The Seven Sorcerers by Caro King, 324 pp, RL 4

Seven Sorcerers is now in paperback!
Shadow Spell is due out any day!


Seven Sorcerers by Caro King has to be one of the most satisfying works of fantasy I have read in a very long time, and one of the smartest. In fact, I found myself savoring this book, taking much longer to read it than I could afford, marking wonderous and beautiful passages of writing so often that it looks like my book has sprouted a pink-post-it fungus. I hope I can do this marvelous book justice and stick to the task at hand, but there are so many delicious details I may digress. The superb cover art is by Croatian artist Zdenko Basic, and more of his wonderful work and history can be found at the end of this review. I have included both the US cover, above, and the UK cover, left, for their intriguing differences.

I love the opening to Seven Sorcerers which begins, "Nin had never liked Wednesdays, but this one took the cake. On this Wednesday she woke up to find that it was pouring rain and her little brother had ceased to exist." Toby has been stolen by a bogeyman named Skerridge all of his belongings have disappeared, except his toy monkey, and all memory of him has been wiped from the minds of his loved ones, except for his older sister Ninevah Redstone - such a great name for a hero. Nin knows that her brother existed and, after finding his beloved toy Monkey, she is sure without a doubt that something has stolen her brother. In fact, it is Skerridge, the bogeyman who stole Toby. Somewhat humanlike in appearance with a sartorial flair, Skerridge most often takes the form of a shapeless "patch of extra-dark shadow with eyes" because it is "excellent for scaring kids and restful too." When Skerridge comes for Nin she manages to dodge his sack. With the help of Jonas, another stolen child who escaped the claws of a bogeyman and has been roaming between worlds since then, unable to go home to his family who doesn't remember him and not fully at home in the magical world, Nin passes through a gateway into this other world.

And what a world it is! Caro King is a masterful world builder. What Cornelia Funke does in 500 pages, she does in 300 and leaves the reader wanting more. But, King is also a focused storyteller who takes the reader down a path that may seem well worn but feels new in these pages. As I read the first chapters of this book I could not help but think of Neil Gaiman's magnificent The Graveyard Book and Bod's trip through the ghoul-gate where Gaiman created a world that was both dreadful and fascinating and occasionally quite funny. Nin finds herself in similar dreadful and delightful place, the dying land of Celidon. Once filled with Magic and magical creatures called Fabulous, half-magical creatures called Grimm and humans, referred to as Quick, this land is dying. In the Drift, Nin quickly learns that Celidon has been "ravaged by a plague that came from nowhere and nobody knows how it began or why. But a terrible darkness swept through the land of Celidon, cutting down the Fabulous like a scythe cuts wheat. The faeries and the elves were first, along with the dragons. Then the giants and the wood and water sprites and so on. At last it reached the most magnificent of all the Fabulous - the sorcerers. They lived here, in the east and the south of Celidon and when they realized that the plague had begun to take them as well, they took shelter in the beautiful city of Beorht Eardgeard. They barricaded themselves in, refused to let any travelers stop there and killed any Quick stupid enough to turn up at the gates. It did no good." Amidst this devastaion (Nin wakes one morning and notes, "It was a nice day, by Drift standards. The sky was bright and full of cloudy castles. Ruined castles.") Nin must search for her brother. As she journeys deeper into the Long Land she finds that this world is similar to the Widdern, which is what the Fabulous call our world, but it is also "like a distorted echo of a shape. The same but almost unrecognizable different." Nin realizes that the gateways "from one world to the next must lie together, the Long Land somehow overlaying the Widdern like a gauzy topcoat. Unseen, but just a step away." This evocative passage is but one example of King's rich and beautiful writing in Seven Sorcerers

Nin is determined to make her way to the Terrible House of Strood where she hopes she will find her brother alive as well as locate the memory pearls that will ensure her family remembers them. With instructions from a dodgy character named the Dandy Boneman, Nin makes a protectively loyal mudman named Jik, one of my favorite characters in the book, who's only task is to "stay alive." Even after Jonas agrees to accompany her all the way to her destination with Jik tagging along, Nin's goal still seems insurmountable. The three run from one danger to the next, fleeing the tombfolk and the Gabriel Hounds, to a magical tree deep in the Savage Forest that was once one of the Seven Sorcerers, all the time making their way toward something even more threatening, evil and horrible - the immortal Arafin Strood. As Nin and the reader learn over the course of the story, Strood was a Quick and an assistant to the apothecary that the Seven Sorcerers hoped would bind and distill their most powerful spells into one draught that would save them from the plague. In a cruel turn of events, Strood survives the gathering, horribly scarred and bent on revenge while the Seven Sorcerers are forced to flee the land, on foot or by magically altering themselves. Strood remains to continue to pursue his love of experimentation and creates some truly creepy fusions of Quick, Fabulous and creatures from the animal kingdom. While The Thief of You, part one of Seven Sorcerers, is full of suspense, danger and some frightening moments, part two, The Terrible House of Strood, the last one hundred pages of the book, is even darker when you realize just how relentless and unstoppable Strood is. Despite this, Nin succeeds, frequently commenting on her luck, how insurmountable her tasks seem and how amazing it is that she is getting this far. In fact, at one dire point near the end of the book, the chapter titled "Any Second Now," she is about to be fused with a giant spider and is convinced that help will arrive to save her . . . any second now. I found this especially refreshing and humorous after willingly suspending my disbelief and looking away from overt coincidences in other works of fantasy.

