Although the story of a protagonist who discovers he/she has a special gift, a long lost family and/or that an evil force is out to destroy her/him upon turning a certain age (thirteen, usually) has been told many times, with Magickeepers, Erica Kirov manages to conjure up an adventure that brings together some unlikely people and places as well as historical figures to make the familiar feel brand new. Top it off with Eric Fortune's excellent cover art and you know you have something special in your hands.
The opening pages of Magickeepers finds Nick Rostov at the end of the school year with a report card full of bad grades, his thirteenth birthday right around the corner and dreams of a lazy summer filled with skateboarding, gaming and junk food. Nick lives in the Pendragon Hotel in Las Vegas where his dad is the (worse than third-rate) house magician. Nick's mom died when he was a baby and his Russian grandfather, her father, remains a part of his life, although often at odds with Nick's dad over how he should be raised. They all live in the shadow of the Winter Palace Hotel and Casino, home to the master illustionist, Damian, and the greatest magic show ever, which is booked three years in advance, despite the 4,200 seats in the hotel theater. The Winter Palace Hotel and Casino is built to look exactly like the official residence of the Tsars of Russia (until the last Tsar, Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1917) and there is a brilliant illustration, also by Eric Fortune, on the back of the book that shows a distinctly Russian building cloaked in a gentle snowfall with palm trees swaying in the foreground. For, in what tourists believe to be a bit of "Disneyland magic," the top floor of the hotel is always blanketed by a snowfall that melts long before it reaches the scorching pavement below.
When Nick's grandfather takes him out for a special surprise on the night of his birthday he wonders if they might finally be going to see Damian's show. Instead, he is driven out into the desert to Madame Bogdonovich's Magical Curiosity Shoppe where is is told to gaze into a crystal ball. Nick balks at first, but finds, when he relaxes a bit, a scene unfolding inside the glass in which an ancient Egyptian man is performing an illusion with swords - or is it? With this act, Nick's fate is sealed. Not only is Nick a "gazer," of which only one is born in each generation, but he is related to the great Damian and immediately and magically taken to live at the Winter Palace where he finds more kin, all of whom work in one way or another as part of Damian's "magic" show which, in fact, really is magic. As a Magickeeper, Damian has decided to live openly as a magician and perform shows that the public believe are the feats of a master illusionist. The rest of the family rarely or never leaves the top floor of the Winter Palace Casino and Hotel, their luxury home which is decorated to look like the inside of the real Winter Palace down to the china used at meals. I think that this is such a genius idea on Kirov's part and it makes for so many other fascinating plot threads.
Nick, who resembles a young Damian, is taken into the fold because the dark side of the Magickeepers family tree, the Shadowkeepers, are after him. Like Damian, they decide to hide Nick in the open and give him a part in the new show. In addition to having to learn his part for the show, which includes working with an Akhal-Teke horse that, like a camel, can go miles across the desert without water, Nick also has to learn how to work the real magic that is used in the show and passed off as an illusion. While doing all this, Nick must also figure out what the golden key that he wears hidden on a chain around his neck that sometimes burns and vibrates, a key that was his mother's and given to him by his grandfather on his birthday, goes to. And he has to learn to read Cyrillic and speak Russian so he can cast his spells. And defeat the Shadowkeepers.
Kirov is clearly bursting with ideas and, while I greatly admire her for keeping this book under three hundred pages and attracting a wider reading audience, this first book in the series easily could have been a 500+ pages. There are so many different plot threads and characters who are part of the story, including Harry Houdini, Rasputin, Anastasia, youngest daughter of the Tsar and character in Gloria Whelan's excellent work of historical fiction, Angel on the Square, as well as magical artifacts that have traded hands between good and bad and been won and lost in poker games over the years, that we don't get a Hogwarts-type experience in which we see Nick learning magic. We also don't get to learn much about Isabella, Nick's cousin who, like all the women in the family, has a magical way with animals as well as a white tiger, Sascha, for a companion. There is not much time to build up the suspense and tension for the battle between Nick and the leader of the Shadowkeepers, either. However, Kirov drops many clues to mysteries that will unfold and adventures that are to come in the next book, a sneak peak of which finds Edgar Allan Poe being visited by a raven named Miranda who recites a poem for him to pass as his own in exchange for his vow to hold something for safekeeping...
Don't miss book Two, Magickeepers: The Pyramid of Souls with another gorgeous cover by Eric Fortune and book Three, the final book in the series, Magickeepers: The Chalice of Immortality.