Blue Sea Burning by Geoff Rodkey

This final book in the Chronicles of Egg trilogy begins as Egg has just been saved from death by hanging by his uncle, the pirate Burn Healy. The first chapter begins with three problems: the ship is sinking, other pirates are out to kill them, and the ship’s crew is giving Egg and his friends murderous looks and muttered threats as they look for a way to get rid of him.

The book just gets better and better from that fine start. There’s a sea battle, so well described that I read every word, instead of skimming the fighting part, as I usually do, to get to the end and find out who won and who lost. Mr. Rodkey writes his characters, especially Egg, and his action scenes with a deft hand, including humor, emotion, and vivid description incorporated into the fast-moving story.

You certainly can’t fault the book for a lack of action or for starting out slowly. The action is relentless and absorbing, and it doesn’t come at the expense of character development. Egg began the series in the book Deadweather and Sunrise as a naive and victimized boy, and in this third book his philosophy of life and his rationale for decision-making are both much more sophisticated. And yet he still has a lot to learn.

The setting is South Pacific islands-ish, perhaps Caribbean, but with mythical islands in an imaginary world. The volcano, the pirates roaming the seas, tropical fruits, religious details, and some of the names (Mata Kalun, Moku, Okalu, etc.) made me think more of the South Pacific. The religion that’s incorporated into the story is particularly interesting to me. Egg’s native friend, Kira, prays to and worships the sun god, Ka. The “settlers” with more British names use the word “Savior” as a sort of swear word or curse (“Oh, Savior’s sake!” and “the Savior as my witness . . .”), but it’s never clear in this book what “savior” they’re talking about. Burn Healy lives by the Pirate Code, a set of rules for an honor culture, that Burn made up himself and had all of his crew sign. He does, that is, until he doesn’t, more on that later.

Egg doesn’t pray to Ka, although he’s glad that Kira does. He hasn’t signed the Code. And he doesn’t seem to have any other religious background or belief. So, Egg is the proverbial seeker, open to truth wherever he can find it, somewhat disillusioned by his recent experiences, but wanting to do what is right and good. So, the search starts with Egg’s Uncle Burn, who has already violated his own Pirate Code by saving Egg’s life, telling him that the world can’t be divided into good and evil, that everyone and everything is “grey”, mostly evil. Egg later decides that the only men on the Blue Sea are “bad and worse.”

But Egg keeps trying to figure out and do what’s right. The Pirate’s Code is not sufficient to inform his actions, but he still wants to be “honorable”. He becomes involved in a project to free the slaves in the silver mines, because slavery is wrong. His uncle tells him, “So are a million other things in this world. You can’t right them all.” Egg persists because he wants to prove himself worthy of the sacrifices others have made in his behalf.

Then, about halfway through the book, Egg and his friends are translating a treasure map with an inscription that comes to the crux of the matter. In part it says: “This we swear as truth: the man who seeks rescue from the gods will die in bitterness. Neither Ka, nor Ma, will save him. The only savior of man is man.”

So, Egg knows he’s on his own, with only his friends to help him, maybe, and yet he carries on. Egg becomes his own savior. He and his friends save the slaves from the silver mine, and they save the people that the the pirates have captured and planned to kill, and he destroys the evil, nefarious villain of the story with a lot of fortitude and a handy trick. Seemingly, the only savior of Egg is Egg himself.

And yet . . . on page 332 Egg is “praying” for his brother Adonis. A figure of speech? Perhaps. But then, as the action winds down, and Egg is almost safe and victorious, but not quite, this interesting thought comes to him:

“I’d seen more than my share of trouble, and when the eruption blotted out the sun, my body finally decided enough was enough, and that it was time to check out for a while and not come back until somebody else had fixed things, or at least swept up some of that ash.”

Finally, at the end of the book, Egg says, “The future felt like a math problem I couldn’t solve.” Maybe, even though this series is over, Egg has even more to learn about Somebody Else who saves and who solves when human efforts are not sufficient.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

The Boundless by Kenneth Oppel

Trains. Well, really, one l–o–n–g train that’s so long that it might as well be a traveling city on wheels. This train, The Boundless, has everything: 1st class accommodations, a library, dining cars, observation deck, a cinema, a billiard room, stores, second class passenger cars, freight cars, third class for the penny-pinching or poverty stricken traveler, and even a circus!

The Boundless is a world to itself, inside a literary world that includes sasquatch, a mesmerist, a steam-powered automaton bartender, treasure, and a weeping hag who induces people to commit suicide (no one dies except expendable redshirt bad guys). The last element, the hag, may be a little much for some younger readers, but it somehow wasn’t terribly scary to me. And I’m not a fan of scary.

