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October/November 2003
 
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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

Circle of Doom, by Tim Kennemore, pictures by Tim Archbold
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, $16.

Sorcery & Cecelia, or, the Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
Harcourt, Inc., 2003, $17.

Keys to the Kingdom Book One: Mister Monday, by Garth Nix
Scholastic, 2003, $5.99.

The Wonder Clock, written & illustrated by Howard Pyle
Starscape, 2003, $5.99.

Rootabaga Stories and More Rootabaga Stories, by Carl Sandburg, illustrated by Maud & Miska Petersham
Harcourt, Inc., 2003, $17.

The Kin of Potter Are Waiting for You

A long time ago, in a library far, far away, there were no summer books for children; at least not the sort of books we liked to read. Well, maybe there were a few, but they were squirreled away and one had to search them out. Some—The Lord of the Rings, The Once and Future King—were in with the adult books. Others—The Worm Ouroborus, Lud-in-the-Mist, The Moon Pool, The Island of the Mighty—we eventually discovered in places other than the library.

But these books weren't meant for children. To find the kind of children's book we liked to read, one had to stand on a bench in front of tottering shelves that buckled beneath the weight of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames and The Little Lame Prince and Maida's Little Camp and many, many stories about valiant collies. Maida's Little Camp was not bad, if you had never read a book before, and the adventures of the collies were thrilling as long as one was too young not to notice the fetid taint of racism that clung to them.

Still, none of these were vacation books, which were books like The Three Mulla-Mulgars and The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit and The Book of Three, Elidor and The Moon of Gomrath, Five Children and It, and Half Magic and Over Sea, Under Stone—the kind of book that could distill an entire summer into a few hundred pages, the kind of book that can still summon up memories of hammocks and peach ice cream and the scent of lilacs, even if you actually first read them in a damp attic room smelling of wet sheetrock and ant traps.

In those days, there was a real joy in discovering a new fantasy novel, because there were so few of them. The Tolkien tsunami was just gathering speed out in the vast ocean of mid-to-late-1960s literature; C. S. Lewis was a bestselling theologian whose Narnia books were a quaint eccentricity, and one did not mention his science fiction trilogy (or even the word "trilogy") in polite company. Even Joan Aiken, whose children's books now fill entire libraries, had only written three volumes of Dido Twite's adventures. (To give you an idea of how sparse the field was back then, an official list compiled by the Westchester County Library System suggested that children who enjoyed The Hobbit might also enjoy Animal Farm and Rootabaga Stories. We did, but we enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea more.) One reason we read these books over and over and over again is that there simply weren't enough of them. Now of course there are too many.

Well, maybe not too many. This is a Golden Age for children's fantasy, as it is for New Weird fiction in general. Ever since the arrival of Harry Potter a few years ago, YA fantasy publishing has burgeoned, hydra-like: a reviewer has only finished reading one novel when more appear in its place (Christopher Paolini's much-touted debut, Eragon, just arrived in this morning's post). Sturgeon's Law dictates that ninety percent of these are crap; another law suggests that a number are reprints, and we can assume that some are crappy reprints. That still leaves a lot of books.

Happily, at least one is a keeper. The English novelist Tim Kennemore's Circle of Doom is a droll, sideways fantasy about the Sharp family: thirteen-year-old Lizzie, an aspiring witch; ten-year-old Dan, skeptical of his older sister's powers; and seven-year-old Max, willing to believe anything, if only someone would pay attention to him; "He had only just worked out answering machines, and still couldn't understand fax machines, which seemed excellent evidence that magic was everywhere."

The thistledown plot floats around the siblings' wish that a family with children would move into the house across the road, until recently occupied by the grumpy, unpleasant Potwards, "the sort of people who turned the lights out and pretended to be out if they heard carol singers approaching." To this end, Lizzie concocts a spell, complete with disgusting potion. To everyone's astonishment, the spell works: Mrs. Potward falls and breaks her hip, whereupon she and her husband are promptly bundled off to a nursing home. Lizzie, unlike Harry Potter's distaff sidekick Hermione, promptly sets about doing what any real, redblooded teenager would do if she had magical powers: she becomes a maniacal consumer.

