Tag Archives: Fantasy

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, a Review

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
Book One, The Amulet of Samarkand, Hyperion Books for Children, 2003, 462 pages.

Worldview: Dark. In a world where moral behavior is nearly unknown, the protagonist and his genie occasionally demonstrate moral behavior. More often, they don’t.

This book is a well-written high-action story that appeals to boys. It is told from two points of view: the Djinn (genie) Bartimaeus (apparently just a coincidence that this is a Biblical name) and the young magician’s apprentice Nathaniel. This fantasy world contains a version of London that is vaguely familiar but still very different. It is ruled by powerful evil magicians, who take in apprentices rather than producing children of their own. Everyone is jockeying for power, including non-magicians.

But in fact all the magicians’ powers depend on their ability to control demons. Using special glasses or contact lenses, they can see the demons. So the magicians don’t have special powers of their own. They just learn incantations while they are apprentices.

Into this mix comes Nathaniel, age 12, a boy genius who mouths off and is disciplined by his master’s magician acquaintance Simon Lovelace. Nathaniel conceives a plan for revenge. In fact, revenge appears to be Nathaniel’s primary motivator throughout the book.

As a result of Nathaniel’s theft of Lovelace’s amulet, Lovelace kills Nathaniel’s master and his wife. Then Lovelace sets out to kill all the magicians in the government. Nathaniel and Bartimaeus foil him. In the process Nathaniel does plenty of lying and stealing. Flashes of conscience, coming from who knows where, lead him to own up to stealing the amulet, but don’t keep him from seeking revenge.

Nathaniel’s character doesn’t seem to change as the plot develops. In fact, at the end he is placed under the tutelage of another evil magician, and we wonder whether any flashes of conscience will redeem him in the future. Bartimaeus is able to persuade Nathaniel to keep his word and release Bartimaeus from service, but only with great difficulty.

Bartimaeus’s character starts out as undeniably demonic, wishing evil on all the human race. He’s also got irreverent wit, a bit like the genie in the movie Aladdin. Bartimaeus’parts of the book are told in the first person, so we can see his thoughts. But eventually he softens up somewhat. At the end he even commends Nathaniel for having a conscience, and tells him to guard it. Now, where this character change came from isn’t obvious. The high-action tale doesn’t show why a demon would change in this manner.

This is another high-action fantasy tale without merit.–Phyllis Wheeler thumbsdown

Master of the genre: J.K. Rowling

The Masters: J.K. Rowling

The third and final fantasy master of our time I am naming as J.K. Rowling, for her Harry Potter series. However, I hope you discuss worldview and witchcraft with your teens when you talk about these books.

When the Harry Potter books first started coming out, many Christians were concerned that these books would draw kids into the world of Wicca and ouija boards by making witchcraft appear desirable. It wasn’t crystal clear then whether Harry, the young wizard, was really on the light side. Or was he learning the occult?

However, as the series matured, it became apparent that Rowling’s is another fantasy world, not related to the principalities and powers discussed in the Bible. Like other fantasy works, there is a deeply evil (and memorable) bad guy. There is also a young, fumbling protagonist who works for good and who eventually gets more adept at it. It is clear that Rowling’s worldview is a moral one.

Along the way, Harry Potter does use incantations and so on, which are bound to make us Christians nervous if we are aware of the Biblical ban on witchcraft in Leviticus 19:26 & 31. This would be a great thing to discuss with your teens: what exactly is it that God is forbidding in consulting mediums and necromancers? Where is the idolatry?

At the same time, Harry’s use of words as instruments of power is an echo of Biblical truth. God creates using words. Jesus is described as the Word made Flesh. There is something we can learn or re-learn here, and that is that our words, what we say, really do matter.

Another reason some Christians object to Harry Potter is because he attains some great powers. Is he becoming godlike? Will this aspect lead our kids astray somehow?

Well, the Superman comics portray someone with godlike powers as well. I used to love reading Superman comics when I was a kid. IT was fun to imagine being able to fly and so on. But of course I knew it was fiction. So do Rowling’s readers.

Rowling’s genius is in her broad array of memorable characters. There are Hagrid, the half-giant who loves strange monsters; Dumbledore, the wise schoolmaster; and many more. Rowling’s world is the work of many years of imagining characters and details. In my opinion this puts her in a similar league to George Lucas. —Phyllis Wheeler

Master of the genre: George Lucas

The Masters: Lucas
I am naming the second of the three fantasy masters of our time as George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars film series.

