Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Magic Thief series by Sarah Prineas

Move over Harry Potter. The next big thing is here. It is a trilogy (so far) entitled ‘ The Magic Thief’ – with two books published.

The protagonist is Conn, a young gutter boy who fights for survival in the poorer part of town. When he attempts to pick a wizard’s pocket, he steals the locus magicalicus, an all powerful stone that wizards use to practice magic. The wizard, Nevery, is amazed that the stone has not killed Conn instantly and therefore takes him on as a servant. But a series of unexpected events ensue and Conn becomes the wizard’s apprentice.

Conn is special because the magic and he share an unexplained bond – leading it to protect him and ensure his safety in the most trying of circumstances. When there is a crisis involving the depleting levels of magic in the city, it is Conn who discovers that the magic is being entrapped and frees it at great personal risk.

Probably because he has been outside the system always and because he relates to the magic differently from the others, Conn finds it easy to believe things that are practically heresy for the wizards of the time. For example, he believes that the magic is a living thing and that the spells the wizards speak are its language.

The books are page turners and score high on both drama and action– street fights, explosions, treachery, evil magicians, powerful dark beings created for the sole purpose of destruction, and more. Serious situations are often laced with humor so even while you wonder how Conn will get out of this one, you cannot help but laugh at his sudden insights.

Although the books are narrated by Conn, it weaves in letters from the characters, mainly Nevery, so that we get an idea of what is going on behind the scenes, unknown to Conn. A clever tactic that does away with the limitations of the first person narrative.

Conn is on a journey to discover himself and the nature of magic. And as the pages turn, he begins to understand things gradually. Journeying with him is the solitary Nevery, who moves out of his own loneliness to forge a relationship with Conn and eventually believe in Conn’s theory of magic. There is Rowan, the Duchess’s daughter, who learns more about the city she will eventually govern, thanks to her friendship with Conn. By forming relationships with each other, the characters evolve through the book, thus allowing us to feel that the book grows not just in terms of events but also dynamically.

In contrast to these characters are the wizards of Wellmet who refuse to understand or accept anything new, who will spend all their time consulting old books rather than facing up to the reality of the age they live in

One of my favorite characters is Benet, Nevery’s bodyguard – a man of few words. When he is not fighting off bad characters, he is baking delicious biscuits. Among Benet’s other unexpected talents are an ability to knit. A well rounded person, wouldn’t you say?

The illustrations at the beginning of each chapter are beautifully drawn. Antonio Javier Caparo’s maps and drawings make real the characters and the geography.

Yes, it is classified as Young Adults fiction and can be predictable in parts. And I would like to see a more extensive use of magic by the characters But Conn has a quirky, irreverent voice that I promise you will enjoy!

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Servants’ Quarters by Lynn Freed

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 978 0 15 11288 6

If the test of the writer’s craft is in making both good and bad characters equally compelling and readable, then Lynn Freed certainly aces this one. Her book, ’The Servants’ Quarters’, has some supremely unlikeable characters, be it the beautiful and aimless narrator, Cressida, her grasping mother or their wealthy benefactor, Mr Harding . And yet, this slim book with its spare and fluid narrative keeps you hooked and eager to know the fate of these frail, flawed people.

Set in an unnamed location in South Africa in the years following World War II, the story follows the relationship between Cressida and Harding over a decade. When they first meet, she is a precocious nine year old with a father in a coma, facing imminent financial ruin, while he is a much older war veteran who has suffered severe disfigurement in combat. For reasons not immediately clear, he begins supporting the family, even moving them to the servants’ quarters of his own house. His mentoring of Cressida seems avuncular (if condescending) at first, but soon begins to take on more predatory overtones that people around them either do not notice or choose not to. For all her reservations and despite knowing about his other affairs, Cressida is slowly drawn toward the man and he becomes the only stable constant in her life, and her most important influence, as things around her change. She blooms into a beautiful teenager, struggling with her silent love for Harding and her yearning to be free of her mother. She is directionless, bored, and casually toys with men who are besotted with her, even as she waits for Harding to notice her and whisk her away to his world of privilege.

As much as this is a love story, it is also a frank examination of the dynamics between rich and poor in the claustrophobic town that Cressida lives in , and that both she and her mother long to be freed from. Intertwined with these stories is a narrative on the devastating consequences of war, be it on Harding who has survived combat and prisoner camps, or the young Jewish Cressida who is haunted for years by nightmares of German soldiers . This shared anguish becomes a bonding force between the two, even as the people around them remain indifferent to it or choose to move on.

If you are looking for a story about a girl finding her wings and flying away, of a love that sets her free ..this isn't it. A bleakness hangs over the narrative, reminiscent of Dickens - the voice of the narrator grows from that of a knowing, free spirited child to that of a more cynical woman, changed forever by Harding's unwholesome attentions.If Harding is drawn to her fierce spirit as a child, he also manages to squash it completely over the years, leaving her an infatuated teenager with little on her mind but him. As a child she has been tormented by the fate of millions of Jews like her in the War, yet as a grownup the apartheid that must surely have existed around her at the time, never once finds mention. Clearly, Cressida's world has shrunk from the boundlessness of her childhood, to the social and emotional distance that separates her from her warped Daddy long legs. The biggest tragedy for me here was that, despite her revulsion for her grasping and opportunistic mother, and despite being offered the chance to go to university and escape this town on her own terms, Cressida nonetheless ends up just like her mother in many ways.

Freed keeps a clear unflinching eye on her characters, charting their lives with prose that is at once precise and nonjudgmental. You may never like Cressida or Harding, you may flinch at the idea of their romance, yet when it does come about, you cannot help hoping they find a golden sunset to walk into. If this is 'Beauty and the Beast' retold, it is also a retelling that captures the beasts within every one of its characters, as they strive to be redeemed by love from the worst in themselves.