Anyway, The Boundless takes place in an alternate steampunk North American continent, and most of the action happens on the train. the train. I loved the train. I want someone to draw me a picture of the train, car by car. Or, even better, I want to ride on the train all the way across the country and experience each part of this marvelous magical train myself. (I wonder if in heaven the good things we imagine can become real and be experienced through eternity? Jesus and I could have a lot of fun exploring The Boundless, without all of the bad guys and hags and thieves.)

Will Everett is our humble hero who grows into a self-assured young man by the end of the story. The only thing I didn’t like about the story was the tired old theme of “follow your dream.” Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Will wants to be an artist while his father insists that he do something more practical with his life. If you want to know why I think that “follow your dream” is a stupid theme to be drilling into kids in every other book they read, not to mention the idea that parents are a bunch of spoilsports with no wisdom to be imparted, then watch this TED talk by Mike Rowe, host of the TV show Dirty Jobs (which I’ve never seen, but I like his perspective on the value and dignity of work in this video).

So I just pretended that the simplistic Disney-esque follow-your-dream parts weren’t there, and I enjoyed the train and the adventure and the Picture of Dorian Gray subplot.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

If you liked the following books, you might like Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.
The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, reviewed at Semicolon.
Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery and a Very Strange Adventure by Lissa Evans, reviewed at Semicolon.
Horten’s Incredible Illusions by Lissa Evans, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Puzzling World of Winston Breen by Eric Berlin.
The Potato Chip Puzzles by Eric Berlin.
The Puzzler’s Mansion by Eric Berlin.
The Sixty-eight Rooms by Marianne Malone, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Candymakers by Wendy Mass.

Conversely, if you read Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and you want more, you might want to check out one of the books on the list above. Some of these books are at least alluded to in Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, but they’re certainly not the only books that are mentioned. Book-title-name-dropping is pervasive throughout the story, a story that takes place in a magically enchanting library full of books, games, puzzles, displays, artifacts, and technological wonders. A few of the other books and authors that get a mention in Escape are: Charles Dickens, Sherlock Holmes, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Rick Riordan, The Hunger Games, Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein, Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, Dr. Seuss, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Thackeray, ewes Carroll, Geroge Orwell, Maya Angelou, Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Pseudonymous Bosch, and the Bible.

Now that’s an eclectic list! Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library should keep 10-12 year old puzzle-lovers and mystery readers enthralled as they try, along with twelve other twelve year old characters in the book, to figure out how to escape from a library filled with both informational marvels and deceptive snares. Kyle Keeley, our protagonist, is all-boy, and he and his best friend Akimi, along with the other children, if somewhat stereotypical, are still engaging enough to keep the story moving. In a book that’s mostly plot and puzzle, the characters are not as important and can be allowed a little flatness.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library isn’t as good or as intricately plotted as a couple of my favorites in the puzzle fiction genre, The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Westing Game, but it’s a solid entry in a field that still has room for a few more good selections. I recommend it for library aficionados, reading addicts, and puzzle and game lovers everywhere. And could someone explain to me the puzzle mentioned in the Author’s Note at the end of the book? I’m not so good at solving unexplained puzzles that are hidden somewhere in some some unspecified part of the book.

Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard

Blurb from back cover: “When a meteorite crashes near a small village in fifth century Britain, it brings with it a mysterious black stone that bewitches anyone who comes in contact with its glow—a power the druids hope to use to destroy King Uther’s kingdom. The only person who seems immune is a young, shy, half-blind swordmith’s son named Merlin.”

This YA title in Zondervan’s new teen fiction imprint Blink joins my shortlist of favorite fantasy novels and series that play off the Arthurian legend of Merlin, King Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table. Tereskillard’s Merlin is likable and easy to root for, and the minor characters are also well-realized and interesting. The fight between good and evil is engaging, and the ending is not a foregone conclusion. Even though Christ is greater than the old gods and the new magical stone of the druids, God’s ways are not always our ways and man’s sin and weakness are ever-present, making the story both suspenseful and satisfying.

I’ve read L’Morte d’Arthur, the long and sometimes repetitive compilation by Sir Thomas Mallory of fifteenth century stories about Arthur and his knights, and despite the repetition and the archaic language, I enjoyed Malory’s version of Arthur very much. I’ve also read several other novels, poems, and series that use these legends as a starting place. Here are some of my favorites:

The Once and Future King by T.H. White. White’s version of the Arthur legend is the source, in its turn, for Disney’s Sword in the Stone and for the musical Camelot. It’s light-hearted and rather fun.

