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The Serpent's Egg, J. FitzGerald McCurdy, Saratime, 2001, 280 pp.

The Serpent's Egg is a lovely, funny, and exciting fantasy book for younger readers. The back cover excerpts letters from kids who have read the book, and the ages of the letter writers vary between 11 and 14, although I think that readers younger than 11 would appreciate the book if they do a lot of reading. This is McCurdy's first book, and she writes with great assurance. Not only that, but her tone is consistently humorous, one of the hardest achievements in fiction. In the author bio, McCurdy states that she has always been inspired by Tolkien, but if I were forced to categorize this book, I would put it closer to Rowling's work than Tolkien's. Of course, any good bit of writing stands on its own, and The Serpent's Egg is a wonderful read.

Miranda is a girl who lives in Ottawa, and little does she know that she will soon be plunged into the adventure of a lifetime. After some ruckus at school, and a few run-ins with a girl named Penelope and her evil poodle Muffy, Miranda is at home at night when a man breaks into her house. But this is a helpful Druid named Naim, who tells Miranda that she is in great danger and that she must flee with him to a magical world where she can be protected. The portal to the magical world is near Parliament Hill in the centre of Ottawa, so she and the Druid go on foot from her house in the New Edinburgh area of Ottawa, through Lowertown, Major's Hill Park, across the Rideau Canal, and up to Parliament Hill itself. Once they are in the Parliament buildings, Naim engages in a furious fight with the forces of darkness, delaying the attacks so that Miranda can escape through tunnels beneath the Library of Parliament. At this point, Miranda is no longer alone; her friends Nick and Bell (Arabella) overheard the plans and have followed them, and, unfortunately for the peace of mind of everyone else, they have brought along Penelope and the evil poodle Muffy. After this point, the kids are no longer in any real world locales. The magical world they enter is full of danger, intrigue, scary creatures, and conflict, but also good friends, last-minute rescues, daring deeds, and a tale worth telling. Miranda also finds out why she was being chased and what her importance might be for this magical land.

As happens in such fantasy stories, Miranda is the only descendant of long-dead King and she is the only one who can capture the Serpent's Egg and defeat the Demon Hate. Fortunately she is not alone in her quest; on her side are the friends who accompanied her to the magical world, all of the Elven people, many of the Dwarves, and some unexpected allies along the way. Miranda faces many enemies and the book can be fairly gruesome when these enemies are dispatched (usually in battle and not by the hand of Miranda herself). And McCurdy makes full use of the fantasy convention whereby the entire fate of the world rests on one face-to-face encounter at the end of the book.

Miranda is a worthy protagonist; she has courage, the ability to make friends, and patience. At least more patience than some of the other characters, especially toward Penelope. The Druid Naim is a standard magician, powerful, wise, noble, and so forth, which is part of why his outbursts about Muffy are so funny. He and Miranda get along well, as do the three friends. Penelope and Muffy as characters are simply inspired; McCurdy wrings some choice comic bits of business from a snooty girl and her "shameless, rascally, fickle, treacherous, pampered poodle" (as the inside front jacket puts it). The characters of the magical world act much according to their roles, elven prince, dragon, dwarves, and villains included.

The Serpent's Egg is quite a handsome edition and small, independent publisher Saratime does here what even large publishing houses can't accomplish consistently. Gorgeous colour choices, appropriate cover art, a nifty logo for each chapter head, a lovely map for the endpapers; all this speaks of attention to detail and wise design choices. And as if all this weren't enough, one other element of the edition itself made me laugh out loud when I discovered it and causes me to grin whenever I think of the book. It's something that ties in with one of the characters in The Serpent's Egg, but I don't want to reveal the nature of the surprise because it's best to discover it as you are reading. Suffice to say, kids will love it, as would anyone who hasn't quite grown up yet (like myself).

McCurdy wraps up the story of The Serpentís Egg nicely, but the epilogue contains a final paragraph that sets us up for a sequel. Hopefully McCurdy builds on what she has already accomplished because this is a wonderful book and worthy of a sequel.

The Burning Crown, J. FitzGerald McCurdy, Saratime, 2002, 272 pp.

The storyline of The Burning Crown is more jam-packed with adventure and peril than The Serpent's Egg, if this is possible. The Burning Crown begins with some set-up information from Bethany, the land of the Elves. It seems as if Prince Elester, whose father died in the first book, has to be crowned within six months; whoever is crowned with the official crown, the crown of the title, becomes the ruler. Unfortunately, the crown is stolen in chapter two! Miranda and her friends are trying to get back into the magical world, but the portal they used in the first book, the portal underneath the Library of Parliament, has been closed. Worse, while they are skulking around in the tunnels underneath Parliament Hill, they accidentally disturb a magical organism colourfully known as ďtunnel turds.Ē If the tunnel turds are not somehow calmed down, the entire Hill will slide into the river. This is on top of the fact that they can hardly get through the last two days of school with their evil teacher Stubby.