Lucas has a magnificently large imagination. He also had the genius to tap into the imaginations of others. Lucas is unique in that he drew a broad framework and then allowed others to add their imaginative input. This took the form of a variety of details in the films, with animals and aircraft and everything in between carefully imagined and portrayed. It also took the form of books–the set of books he authorized for the time period after the fall of the Empire, as Luke and Leia enter adulthood. The assistance of others gave Lucas’ work a breadth that it would not have had otherwise, unless he had devoted his life to the story as Tolkien did. Lucas’ resulting set of tales spans many centuries and worlds.

In contrast to Tolkien, Lucas is not a Christian. His galaxy long, long ago and far, far away has a deity of sorts, the Force, which can act for good and for evil. It appears that Lucas is offering an Eastern idea of God, which sees the life force as equally good and evil, yin and yang. This is also not a personal God as we Christians truly know Him to be.

But we all know “the force” isn’t real. This is fantasy, a backdrop for the story. Lucas isn’t trying to sell his audience on a new religion. Lucas’s characters behave in moral ways, good guys fighting against overwhelming odds to defeat evil in the end. Then there is Lucas’ keynote plot twist: that the ultimate evil villain turns out to be the father of the young hero. This tale has picked up a lot of resonance in our culture.

Endymion Spring by Matthew Skelton, a Review

Endymion Spring
by Matthew Skelton
Delacorte Press, 2006,392 pages

World view: Moral. The author seems to have the odd idea that children are morally pure.

Style: This is a slow-paced book about a book with plenty of description, some of it with beautiful metaphors. It is really three stories: two about two different boys interacting with a magical dragon-skin book, and the third about the modern boy’s family, which is having relationship problems.

This story is mostly set in the modern world in Oxford, England, where Blake, an American boy, and his sister and mother have come for a time. But it has a counterpart in the 1400s in Mainz, Germany, featuring another boy. This boy’s name is Endymion Spring. Endymion Spring is a mute apprentice to the famous inventor of the printing press, Johann Gutenberg.

Johann Fust is Gutenberg’s investor. In this story he is a major villain; the author suggests that he was the person who became Dr. Faustus in legend, the fellow who sold his soul to the devil. Fust stole a dragon skin, which has transformed itself into pure and magical paper. Words and riddles appear on it. But Fust is unable to read them. He needs to find a child to read it for him. (The dragon skin reveals itself only to someone who is not trying to get it. This is always a boy.)

Fust tries to trick Endymion into reading the dragon skin paper for him. Fust wants the dragon skin because it contains “all the secrets of the universe,” and will make the reader”be like God,” Fust says.

The modern-day villain tries the same thing, tricking Blake into locating the book and putting its several pieces together. Then the villian tries to steal it.

This book is great reading for someone who appreciates a nice metaphor and doesn’t mind wading through a lot of description and slow-moving events that don’t advance the plot quickly, including dinner parties. The cover definitely attracted the librarian in our local library, who commented on it. I left it laying around my house, though, and none of my teenage sons picked it up.–Phyllis Wheeler

The Alchemyst by Michael Scott, a Review

The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel
by Michael Scott, Delacorte Press, 2007, 369 pages.

Worldview: Darwinian atheism.

Style: A high-action, imaginative story with memorable characters that will draw your kids in.

Review: An Elder Race used to live on the earth, while humans were still hanging out in trees. These elders, who have magical powers, are divided into Dark Elders and others. The Dark Elders would like to return to power, enslaving or killing the human race. Their puppet is the human villain, Dr. John Dee.

This story has a strong hook: it mentions the Immortal Nicholas Flamel on the cover. Flamel is one of the characters in the Harry Potter stories, but he wasn’t invented by J.K. Rowling. Instead, Rowling took a legend and based a character on it. Scott has done the same. Scott’s cover also looks faintly like one of the symbols featured in the Potter books (the Deathly Hallows).

Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel are legendary French individuals, born in the 1300s, supposed to have found the secret of immortality. In Scott’s tale, Flamel becomes mentor to American teenage twins Josh and Sophie Newman as the result of a struggle described in the opening scene of the book. In the struggle, Dr. John Dee and his henchmen rob Flamel of his magic book, except for two critical pages.

As the story unfolds, Dee is pursuing Flamel and the twins. The twins find out they have powers and are the subjects of a prophecy about powerful twins. Flamel takes Sophie to an Elder One to have her powers awakened. Josh has to wait till the next book (when his powers are awakened by a Dark Elder).

The central characters are clearly the twins. They are motivated by loyalty to friends and to each other, a tribal sort of morality rather than a Biblical one. One of the main themes involves the question of Josh’s attraction to the dark side. We’ve heard this one before. The kids lie to their parents about where they are. The author excuses this by implying the parents wouldn’t believe them.