Idylls of the King by Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Arthurian legend in poetic form. Victorian Arthur.

The old order changeth, yielding place to new;
And we that fight for our fair father Christ,
Seeing that ye be grown too weak and old
To drive the heathen from your Roman wall,
No tribute will we pay: so those great lords
Drew back in wrath, and Arthur strove with Rome.

And Arthur and his knighthood for a space
Were all one will, and through that strength the King
Drew in the petty princedoms under him,
Fought, and in twelve great battles overcame
The heathen hordes, and made a realm and reigned.

*************

If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

'Glastonbury Abbey' photo (c) 2009, Elliott Brown - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead consists of six novels:
Taliesin (1987)
Merlin (1988)
Arthur (1989)
Pendragon (1994)
Grail (1997)
Avalon (1999)

Lawhead’s druids, as I remember it, were good guys, for the most part, worshipping the One True God, whereas Treskillard takes the opposite approach with the druidow, as he calls them, being the definite bad guys in the story, evil and pagan through and through. Nevertheless, Treskillard, in the author’s note at the end of Merlin’s Blade, thanks Lawhead for his “unique and expert critique” and for inspiring him. There’s apparently room for more than one vision of Arthur and Merlin and druids.

King Arthur and His Knights of The Round Table by Howard Pyle is a summary/re-telling of Mallory without much extraneous material or re-interpretation. Pyle does organize the story and leave out a lot of the repetition to condense it down to a more manageable length.

Rosemary Sutcliff wrote several books related to Arthurian legend and early medieval/Roman Britain: The Lantern Bearers (1959), Sword at Sunset (1963), Tristan and Iseult (1971), The Light Beyond the Forest (1979), The Sword and the Circle (1981), and The Road to Camlann (1981). Excellent stuff.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain is mostly ridiculous, but not a bad read.

The last book in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, is set in post-modern Britain, but it features the “return of the king” (Arthur) and of Merlin.

The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment, all by Mary Stewart, are called together her Merlin Trilogy. Sh later wrote two more books based on Arthurian legend, The Wicked Day and The Prince and the Pilgrim but I have not read those.

Here There Be Dragons by James Owen, reviewed at Semicolon, has allusions to Arthurian legend: one of the islands in the story is Avalon, and King Arthur has some influence on events in the book.

The Sword in the Tree by Clyde Robert Bulla. Shan, son of Lord Weldon, hides a sword in the hollow of a tree. The events of this book take place during the time of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, and Shan eventually ends up in Camelot. This easy chapter book was a favorite of one of my daughters when she was younger.

The Defence of Guenevere by William Morris, with Semicolon commentary.

Of course, when talking about Arthurian farce and legend, one can’t forget the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. My friend in high school had the “hand grenade” monologue, and several other parts of the movie, memorized:

Cleric: And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, “O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.” And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths, and carp and anchovies, and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit-bats and large chu…
Brother Maynard: Skip a bit, Brother…
Cleric: And the Lord spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.

I liked Merlin’s Blade well enough that I have the second book in the planned Merlin Spiral trilogy, Merlin’s Shadow, on hold at the library. What’s your favorite version of or allusion to Arthurian legend?

Sidekicked by John David Anderson

Superheroes, from Gilgamesh and Enkidu to Samson and Gideon to Hercules to Beowulf to Superman and The Incredible Hulk—we weak mortals have always been fascinated with the adventures and exploits of men (sometimes women) with incredible talents, beyond human strength, and extraordinary intelligence. Superheroes are the stuff of legend and comic book—and nowadays middle grade speculative fiction.

John David Anderson’s Sidekicked takes one aspect of the superhero mythos, the Sidekick or assistant or superhero-in-training, and builds it into a snarky middle grade fictional essay on ethics. The moral of the story, however, is a little murky.

Andrew Bean, seventh grader and citizen of the city of Justicia, is a member of H.E.R.O., a secret organization of middle school students with exceptional gifts who are training, each under their own superhero mentor, to become Superhero Sidekicks. And there’s always the possibility that these junior heroes might even graduate to become Superheroes on their own someday. Meanwhile, Drew (aka the Sensationalist), his best friend Jenna (aka The Silver Lynx) and the other members of H.E.R.O. spend several hours a week training for their future as crime fighters in a secret room in the basement of Highview Middle School. Plus for everyone except Drew, there’s one-on-one training with their very Supers (special Superhero mentors). Drew has a Super, too, but unfortunately The Titan is a superhero of the washed-up variety, “going through a little identity thing”, and totally uninterested in mentoring, or rescuing, his erstwhile sidekick, Drew (aka The Sensationalist).