In fact, Nin, Jonas and Jik are not succeeding entirely on their own. Early on in their journey Jik becomes aware that they are being followed by Skerridge, who is determined not to break his perfect record when it comes to delivering kids to Strood. Occasionally we see the story from Skerridge's point of view as he tracks Right Madam, Obstacle and Unknown Quantity, his names for Nin, Jonas and Jik. While Skerridge is the comic relief in this dark tale (he says things like, "S'bin quite fun really, what wiv on fing an' anovver.") he is also the one character who changes most over the course of the story. Originally content to do his job and be the best at it, as he tracks the three, rescuing them from time to time, he begins to see his world and his choices differently. When he thinks he has done right by Nin and kept his record, leaving him free to go, Skerridge finds himself "drowning in the knowledge that Ninevah Redstone has every reason to hate and despise him. The entire Quick species had every reason to hate and despite him, too, but somehow the fact that Nin did was the bit that hurt him the most." By the end of Seven Sorcerers he is fully on their side, helping them escape the Terrible House of Strood, and they need all the help they can get. King could have easily (and satisfyingly) ended this book where she did, but there is a second book, The Shadow Spell, which came out in the UK this April and will be released in the US on May 1, 2012. For those of us in America who have to wait a while to read it (although I did find copies at used book sites...) there is a teaser chapter included in  Seven Sorcerers that gives us a sense of where things stand and a definitely knowledge that Nin is nowhere close to being out of the woods yet...

The sequel: SHADOW SPELL

Updated covers:

There were a few quotes from the book that I couldn't manage to work into my review but did not want to delete, so consider this either a bonus paragraph or an example of my inadequate writing skills.

As a character, Nin is more than your typical spunky, brave heroine. As I said above, she has a growing awareness of her luck as she makes her way through Celidon. That sense of self-awareness is also evident early on in the story when, not sure if she can trust Jonas or if he is even willing to help her, she decides that "It's all right, thought Nin, and whatever he says, I've got to trust someone." This is a common experience for characters in fantasy novels, but it is so rare to hear them actually acknowledge the fact that, in this new and strange world where people are thrown together, you do have to trust someone on your journey. Another example of Nin's awareness and uniqueness as a character is her response to a train ride she and Jonas take after having been in Celidon for a few days, "This is like, so Widdern!" Nin said cheerfully. She was feeling oddly delicate, as if she were made of glass." Somehow, being in the Widdern was sharpening the realization of what she had lost."

And Jik, the mudman made by Nin, seems to be capable of introspective thought as well, despite his earthen make-up. Separated from Nin while she is riding the train, Jik makes his way alone across the Long Land to meet up with her again. Observing the world around him he notices that, "The plague had unmade the Fabulous, sending them back to the Raw. Now it was unmaking the Long Land, sending that back to the Raw, too. But, even when that was all over, the Raw would never again give birth to a new Land or a different kind of Fabulous. Because now the plague was going even further. It was killing the Raw. What Jik could see before him was the death of Magic itself. In that moment he understood how late he was. Like turning up for a train just as the station was closing and the ticket office was pulling down the shades. He was a new Fabulous, but he would never know what he could become. Long before he had time to find out, the Land woudl die and so would Magic and so would he. He would be dead forever before he really lived." This is such a poignant moment, so bittersweet and amazing to think that the fate of a creature made out of mud can call forth such introspection and emotion. Also, Jik is just a totally cool character with awesome abilities. While he can't get wet because he will dissolve, being trapped in a landslide is no problem for him. Many floors under the Terrible House of Strood Jik makes his way through the earth to rescue Nin, listening for "the signs of struggling. There was nothing to hear but the sigh of the Land, which was everywhere all the time anyway. He began to move, swimming through the mud like a fish would swim through water, curving around the bigger rocks and pushing the stones aside as he went." Again, a beautiful bit of writing from an incredible new author. I can't wait to hear more from Caro King, who, as the jacket flap says, "was born in London and raised in Surrey, where she lives with her partner, Kevin. She studied art and works at the Home Office. Seven Sorcerers came from a rainy lunchtime when she began mapping out the world of the Drift. Skerridge and his vest came later."

More about Zdenko Basic

Zdenko was born in 1980 in Zagreb, Croatia. In 2005 he graduated from the Zagreb Academy of Fine Arts, receiving an award for Best Graduating Student.

Zdenko has illustrated many children's books, and articles for children's magazines. His work has been displayed at the Zagreb carnival, and since 2004 he has been working with the Merlin Theatre as a costume/scenic and graphic designer.

In 2006, he won the Sheep in a Box Award for best Croatian picture-book for his work on 'The Story of Chocolate', which also won the Kiklop Award for best book-design.

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