The Fire Chronicle, by John Stephens, the second of The Books of Beginning. This post contains spoilers for the first book, The Emerald Atlas, which really needs to be read first for a reader to make sense of this one!
In The Emerald Atlas (my review) we met three siblings, Kate, Michael, and Emma, whose parents had mysteriously abandoned them to a series of orphanages. Their destiny led them to the home of an ancient wizard, Dr. Pym, and they embarked on a perilous journey through time that ended in the defeat of an evil witch and the recovery of the Emerald Atlas, one of a mysterious trio of ancient texts.
The Emerald Atlas gave Kate the power of travelling through time. When The Fire Chronicle begins, Kate and her siblings have been sent by the wizard back to an orphanage, where they come under attack by evil minions. Kate uses her time travelling powers to save her siblings, and finds herself trapped in New York city at the very end of the 19th century. There the magical world is preparing to sunder itself from the mortal world, the persecution of magic users having become intolerable. Though a group of magical kids, led by the charismatic Rafe, shelters her, she's still in danger from the most evilly powerful magician of them all, who wants the Emerald Atlas for himself.
Michael and Emma find themselves in dangerous circumstances of their own, as Dr. Pym sets them on a path that will, if all goes well, lead them to the second book--the Fire Chronicle. Michael must find it in himself to be truly brave (and to overcome his distaste for elves) as he braves the lair of a dragon in a hidden antarctic Elven paradise...now besieged by the forces of evil.
It's to Stephens' credit that that all this busyness gels into two coherent story lines that come together nicely at the end. There is much excitement, mystery, and mayhem, but though my tolerance for unbridled adventure is not as great as it might be, I still enjoyed The Fire Chronicle very much, mainly because I was genuinely interested in the characters. As Jen Robinson rightly points out in her review of this book, the fact that this trio are siblings, with only themselves to count on, rather than friends, adds to the emotional weight of their story.
That being said, I much preferred Kate's story arc of a magical 19th century New York, full of lovely details and twistiness. It's a lovely addition to the "magical New York" sub-genre of juvenile fantasy. My enjoyment was enhanced by the enigmatic and attractive Rafe, an appealingly nuanced addition to the cast of characters--will he turn out to be a hero or a traitor? Though The Emerald Atlas left me interested in its sequel, this particular twist of the second book left me right on the edge of my seat, wanting more.
And I'm also looking forward to seeing feisty, frightened Emma come into her own in the third book!
Stephens perhaps overwrites his story at times, using two adjectives where one would do, and such like, but the book as a whole works well. That being said, this series is a solid entry into the field of "children of destiny" fantasy, managing to make that basic plot fresh and interesting. The series is not my own personal favorite (because of my own distaste for pages of non-stop action), but I enjoyed this second book lots more than the first, galloping through it at break-neck speed.
It's not as much a wish-fulfilment story as some (like Harry Potter, for instance)--though the children are special, it's not because they themselves have untapped cool magic talents that are cooler than everybody elses, and there are no cute magical pets. Instead, the characters are faced with serious responsibilities, and must find the emotional maturity to make the right decisions. So I'd not rush to give this to a nine year old looking for escapist fun--it's a better fit, I think, for older kids.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher, and read for the Cybils.