So, if you’ve got Superheroes, you also have to have Supervillains to match. And in Sidekicked the villains are coming out of the woodwork, and back from the dead, to attack and take over the city. Drew is committed to the Code, the Superhero Sidekick Code of Conduct, but things start to get complicated when the meaning of concepts like justice and honor and good and evil come into question. And when there’s a girl involved.

Like I said, this book is big on snarky, self-deprecating, middle grade humor (my favorite kind of funny) and confusing ethical discussions, but it’s a little short on answers. Which is OK. It’s the sort of book that entertains a lot while making kids think a little, and that’s the best kind, as far as I’m concerned.

Sidekicked is on the short list for the Cybils Awards in the category of Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. The winners of the Cybils Awards in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category and all the other categories will be announced tomorrow, Friday, February 14th.

Superhero books that riff off the basic superhero model abound in middle grade fiction these days. Here are a few favorites:

Failstate by John W. Otte, reviewed at Semicolon.
The Cloak Society by Jeramey Kraatz.
Hero by Mike Lupica.
Geeks, Girls and Secret Identities by Mike Jung.
Dangerous by Shannon Hale, due out in early March, 2014.
Of course, Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, recent winner of the Newbery Award, is a different kind of superhero story (squirrel superhero), maybe for a little younger audience than the above-listed. However, I enjoyed it immensely.

Do you have a favorite kid superhero novel?

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

Geometry and drawing and chalk duels and strategy games and kidnapping (or murder?) and boarding school and alternative fantastical history with a touch of steampunk. The Rithamtist, by the same author who finished Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time adult fantasy series, is an excellent conglomeration of all of the above plus a lovely set of characters who made the reading both interesting and fun.

Joel is a poor scholarship student, son of the cleaning woman, at a rich people’s school. And what’s more, he longs to be a Rithmatist, but knows he’s missed his opportunity. Rithmatists are an elite bunch, even within an already elite school. They are the specially chosen fighting force that holds off the chalklings on the frontier in Nebrask and keeps them from overrunning the island states of the United Isles. Rithmatists are chosen in a special ceremony when children are only eight years old, and only one in a thousand is picked to join the Rithmatists. Unfortunately Joel missed his “inception” ceremony, so he’s doomed to hangout on the periphery of The Rithmatists who study at Armedius Academy and pick up what he can about Rithmatics as he makes unauthorized visits to Rithmatic classes.

However, now Rithmatist students are disappearing in very suspicious circumstances, and only Joel and the brilliant but aging Rithmatics Professor Fitch can possibly figure out who is behind the disappearances and how to stop them. But Joel suspects that Professor Fitch’s rival, the brash young Professor Nalizar, might be involved in the kidnappings, and a Rithmatist student who’s taking remedial classes, Melody, is definitely involved in Joel’s life whether he wants her to be or not.

You can’t go wrong with this Cybils-nominated fantasy adventure—unless you’re allergic to geometry or chalk dust. The winners of the Cybils Awards in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category and all the other categories will be announced on Friday, February 14th. The Rithmatist is definitely a contender.

Jinx by Sage Blackwood

Jinx is your basic, orphaned in the forest, boy hero, who becomes a wizard’s apprentice. Jinx’s curiosity is, of course, sometimes too much for his capabilities. It all reminds me of this scene from Fantasia:

I really enjoyed Jinx. It’s a story with lots of questions–and elements from various old stories:
Who is Jinx? Why and how does he “see” people’s emotions and “hear” the language of the trees in the Urwald (forest)?

Is Simon Magus, the magician to whom Jinx becomes a servant, evil or good? What about his wife, Sophie? Who is she? What is the place she comes from, Samara?

Why can’t Jinx read Dame Glammer the Witch the way he reads others’ thoughts and feelings?

What is the Terror that the trees of the Urwald are afraid of?

What is the curse that binds Jinx’s new friends, Elfwyn and Reven? And how can their respective curses be removed?

Is Jinx also cursed? How?

Who is the Bonemaster? Will he help–or is he even more evil than Simon?

Lots of questions. If you read to the end of the book, you’ll get some answers—and be presented with a new set of puzzles, a perfect set-up for the second book in the planned trilogy, Jinx’s Magic.

Jinx is one of the books nominated for the Cybils Award in the category of Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. The winners of the Cybils will be announced on Friday the 14th, Valentine’s Day.