This book and its sequels will probably draw the attention of your teen at some point. My 16-year-old fantasy fan was drawn to them. Be sure to discuss the atheist viewpoint.–Phyllis Wheelerthumbsdown

Pendragon Series by D.J. MacHale, a Review

pendragon1

Pendragon: the Merchant of Death (Book 1 of a series)
by D. J. MacHale

Aladdin Paperbacks, 2002, 374 pages

Worldview: A moral universe with no discernible higher power.

Style: High action.

Review: This tale describes a story taking place on another planet, Denduron. It is mostly told by the protagonist, Bobby Pendragon, a 14-year-old American boy who strangely enough takes the time to write to his best friend Mark and girl friend Courtney, who remain back home, whenever he has the opportunity. The reader reads the letters along with Mark and Courtney.

Bobby is taken to Denduron through a wormhole gateway by his Uncle Press, who embroils him in a conflict between two factions who live there. One of these factions has enslaved the other. Meddlers from other worlds, called Travelers, are both good guys and bad guys. One, the oddly named Saint Dane, is a hugely evil bad guy who is abetting the conflict. Others, including Press and Bobby Pendragon, are trying to stop Saint Dane. Bobby starts off as feeling himself to be very incompetent, and gradually picks up some courage and competence as the story unfolds. He and another young Traveler, Loor, work together to foil Saint Dane. Saint Dane excapes to another planet through a worm hole. We suspect that will be the setting of the next book, with a similar plot: foiling Saint Dane, this time in a different world.

The story has many imaginative aspects as well as interesting characters. However, it fails to move me on several counts. One is the breezy teen-speak that Bobby uses for most of the book. It’s just not that easy to read. Another is the improbability of the plot resolution. Once Saint Dane is removed, the warring factions simply stop their conflict and begin to help each other. This is a feud that’s been going on for longer than Saint Dane was present. So why would removing him completely solve it? It’s not clear to me.

Another irritation was that some plot elements are left dangling, to be resolved in future books I suppose. These are major plot elements having to do with who Bobby is. We are told near the end of the book that the family that raised him is not his real family, and that Uncle Press is not his uncle. Bobby’s family has vanished, so he can’t come back to “second earth” and live a normal life. He is stuck being a Traveler now.

Despite these irritations, I do recommend this book for young readers. The high action is sure to please, and the moral compass of the work is sound.–Phyllis Wheeler

If you would like to buy this book, please buy it here to help pay the expenses of this Web site.

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, a Review

Artemis Fowl
by Eoin Colfer, Hyperion Books for Children, 2001, 277 pages

Worldview: Amoral. The “good guy” is a criminal. This is bound to confuse younger readers.

Style: A young adult novel with plenty of action to keep readers turning pages.

Review: Artemis Fowl is the name of a 12-year-old genius who is also a criminal mastermind. As the high-action story unfolds, it becomes clear that Artemis is, in fact, the hero–we find ourselves cheering for his nefarious plots. This is a confusing position to put a child reader into!

We also cheer for his victims, who are morally upstanding members of the fairy police. Artemis eventually makes friends with these members of the fairy police, so that the book emphasizes tribal or friendship loyalty as a supreme virtue. It puts other moral no-nos, such as thievery and deception, on the “naughty but OK” list. There are two successful thieves in the book whom the author clearly likes: Artemis and a dwarf. Also, the word “damn” appears in the book. In addition, the author makes up a fairy swear word and has his fairy police using it all the time.

Your children will probably check the Fowl books out and read them, if they have library access. My kids all have. The reason is that, despite the amoral framework, this book is a good read. The characters are memorable, there is plenty of action, and the story has a zany science-fiction quality to it.

Artemis and his bodyguard Butler are seeking to kidnap a fairy and hold it for ransom, in order to enhance the depleted family fortune. Turns out the fairies have mostly left the surface of the earth to colonize the center of the earth, driven below-ground by human activity. Their advanced technology allows them to travel back and forth to the surface.

Artemis and Butler manage to kidnap a fairy police woman named Holly Short. Ransom is eventually paid, and partly stolen by the dwarf thief At the end, Holly is released, Artemis is rich, and so is the dwarf. On the way, Holly has saved Butler’s life and that of Butler’s sister. And she heals Artemis’ depressed mother. All’s well that ends well. Or is it?

This imaginative story will draw your teen in. Be sure to discuss the world view.–Phyllis Wheelerthumbsdown