by Sharon Tucker
If I could use magic to modify the hot summer weather that’s back now as September begins, I’d raise my wand at once. However, lacking the skill to conjure weather, instead I’ve avoided thinking about my skyrocketing electric bill by reading three mysteries set in worlds where altering the weather would be but a minor accomplishment. The Shotgun Arcana by R. S. Belcher, Touch of Frost by Jennifer Estep, and The Last Apprentice by Joseph Delaney may vary widely in location and era, but all three take place in worlds where “mundane” flew out the window long ago.
The Shotgun Arcana is the second book in R.S. Belcher’s series set in nineteenth century Golgotha, Nevada. On the surface it’s like every western you’ve ever read and seen, but with the difference that all manner of guardians of the then-universe have gathered there to keep primordial evil at bay. Among them is young Jim Negy, still on the run from the law back home in Virginia, and in possession of an extraordinary jade artifact.
Malachi Bick is a fallen angel who owns most of the town and just keeps on making enemies. Sherriff Jon Highfather is rumored to be a dead man walking, evidenced by the rope burns on his neck. He is backed up by deputy Mutt, a shape-shifting Indian who wields irony better than a French philosopher. Much to the reader’s delight, the town populace also includes a pirate queen, a Chinese deity, and a steampunk CSI pioneer. The Lovecraftian evil they battled in The Six-Gun Tarot is superseded in The Shotgun Arcana by the search for, and subsequent guardianship of, an object with a dark history. Finding the object, securing it, and protecting the town from the consequences of exposure to it and its minions, seem to be impossible tasks. I found the characters in these novels so strongly realized that they became friends of mine. The plot develops along unpredictable avenues, and while the action of these novels unfolds, 1870 Golgotha, Nevada should be the last place and time anyone would wish to be—yet I can’t be alone in wishing I could be there to lend a hand. The battles are epic.
Speaking of epics, imagine a prep school that trains Amazons, Spartans, Vikings, Valkyries, and Gypsies to fulfill their first best destinies. Welcome to Mythos Academy for young adults. Jennifer Estep’s Touch of Frost is first in her Mythos Academy series and introduces Gwen Frost, a Gypsy whose particular gift is psychometry, the ability to touch a person and know his or her whole history. Gwen’s gift extends to finding lost belongings as well, a talent that comes in handy making pocket change since she is not as wealthy and entitled as her schoolmates. In fact, no one at the Academy wonders more why Gwen is attending MA than she does herself; she lacks the strengths and battle skills her classmates have been trained in from childhood.
The whole academy is shaken when a popular student is murdered in the library where Gwen works part-time, and Gwen determines to use her talents to discover how the murder happened and who is responsible. Estep has created in Gwen a likeable heroine who discovers her strength and destiny while in the midst of adolescent angst. Since the story is told in the first person, readers share in Gwen’s crushes, disappointments, and triumphs as they happen. We can remember how it felt to be inexperienced and utterly blindsided by strong emotions crashing down for the first time.
Seeing her so determined to investigate obviously dangerous matters on her own is a bit frustrating for the adult reader, as is not confiding in an adult to help her when she’s in crisis. But we know all too well that children and adolescents often don’t seek help in dire circumstances. On the negative side of the ledger, Estep’s over-repetitive use of her terms (“gypsy magic,” “touch magic,” “psychometry magic,” or “Band geek” to name but a few) throughout the novel outraged quite a few reviewers on Amazon—and I agree that more variety of language is called for, definitely. However, Estep is still a formidable storyteller, using types of characters we have seen and loved in both fantasy and young adult mysteries to create a new blend of both.
One of the most sterling examples of storytelling and style in this same genre would be that of author Joseph Delaney, creator of the Wardstone Chronicles known to American readers as The Last Apprentice series. The setting is Lancashire, England and the time is the 17th Century, when the Pendle Witches were abroad in the land.
The apprentice/narrator of the series is Thomas Ward, whose mentor is John Gregory, a Master Spook. Readers soon become aware that Delaney’s witches and their minions are much in the vein of J.K. Rowling’s Death Eaters in the Harry Potter books, but unlike Harry, Hermione and Ron, Delaney’s witches are uniformly bad and extraordinarily clever, never using their power for good, or so we and Tom Ward are assured by Gregory.
The drama unfolds when Tom encounters the young witch, Alice, who doesn’t easily fit into the aforementioned category, but instead becomes an ally in foiling the Pendle witches’ plot to free their leader, and then to release their Master into the world once more. This series is far from light hearted. Instead, it is an indictment of the magical world of witches—these are cautionary tales. Some readers prefer darker stories that are more in step with the danger of the supernatural rather than its wonder, but many find both types of story-telling rewarding. Adults will enjoy the simplicity with which the stories unfold and young adults will see themselves in Tom Ward as he struggles to save us all from “the Dark” that is coming.
Surely we can feel heartened that the ever-present forces of evil in these stories will only temporarily gain the upper hand—we aren’t talking Game of Thrones here. All three books are harbingers for the coming Autumn months, when cooler weather will finally arrive and Halloween will not be far behind.
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