Sunday, May 1, 2011

Book reviews - more Septimus Heap, and Susan Cooper

Some children's book reviews today.

Physik is the third book in the Septimus Heap series by Angie Sage (my review of the first two here).  This is one of the Harry Potter knock-off series that is good enough to talk about in its own right. It's really written for kids, not "young adults" -- so although the young heroes face real dangers and loss, and some characters do die, there is a comforting sense that good will triumph and evil will be defeated after the story runs its course.  We also get the idea that characters that have made bad choices in the past can be redeemed.  In Physik, young Septimus must face the malevolent ghost of the 500 year old Queen Etheldredda, and requires rescuing after he is snatched through a time glass by the mysterious alchemist Marcellus Pye.  In a race through time, he must return with knowledge of how to fight a mysterious illness that is raging through the castle.  There are some delightful new characters, chiefly Snorri Snorrelssen, a young trader from the northlands, and her panther/cat Ullr.

In Queste, the fourth book, Princess Jenna and Septimus, along with his best friend Beetle, set out to rescue their brother Nicko from the House of Foryx.  But Darke forces are at work, and what seems like a simple quest to retrieve a lost family member becomes a Queste overseen by yet another malevolent ghost and his minions... and no apprentice has ever returned from a Queste before.  These books are set in a richly-imagined world that appeals to the whole family -- Steve and I have been racing the 8-year-old and the 16-year old through them.  One of the most charming features in each book is the afterword, where the question of what-happened-to-the-minor-characters is illuminated in satisfying detail.


Susan Cooper has been a writer of outstanding merit in children's fantasy literature for many years.  Her 5-book series, The Dark is Rising, is highly recommended for lovers of fantasy literature -- it has been around almost as long as Narnia.  (At the very least, you should read the second book of the sequence, also called The Dark is Rising.)  Recently we listened to an audiobook of King of Shadows, a more recent (1999) work of ... well, what is it?  Time travel fantasy, historical fiction, emotional/psychological coming-of-age novel, Shakespearean appreciation?  It has elements of all of these.  Nat Field is a young American actor chosen to play Puck in a very special all-boy production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the newly reconstructed Globe Theatre in London -- but he goes to bed sick and wakes up in Elizabethan England, having switched places with another Nathan Field, who is being treated for bubonic plague in a modern hospital. While in the other time, today's Nat meets the great figures of 400 years ago, including Shakespeare himself, who becomes a father-figure to him.  As historical fiction and psychological development, it is a satisfying work.  I personally found it harder to appreciate the time-travel fantasy elements of it, which were intriguing but never completely explained... and of course, by its very nature time-travel tends to resist the suspension of disbelief.  Cautions: coarse language; violence (the main character's father died by suicide).

I've come to appreciate taking in books in audio form as a way to overcome the difficulty of "getting into" some books.  This was one book I checked out in conventional format but never made past the first few pages -- the audiobook form, narrated by Jim Dale (best known for narration of the Harry Potter audiobooks) was much easier to appreciate.  Dale's vocal talents extend to recreating the Carolina accent of the 1st person narrator, and this is particularly relevant to the story since there is some thought that it is the closest modern equivalent of the Elizabethan accent.  We hear Dale's subtly different version of that, too, along with modern generic American and British accents.  Dale was a wise choice to do the audiobook, and added considerably to it.

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