The five books that make up The Impossible Quest series, by Austrailian author Kate Forsyth, are absolutly spot on for the eight or nine year old who loves fantasy, but who isn't quite ready for the middle grade big league--the sort of kid whose a really strong and eager reader, but not emotionally ready for truly harrowing violence or romance or, heaven forbid, cute little animals who die. I don't often wish my now 12 year old was a 9 year old again, but after reading the books myself I did so wish I could send them back in time a few years for his third or fourth grade reading pleasure!
The story is fairly standard stuff--four kids (two boys, two girls) thrown together as unlikely allies when their homeland is invaded. They are a young knight in training, the son of the castle cook, the witch's apprentice, and the daughter of the manor, and they have no clue what they are going to do about defeating their enemies. They do, however, have a riddling prophesy to guide them on what seems at first to be an impossible quest...and so they set out on a journey that ends up making the impossible into reality.
Four mythical animals must be found--unicorn, gryphon, dragon, and sea serpent. One is introduced in each book, and forms a special bond with one of the kids, and I think this aspect of the book in particular has just tons and tons of kid appeal. Each of the kids also has a magical item that they have to figure out how use properly, and each has special strengths that they bring to the group. As dangers are overcome in each book, the kids are forced to make out of their four conflicting personalities and backgrounds a cohesive fighting force. And they actually come to genuinely like and care for each other, putting aside various preconceptions and old grudges. The characters are each given turns as the primary point of view, which helps make each one unique and compelling; the adventure never overshadows the personalities, and worries, and hopes of the adventurers.
The adventures themselves are a fine introduction to fantasy questing, and Kate Forsyth does a very fine job at vivid descriptions. The drowned city full of writhing sea serpents, for instance, was more than a bit memorable. It is not a sweetness and light fantasy for the young, but it is written for young readers--there are things that are horrible (like the army of bog men, reanimated victims of past sacrifice), but the horror is not delved into so deeply or emotionally that it is distressing.
In short, though this series doesn't add much in the way of diversity to the upper elementary fantasy available, and doesn't break wildly imaginative new ground, it is does fill a niche for younger readers wanting epic adventures. The books would also be fine for older middle grade kids who like fantasy but who aren't the strongest, most committed readers-- the short chapters, short overall length, and fairly rapid fire adventures will make the pages turn.
The books were released in Australia two years ago, and are now being published here in the US all at once by Kane Miller (which is very nice indeed from a parent's point of view, because if your kid likes book 1, you can trot out books 2-5 without waiting for ages between books!)
The books in the series are:
Escape from Wolfhaven Castle
Wolves of the Witchwood
The Beast of Blackmoor Bog
The Drowned Kingdom
Battle of the Heroes
(you won't find the US editions for sale on Amazon, as Kane Miller is a strong supporter of indie bookstores. The links above go to Barnes and Noble; you can also get them through your independent bookstore in June).
disclaimer: review copies recieved from the publisher