarty. Illustrations by Mark Edward Geyer. Harcourt. $16.99.

The Secret Zoo #2: Riddles and Danger. By Bryan Chick. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

The Familiars #2: Secrets of the Crown. By Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson. Art by Peter Chan & Kei Acedera. Harper. $16.99.

The Six Crowns, Book 2: Fair Wind to Widdershins. By Allan Jones. Illustrated by Gary Chalk. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $15.99.

     The magic that pervades so many adventures and fantasies aimed at preteens and young teenagers comes in a wide variety of guises. The adventures themselves do, too – urban and rural, in modern or long-ago settings, featuring humans or animals or both as protagonists. The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, a slice of alternative history set in a magic-pervaded early-20th-century New York City, is packed with types (Jewish, Italian, Chinese and Irish immigrants), real people (Thomas Edison, Harry Houdini), and people whose names and personalities are altered to make it clear that this is a world where magic and science coexist, often uneasily (James Pierpont Morgaunt, the Astral [rather than Astor] family). This is a world where magic is policed to prevent its misuse, and the chief pursuer of magical evildoers is Inquisitor Maximillian Wolf – to whom the book’s protagonist, Sacha Kessler, finds himself apprenticed after Sacha discovers that he can actually see magic being performed. Sacha is poor and Jewish; fellow apprentice Lily Astral is wealthy and patrician, but turns out to be more than just a “poor little rich girl.” The interplay between Sacha and Lily is well done in Chris Moriarty’s book and will surely be developed in sequels (which are a sure thing). But The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is otherwise riddled with unsatisfactory plot elements. Wolf is never really fleshed out as a character, becoming interesting only at the book’s climax; Sacha’s motivations make little sense (refusing to admit that he reads Yiddish, for example, and not telling Wolf that he recognizes a key piece of evidence); Morgaunt, the prime mover of evil here, is such a caricature that his machinations seem more silly than scary; Wolf’s decision to send Sacha and Lily out for coffee, to a dangerous neighborhood where it is certain they will be attacked, is an over-obvious move-the-plot ahead maneuver – of course the attack does happen, and does lead to a revelation; and the reason for the use of a shadowy figure called a dybbuk is never satisfactorily explained. Mark Edward Geyer’s illustrations, although well done, compound the book’s problems through irritating inaccuracies: Geyer labels a café “Metrapole” while the text calls it “Metropole,” and in a crucial picture showing the dybbuk, the creature is drawn with bird’s feet even though the text clearly says it does not have them (it has regular-looking feet that leave birdlike prints). Moriarty paces the book well, but its seams are constantly showing. Perhaps she will sew them more tightly in future episodes.

     The second book in The Secret Zoo series pleasantly continues the adventure begun in the first, Secrets and Shadows. The same four friends who discovered the zoo in the earlier book are now charged with protecting it in their role as Crossers, who can move back and forth between the ordinary human world and the secret, magical one in which penguins fly and dangerous creatures called sasquatches are a constant threat. Noah, Megan, Richie and Ella are exposed here not only to the zoo’s history but also to the story of the Secret Society, Secret Arctic Town, Forest of Flight, City of Species, Secret Creepy Critters and more – there are all sorts of secrets and other oddities here. But the basic story is very simple: the four friends help Mr. Darby, who is in charge of the Secret Zoo, keep the place safe and, well, secret. The chief evildoer here, DeGraff, “wants an army of monsters to storm the earth,” because that is what evildoers are all about. There are some passes at real-world family issues here, as is common in books for this age range – Ella’s preoccupation with her parents’ divorce, for example. But everyday matters take a back seat in a story that is certain to climax in the lair of the Secret Creepy Critters, and does. There’s quite an escape from alligators here, and there is rather corny dialogue, as when Mr. Darby explains about the four friends, “Their strength has its source in their love. And we’ll need that strength in our battles, I assure you. …If victory is ours to be had, it will be their love that helps deliver it.” Well, sure. There is nothing particularly special or unusual about the way the good characters conquer the bad ones here, and Bryan Chick’s writing, while serviceable, is not especially stylish. But the notion of a place where humans and animals interact as equals and genuinely help each other confront and overcome threats is an attractive one, and the generally mild (but occasionally scary) adventures can certainly go on for quite some time as this series continues.

