If Famous Witches and Wizards Cards featured beloved wizards from the pages of literature, you know there would be a card each for J.K. Rowling’s Dumbledore, Tolkien’s Gandalf, Peter Beagle’s Schmendrick, and John Bellairs’s Prospero… I’ve already got quite a long list in mind. Now that I’ve read this brief book by the Newbery Medal- and National Book Award-winning author of the “Prydain Chronicles”, I have another name to add to that list: Arbican. He doesn’t do much magic in this book, and most of what he does goes wrong, and on first acquaintance he may seem a bit brusque and grumpy, not very lovable at all. But in the last few pages of this book, he earns his Chocolate Frog Card, wands down. In fact, for the sake of one paragraph, a single speech in which he finally sets straight what is and isn’t true about fairy tales, he’s a shoe-in.
Here’s what you want to know about these stories in general: Their writing was spread out over most of the years Butcher has been working on the Dresden Files. They fill cracks in the canon between the Dresden novels and blanks in the background of Harry and his friends. They spotlight a rich variety of themes, tones, and secondary characters. They cover a range of moods between deep cold terror and urgent panicky thrills, between laughter and tragedy, between light detective jobs with a side of magic and crises that shake the fabric of creation. Two of them are told from the point of view of characters other than Harry, while he himself remains in the background. And yet all of them are charged with the unmistakable energy of fun that we have come to associate with a certain wisecracking, tough-as-nails wizard.
After reading the first book in the “Beyonders” trilogy, I decided to drop everything and go to the library to fetch Book 2. This turned into a whirlwind tour of five library branches, after which I came home with two armloads of books to read. Happily, I was able to get my hands on this, the middle book of the trilogy, and read it with an exquisitely tuned balance between relish and haste. And since I already have Book 3 in hand, my only regret will shortly be that it’s over too soon.
Thirteen-year-old Jason is an ordinary, baseball-playing, zoo-volunteering kid from Colorado, until the day he hears music coming out of a hippopotamus. Leaning closer, he falls into the hippo’s mouth, slides down a long chute, and comes out at the bottom of a hollow tree in a completely different world. It’s not how most visitors from our reality find their way to the magical land of Lyrian. Later, Jason meets a girl his age named Rachel, who followed the more usual route by walking under a stone arch and suddenly finding herself elsewhere. From the moment they arrive, they are in danger. Things are going on in Lyrian that they don’t understand. Weird races, created long ago by a group of wizards, are doing weird things, following an agenda that either serves or seeks to overthrow an evil wizard emperor named Maldor. And just when Jason thinks he’s on the scent of a way home, he reads something in a forbidden book that makes him Public Enemy Number One.
The fourth book of the “Heir” chronicles adds a new dimension to the world of magic that now orbits around Trinity, Ohio. In addition to wizards, sorcerers, enchanters, seers, and warriors, there is now a new category of gifted that crosses the boundaries between these guilds: the Savants. Created in a disaster or massacre or mass poisoning that wiped out all the adults and most of the children in an experimental commune called Thorn Hill, each of the surviving kids has unique powers—as well as weaknesses. Some of them are profoundly disabled. Many of them are destined to die young. And those who die have a tendency to become wandering shades, possessing the bodies of the recently dead—and sometimes killing people just to take over their bodies.
In a twisted alternate world, the Dragonlands are situated between the Kingdom of Hereford and the Duchy of Brecon, in the west of a balnkanized version of England and Wales known as the Ununited Kingdoms. It’s a world where magic is slowly dying out, its practitioners reduced to delivering pizzas on flying carpets and rewiring houses by spell.
Book Four of the Seven Realms series brings Han Alister, Raisa, and the Queendom of the Fells to the crisis of their age. And—just think of it—their age is scarcely eighteen! Readers around that age will be especially thrilled by the political intrigues, the deadly dangers, the perplexing mysteries, and the turbulent romance that swirl around these two main characters. He is a former street lord who only found out within the last year that he is a wizard, the heir of a so-called Demon King who has cast a shadow over Fellsian history for a thousand years. She is heir to the line of Gray Wolf Queens, yet she must fight an hourly battle to keep command of her own fate while the wizard council and the upland clans—mutually sworn enemies—make their own plans as to whom she will marry and how she will rule. Political pressure is one thing, but neither side is above using deadly force to get the result it wants.
In the story before the story before the story, four representatives from a peaceful, bucolic valley traveled into the Empire to the south in search of a magician who would build a magical barrier around their valley, protecting it from both northern marauders and the conscripting, taxing powers of the Empire. Eventually a magician named Faheel fixed things so that, as long as the male descendants of Ortahl the miller sang to the northern snows, an ice dragon would keep the pass closed to barbarian invasion; and as long as a female descendant of Urla the farmer fed barley to the unicorns and sang to the cedars, a sickness in the forest to the south of the valley would keep men from the Empire out as well. This protection held for twenty generations.
When we last saw him in “The Farthest Shore”, wizard Ged was the Archmage and had just saved the world with the help of Earthsea’s young king. When we last saw her in “The Tombs of Atuan”, Tenar had just escaped from being the priestess and slave of a dark power, and had helped Ged restore a ring and a rune that kept the world in balance.
A few pages into this book by the author of “The Tears of the Salamander”, I decided that Peter Dickinson is probably the best writer living today. Given that I have only read these two of his fifty-odd books, that may come across as a hasty judgment. But I haven’t forgotten that “Tears” was the best book I read in 2005, and I don’t plan to forget that this was the best book I have read so far this year.