Review: The Second Siege by Henry H. Neff
Book 2 of the “Tapestry” quartet continues with Max McDaniel’s second year at the Rowan Academy, a school for magically talented teens somewhere on the east coast of the U.S. I have already noted that Rowan has as much in common with Hogwarts as almost any school for magic. In this book, however, the apparent similarities between the two schools take a backseat to the intriguing differences between them. Not that we get to see much of what goes on in the classroom, this year. Max and his frail, vulnerable, yet super-sorcerous roommate David Menlo miss most of the school year between one perilous adventure overseas and another to the world of the Sidh (which I take to be something like Faerie), where they spend more time than passes in our world. Not long after they come back, the whole campus finds itself under siege by the powers of the enemy—the enemy being an ancient, powerful, surprisingly non-hideous demon named Astaroth, who wants a book of power that has been guarded by Rowan for the past thousand years.
Astaroth has awakened, thanks in part to a traitor on Rowan’s faculty and in part to an undead sorcerer who has also betrayed the cause. Now he is taking over the world, toppling governments and terrorizing whole populations with the aid of his army of ogres, goblins, and vyes (shape-changing creatures who, in their natural form, look like bipedal werewolves). Rowan’s best lines of defense are its two star second-year students. Max, the “Hound of Rowan,” has superhuman fighting abilities comparable to such heroes as Achilles and Cúchulainn. Already by the start of his second year, he can beat any sixth-year in a training simulation without even trying, and is the match of the Red Branch’s deadliest agent, the rock-hard Mr. Cooper. By the end of the year, particularly after his training in the Sidh, Max’s abilities have grown to include the closest thing to a nuclear explosion that can happen in hand-to-hand combat. David, meanwhile, matches him kiloton-for-kiloton, making up for the weakness of his body in sheer magical power. It is David whose spell to hide Rowan from the outside world keeps Astaroth away for most of this year. It is David whose talent for summoning spirits enables the pair to find the Book of Thoth, or Origins, before Astaroth does—though, thanks to some diabolical trickery, it was only in danger of falling into Astaroth’s hands while the two boys were getting closer to finding it. And it is David, even more than Max, on whom the defense of Rowan depends in the crucial, final confrontation with Astaroth.
Which is too bad.
It’s too bad, for starters, because just when everything depends on Max and David, the witches—an offshoot of the Order of Rowan who live in the Himalayas and depend wholly on pure magic, without any modern technology—show up and demand that the two boys be handed over to them. Evidently they have a right to claim up to three students from Rowan, as payment for the role they played in hiding the Book of Thoth long ago. They couldn’t have chosen a worse time to assert their rights, however. Luckily, a shocking kidnap by another offshoot of the order (the Frankfurt Workshop, which specializes in technology without the use of magic) turns into an opportunity for the boys to escape. After returning from two journeys—first a visit to nightmare-ridden Europe, where the obtain the key to finding the Book of Origins; then their strange, time-bending visit to the Sidh, where they find not only the Book but also Max’s long-lost mother—they find things at Rowan have grown even worse. Max has no sooner found his mother than he loses her again, forever. One of his best friends turns out to be possessed by a demon loyal to Astaroth. The witches, losing patience with the school for refusing to hand over the boys, plant a curse on it. The head of the Red Branch, of which Max is now an agent, has decided to negotiate with the archfiend. And with David too gravely wounded to hold up his share of the school’s defense, Rowan is practically defenseless when Astaroth lays siege to it.
Those of us who faithfully audited seven years worth of classes at Hogwarts may be disappointed at how little classroom time our heroes spend in their second year at Rowan. And although none of Harry Potter’s school adventures from year 3 to year 6 had a particularly upbeat ending, the outcome of all the fighting and striving and resisting this year at Rowan may surprise you with its bitterness. In fact, the fortunes of Max and his friends fare steadily worse from about the midpoint of this book to the end. Each time you think their chances can’t sink any lower, they sink lower still. Face it, Year 3 (titled The Fiend and the Forge) is going to be tough. But from the fact that there is at least a fourth year to look forward too (titled The Maelstrom), I reckon our Rowans still have some fight in them. And with the world already tottering on the brink of doom, the danger can only become greater, along with the expectations riding on David and Max. The question isn’t so much whether they will have the power or courage to face the challenges ahead, as whether you will have the guts to look on!