by P. W. Catanese
Book 2 of the Books of Umber came to me, once again, in an "Advance Reviewer Copy." I'm getting my review in just under the wire: the book goes on sale less than 3 weeks from this writing. Nevertheless I want to express my gratitude to Paul and the to publicity department at Simon & Schuster for allowing me an early peek at a book I really enjoyed. I make no secret that the author and publisher did me this favor, so you can take my review for what it's worth. Or you can take my word that I'm not just praising this book so I can get more freebies. Fans of fantasy and adventure will agree that P. W. Catanese has accomplished another feat of story magic.
This particular type of magic will be best known to those who have read Book 1, Happenstance Found. With this series, author Catanese moves beyond his earlier "Further Tales," adventures set in a world where your favorite fairy tales are pages out of history, real events with ongoing effects in the lives of real people. Now, instead of each story taking its departure from a different mother-goose story, the Books of Umber are venturing into riskier, more rewarding territory: original stories taking place in a well-established fantasy world where virtually anything is possible. Themes, details, creatures, and characters from many familiar folk tales are stirred together, along with some less familiar stories and, perhaps, some newly-minted legends that seem right at home in such a world.
At the center of it all is the fascinating figure of Lord Umber: a dreamer, inventor, entrepreneur, and keen observer of magical beasts, who also happens to be a refugee from our modern, technological world -- and a bipolar sufferer, to boot. Using a vast collection of knowledge from our world, Umber labors tirelessly to improve the way of life in the kingdom of Celador. He also hopes, someday, to return to his own world and save millions from an impending disaster. Umber surrounds himself with special people: Sophie, a one-handed archer and artist; Nima, the amphibious skipper of the leviathan-barge Boroon; and Oates, the strong warrior who is cursed with complete honesty. For example, here is an exchange between Oates and an armed guard:
"What are you looking at?" the soldier said to Oates.
"A nasty man with a face like a dog," Oates replied, honest as always.
The soldier's face flushed scarlet. "Who are you calling dog-faced?"
"I don't know; we haven't been introduced," Oates said.
Most fateful of all is the newest member of Umber's entourage. Young Happenstance is a creature known as a meddler. No one knows much about meddlers, where they come from or what they can do. Hap keeps coming out with new and unexpected powers. But his memory only goes back a short time before Umber found him. This book sheds some light on the mystery of Hap's origin - if the tragic tale of a heartbroken young man and the gruesome confession of a senior meddler can be called "light."
While Hap wrestles with these painful discoveries, Umber's quest for knowledge gives him plenty of other things to focus on. Together they encounter sea giants, a boar-man, a flying ship crewed by spider people, and a race of man-eating creatures known ominously as soul-crabs. They visit an island in the center of a ring of fire, inhabited by tiny creatures who live to fulfill their master's every command... and the poor, cursed creature who has the misfortune of being their master. They participate in a chase at sea, an athletic competition, the palace intrigue of two kingdoms. They witness murder, cruelty, desperation, political unrest, and a crisis of royal succession. They concoct close escapes, survive breathtaking dangers, and contrive to get Oates to tell a lie. And all that is besides their daring rescue of a baby dragon and a clutch of dragon eggs, stolen for a brutal king's amusement.
Dragon Games is more than a story about a savage form of entertainment. It is a tale touched by tragedy. People good, bad, and in between come to gruesome ends. One of these deaths will result in deep soul-searching for Hap; others will affect Umber in ways yet to be seen. It reveals the story behind Sophie's missing hand, raises more possibilities of Hap's power to see and touch the lines of people's fate, and further develops the relationships between the characters. And it leaves us with an edgy expectation of things to come. More than ever, after reading this book, you will be determined to follow wherever Umber's adventures lead.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 12+
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