There were so many things she wanted! She already had a small television in her room but she could really do with a video as well, and a DVD player. She wanted a personal CD player (anti-shock, rechargeable) and several dozen new CDs. She wanted a cell phone and an entire wardrobe of new clothes. She wanted tickets to see several bands live, a long weekend at AltonTowers, and a fortnight in the Caribbean. She wanted her own bathroom (with Jacuzzi), a pet snake, and a Rolls-Royce with her own chauffeur. She wanted a swimming pool and she wanted to be on TV absolutely all the time.

Lizzie also covets a very beautiful star-spangled duvet in Westalls department store—"absolutely perfect for an apprentice witch in every way"—and has already come up with a very good way to explain its appearance to her mother: "she would say that her school is doing a Sponsored Duvet Swap for the Homeless."

Kennemore's is-she-or-isn't-she-really-magic tone in Circle of Doom evokes that of E. Nesbit and Edward Eager, who wrote "straight" children's books that still managed to retain the charm and exuberance of their fantasies. I'm thinking of Nesbit's classic The Story of the Treasure Seekers, Being the Adventures of the Bastable Children in Search of a Fortune, and Eager's Magic or Not? and The Well-Wishers (admittedly not his best work). Both Nesbit and Eager had an amazing ability to capture the way real children talk and act—the Bastables, knickers and pinafores notwithstanding, could hold their own in any contemporary shopping mall gaming arcade; ditto Eager's Eisenhower-era protagonists.

Kennemore has this gift in spades, as well as a refreshingly non-p.c. lack of sentiment: after Lizzie's spell seemingly causes her physics teacher to throw up during class, the fledging witch, at Dan's instigation, attempts to exorcise poor Max's imaginary friends.

Both Lizzie and Dan end up feeling bad about this, but by then Max has taken matters into his own hands. He creates his own potion, to use on a school bully, with lager as a prime ingredient (chilled white wine has been put to good use earlier). The results are hilarious, Harry Potter channeled through Ab Fab. Kennemore takes several good-natured and very funny swipes at drab old Harry, especially with a huge family of red-haired children called the Dursleys, the youngest of whom quickly develops a crush on the youngest Cleve.

"Max poisoned my brother Nathan," said Ruth Dursley, gazing at Max with open admiration.

"Don't you like Nathan?" Max asked her. "I mean, he's your brother."

Ruth pulled a disgusted face. "Nobody does. My mum says he's a little sod and he's going to turn out just like his father."

Lizzie doesn't quite end up being a celebrity witch on TV all the time, but readers may wish she had. Circle of Doom is a funny, warm page-turner, the perfect summer book. I'm going to give copies to all the kids I know; hammocks optional.

Somewhere, someone has an Emenee Write-O-Matic that deals with the age-old problem of coming up with new twists on very old literary tropes. Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer have obviously gotten hold of one of these useful gadgets. Their clever new novel, Sorcery & Cecelia, neatly dovetails two hoary genres, fantasy and Regency romance, into a tale that is equal parts Jane Austen and J. K. Rowling. It's England in 1817: teenage Cecelia is stuck at home at Rushton Manor, while her cousin Kate is enjoying the spring Season at Berkeley Square. All seems firmly planted within the realm of The Fields We Know, or at least of The Fields Georgette Heyer Knew, until we learn that part of Kate's coming-out involves her attendance at Sir Hilary Bedrick's investiture at the Royal College of Wizards.

Gadzooks! Before you can finish embroidering that Empire waistline, the two cousins are embroiled in enough skullduggery, romance, eldritch doings, and general hugger-mugger to get them through a dozen Seasons, and not just one. I've never developed a taste for Regency literature—the constant social whirl makes my head spin—but Sorcery & Cecelia charmed me, even if I did have trouble keeping the big cast of characters straight and recalling who was in London and who in Essex.