     The Familiars is also about cooperation between humans and animals in a world of magic, but here the focus is on the animals – who are not mere servants or helpers of wizards but the keys to restoring the humans’ magical powers. For in the second book of the series by Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson, human magic has disappeared from Vastia, and Aldwyn, Skylar and Gilbert must go on a quest to restore it. The telekinetic cat, intelligent blue jay and frequently clueless tree frog need to find the ancient Crown of the Snow Leopard if they are to reverse the curse that has deprived humans of their ability to work magic. Their evil opponent is – well, a bunny. All right, a hare: Paksahara, who is motivated by the usual lust-for-conquest thing: “Not since Wyvern and Skull has magic been used in such a corrupt manner, solely for the pursuit of power,” as one character explains it. Good and bad guys keep turning up in animal guise here – for instance, at one point Skylar summons the great architect Agorus from the Tomorrowlife, and Agorus turns out to be a beaver. This becomes an occasion for some humor, of which there is a fair helping in The Familiars, although it often appears in rather silly ways that require some decidedly un-heroic dialogue: “‘Thanks,’ squealed Gilbert. ‘I nearly got turned into a shish-kafrog.’” The Prophesized Three (an unfortunate title for the protagonists – it really should be “prophesied”) encounter, among other things, a cave shaman, albino dwarf, and “tiny hound of darkness” that licks Gilbert’s face with “smoky slobber” and wants only to play. They have to solve the usual riddles-in-rhyme, journey on a whale’s back, follow a path once trod by Aldwyn’s father, encounter a vitrecore, and eventually battle Paksahara herself – and a traitor. These are familiar heroic-quest events, and young readers who know the Star Wars films will recognize another one with the sudden revelation that Aldwyn has a living relative of whom he previously knew nothing. Secrets of the Crown ends inconclusively, setting up the next book in the sequence – this is going to be one of those series that readers will need to follow book after book in order to get some complete and satisfactory answers to what is going on and how the good guys triumph.

     Speaking of animal heroes seeking crowns, The Six Crowns is another heroic quest, this one involving animals alone – specifically, hedgehogs Trundle and Esmeralda and, in the second book of the series, Jack Nimble the bard (a squirrel). Fair Wind to Widdershins picks up exactly where the previous book, Trundle’s Quest, ended, with the protagonists pursued through the air by dastardly pirates led by Captain Grizzletusk. So of course the first few pages are spent showing how the good guys escape; and then begins the second part of their search – the first part having ended successfully in the earlier book. The objective of what the brave hedgehogs are doing is the discovery of six ancient crowns that, legend has it, can, when reunited, be used to restore the Sundered Lands to the single round world, ruled over by six wise badgers, that supposedly existed long, long ago. To get help, the adventurers go to visit Esmeralda’s sweet, caring aunt, Millie Rose – who, likely to the surprise of almost no one, turns out to have a decidedly sour agenda of her own. She cannot damage Trundle or Esmeralda too much because of another of those convenient but irritating prophecies – they and they alone must find the crowns, if the crowns are to be found at all. But she can maneuver and manipulate things for her own good. “‘Horrible treachery!’ said Esmeralda. ‘Unbelievably horrible treachery!’” And that about sums it up. So onward Trundle, Esmeralda and Jack go, forced to rely on their own devices and their own wits – which, not at all surprisingly, prove quite equal to the task before them (prophecies have a way of working out in these fantasies). Allan Jones’ quick-paced writing, frequently laced with amusement, is a big attraction of The Six Crowns, whose overall plot may be formulaic but whose good-humored working-out is not. Gary Chalk’s illustrations are a big plus, too, providing an extra fillip of adventure, whether showing black threads of magical smoke emanating from Aunt Millie’s fingertips or a decidedly worried-looking Trundle in disguise at the College of the Worshipful Guild of Observators. The occasional forays into out-and-out satire are fun, too, although just what they are satirizing may not be entirely clear to young readers: “‘It’s our privilege and our bounden duty to create a scientific basis for everything that has ever happened in this world, and everything that is happening right now, and everything that will ever happen. …For instance, the Directorate of Spatial Interluditudes has the task of measuring the distances between every single island in the whole of the Sundered Lands. …The problem is that the islands are constantly moving about by tiny amounts, so no sooner is the chart complete than they have to start all over again.’” This may not be a satire of academia worthy of Jonathan Swift, but it is effective enough at its own level. And by the end of the book, a second crown has been recovered, along with an enigmatic clue to a third, and The Six Crowns is ready for its next installment.

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