The children discover that they can use a portal on the estate of William Lyon McKenzie King, Kingsmere in the Gatineau Hills. A nice touch, considering that particular Canadian Prime Ministerís penchant for odd beliefs and enthusiasms. Once Miranda, Nick, Bell, and Penelope get to the magical land, the pace picks up even more and soon they are all mostly separated and facing many different dangers. Penelope has to go with a dragon to get Muffy healed, Miranda and the Druid Naim land near the crazy cabin of the Augers, and Nick and Bell and a Dwarf end up captured by trolls. There are also fights with serpent statues, Werecurs, giant underground slugs, the Thugs from the first book, dead people taken over by tiny black snakes, and quite a few other nasty creatures as well. All in all, thereís an escapade of some kind in every chapter, and the book even ends with a moment of cleverness on the part of Miranda. I always appreciate stories where the protagonist has to use wit as opposed to brawn in the final scene.

Interestingly, The Burning Crown has more of its storyline set in the real world than The Serpentís Egg had. The kids spend more time in Ottawa, and the trip to Kingsmere also adds to the time spent in their own world. The map in the endpapers at first looks similar to the one used in The Serpentís Egg, but it has been updated to include the extra locations in Ontario and Quebec, such as the Alexandra Bridge and how to get to the Gatineau Hills. The magical lands are updated as well, with the Augers' cabin and the Cataclysm standing out as the most vivid of the new locales on the map.

Saratime has once again published a wonderful edition. The first and second books actually match, so the spines look nice next to each other on the shelf, something too many publishers forget about when putting out a series. The cover art is again appropriate (the first cover is credited to 45 Degrees Corporation and this one to RPM Creative Inc. so I donít know if itís the same artist, but both covers have approximately the same feel). And a funny element of the first bookís physical aspect returns here, although not to quite the same humorous effect.

The Twisted Blade, J. FitzGerald McCurdy, Saratime, 2003, 327 pp.

The Twisted Blade is the third book in a trilogy of fun fantasy books for younger readers by J. FitzGerald McCurdy. Chapter One begins in the Red Mountains, as a Vark Giant named Otavite returns to duty at a mountain fortress after a refreshing furlough. To his horror, he discovers that the Giantís fortress has been wrecked, and even one of the nigh-invulnerable guard creatures known as a carovorare has been killed. The fortress was guarding Taboo, something underground that the giants donít know that much about, and Otavite is loath to investigate. But he does, only to discover that some foul beings have been sacrificing other giants in order to bring the King of the Dead back into the world. The King of the Dead will soon live up to his title, by covering the earth with an invincible army of the dead; any resistance will only swell the ranks of the evil King.

Meanwhile, back in Ottawa, Miranda, the heroine of the first two books in the trilogy, is busy living her life, trying to figure out why her friend Nick seems to be ignoring her, and trying to deal with the fact that her mother is going out on a date. The fate of her father, back in the magical realm, was never really resolved to Mirandaís satisfaction. All of this is interrupted by a severe earthquake, something that is not really supposed to happen in Ottawa. Nick and his house fall directly into a chasm, and Miranda senses something evil about the whole tragic event. So Miranda and her best friend Bell (Arabella) decide to go back to the magical realm to warn the elves that something bad is about to happen. After some more moments of peril, including some nasty dwarves and an encounter with the vast lake creature known as Dilemma, Miranda and Bell end up in the court of Elester, now King of the Elves. Elester has had his own premonitions, so they quickly pool their knowledge and come up with a plan to fight the coming evil.

But what about Nick? His entire house has fallen into the magical realm, and much to his chagrin, so has Penelope and her annoying poodle, Muffy. At least that is his initial reaction. But Penelope and Muffy have become an integral part of the adventures and Nick is glad to see a familiar face. Soon Nick and Penelope are caught up in new elements of peril, separated, rejoined, just like Miranda and Bell. All four children play crucial roles in the upcoming fight against evil. Along the way, Nick will make friends with an ogre, the children will be horrified to meet Stubby (formerly a nasty schoolteacher) once again, and Miranda will learn a bit more about the Bloodstones, a magical set of stones that she can sometimes use. The cover of the book gives away a bit about the final confrontation, at least its location: Parliament Hill, back in Ottawa. Thankfully, McCurdy also wraps up the storyline about Mirandaís father, much to the relief of the character of the girl.

Saratime has capped off the trilogy with an edition as handsome as the first two. The cover art, as already mentioned, has a few spoilers, but itís quite dramatic and suits the book perfectly. The endpaper maps once again change a bit to accommodate the new locales mentioned in the story, and Muffy is once again the star of a hilarious flip-the-pages animation.

First posted: January 15, 2003; Last modified: February 20, 2004

Copyright © 2003-2004 by James Schellenberg

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