Wrede and Stevermer acknowledge their debt to Ellen Kushner, whose 1987 novel Swordspoint reinvigorated sword and sorcery by giving it an elegant early-eighteenth-century gloss, and fans of Kushner and Delia Sherman's very fine The Fall of the Kings will certainly embrace Sorcery & Cecelia as well. I must confess, however, that my very favorite part of the book was the delightful Afterword, where the authors reveal that their novel grew out of something called the Letter Game (or Persona Letters, or Ghost Letters), wherein two people write to each other, each taking on an imaginary character but never revealing the "plot" of their epistolary escapades. Kushner first introduced Stevermer to the game, and in 1986 Stevermer taught it to Wrede. The two then embarked upon their imaginary correspondence, Wrede writing as Cecelia and Stevermer as Kate; their letters seem to have traced roughly the same chronological arc as their fictional counterparts', beginning in April and ending as summer has begun to wane. The letters were eventually edited and now, happily, published. Ambitious young email writers, take note! There is an entire sub-genre waiting to be colonized!

Garth Nix, author of the bestselling Seventh Tower books as well as the novels Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen, has a new series, The Keys to the Kingdom. Book One, Mister Monday, gets the series off to a lackluster start. A confusing Prologue jutters into a clunky opening chapter—

It was Arthur Penhaligon's first day at his new school and it was not going well. Having to start two weeks after everyone else was bad enough, but it was even worse than that. Arthur was totally and utterly new to the school. His family had just moved to the town, so he knew absolutely no one, and he had none of the local knowledge that would make life easier.

Not only is Arthur absolutely, utterly, totally alone, he has asthma and doesn't seem to have ever been taught how to use his medication properly (as an asthmatic and the parent of an asthmatic, I found this extremely annoying)—not since The Hand That Rocks the Cradle has an inhaler been so exploited as a plot twist (though I'm told that I should see the movie Signs). Nix's overly complex narrative involves the irruption upon our world of a House made of Time, which only Arthur, heir to the titular Keys, can see. Arthur must defeat the Fetchers, dogfaced men in bowler hats who smell of rotting meat and spread a deadly sleeping plague, and assume his full powers as Master of the Keys and upholder of the Original Law.

There are many nice touches—the strange house and its inhabitants; mysterious characters named Dawn, Dusk, and Noon, as well as Mister Monday himself; a city whose commerce is driven by the exchange of paper; a school librarian who is the only adult who senses something is wrong when Arthur's school is under attack by the Fetchers, invisible to everyone save himself. One lovely, brief scene has luminous elevators transferring hundreds of nightwatchers during shift change, and the deadly plagues that have devastated Arthur Penhaligon's world have ominous relevance in light of our own SARS epidemic. But the mix of fantastic elements with vaguely science fiction ones is jarring and never quite meshes as it should.

The influence of the formidable Neil Gaiman is everywhere here, especially his Books of Magic. Arthur, as depicted in Mister Monday's beautiful, eerie cover art, even looks like Tim Hunter, the protagonist of The Books of Magic (and come to think of it, Harry Potter resembles Tim Hunter, too). Gaiman's prodigious knowledge of, and love for, fantastic literature informs all his work, but never overpowers it. Nix seems to borrow ruthlessly without ever making the leap from pastiche to homage, and his writing is often sloppy: I counted three uses of "hustle and bustle" in six pages, which is two bustles too many, and no novel should contain a sentence like "Totally ceramic once more." Still, Mister Monday has an undeniable energy, and its author a fervid imagination, that will appeal to readers of Nix's earlier work.

Finally, The Potter Boom has eased the way for several very handsome reprints. Howard Pyle's The Wonder Clock, first published in 1888, is a collection of traditional fairy tales, one for every hour of the day. Pyle was an artist whose work defined what became known as the Brandywine School; his most famous protege was N. C. Wyeth, and Pyle's influence continues to be seen today in the work of illustrators like William Joyce and Anthony Venti. The tales in The Wonder Clock stand up pretty well alongside those gathered by Andrew Lang in his "color" Fairy Books, and the black-and-white illustrations are lovely, even if they do make one long for a copy of the original.

Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories and More Rootabaga Stories are best suited as read-aloud books for very young readers, who will probably have more patience for characters with names like Dippy the Wisp, Rags Habakuk, Shush Shush, Snoo Foo, Bixie Bimber, and Wingtip the Spick than their older siblings will. As a kid, I was put off by Sandburg's attempts at rough-hewn American folktales, and my own children didn't take to Snoo Foo, either. Still, Maud and Miska Petersham's original illustrations are nicely reproduced, even if the stories themselves now have more the whiff of ersatz artifact than genuine folklore.

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