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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Review: Heart of Gold

This review has been sent to January Magazine and will probably be published there sooner or later, but probably later, as there are a number of my reviews awaiting publication, so here it is!

HEART OF GOLD By Michael Pryor

In Blaze of Glory, first novel in the Laws of Magic series, we met Aubrey Fitzwilliam, son of an aristocratic family in the land of Albion, an alternative universe version of Edwardian England. In this world, magic is a science, totally unconnected with superstition or the summoning of demons, ouija boards or midnight rituals. Well, admittedly it’s done best in such ancient languages as Chaldean... The laws of magic of the series title are a lot like the laws of physics - “ye cannae change them, Captain” although you can mix and match and adapt them if you know what you’re doing. Unlike the magic of the Harry Potter universe, it isn’t genetically-based, but something you can learn at school and then practise as a career.

Aubrey is a magical genius. Like other geniuses, he simply can’t resist experimenting and at the start of the first novel, he did something truly stupid, experimenting with horribly dangerous death magic. As a result, he ended up dead.

Well, sort of. He is - literally - holding body and soul together, to avoid having his soul float off into the realm of true death, and finding that being dead can really mess up a chap’s lifestyle.

With his schoolfriend George and a brilliant and feisty young lady called Caroline, he saved the Crown Prince Albert (otherwise known as his cousin Bertie) and foiled a plot by the realm’s head magician which would have started this world’s version of World War I.

At the beginning of Heart of Gold, Aubrey and George, who desperately need a holiday before starting university, head for Gallia (France) where Caroline is already studying at the university of Lutetia (Paris). Aubrey isn’t allowed to relax, though; each member of his family gives him an item to add to a “shopping list” of tasks to perform while he’s over there. His grandmother wants some embarrassing letters back. His mother wants contact with a fellow scientist. His father wants him to keep an eye out for certain things he needs to know. Cousin Bertie needs some important information about his ancestors. All of them, of course, end up being connected and sending Aubrey and George into danger .

Aubrey being Aubrey, he can’t stay out of trouble, and while filling the shopping list and trying to find a magician who might have information that will cure his condition, he finds himself contending with more plotting, spies, a city full of lurching zombies (living folk whose souls have been stolen by a nutter with a magical camera), prehistoric animals erupting all over Lutetia, terrorists, the theft of a magical artefact - the Heart of Gold - that must be kept in the city’s centre, in a nun’s lap, or Gallia will fall apart - oh, and inviting Caroline to an embassy ball...

Like the first novel, Heart of Gold is great fun. The action is almost non-stop - even in the first few pages, Aubrey and George are flying an ornithopter to rescue an airship in trouble. Immediately on arriving in Paris, they’re fighting a zombie. Among the prehistoric monsters they have to face is a scary dinosaur, probably a tyrannosaurus.

Despite all the action, the author never forgets that as well as story, you have to have characters the readers can believe in. Aubrey is brilliant, but not perfect; he does something idiotic yet again, though this time it could lose him Caroline’s affection rather than his life. George, while filling the role of the comical sidekick, is really not dumb at all, and Aubrey doesn’t underestimate him for a minute, though others do. Possibly only Caroline is too perfect; as well as intelligence and beauty and ability with a gun, she turns out to be a martial arts expert.

Still, the characters are likeable, the plot funny and delightful and I do like this universe. Women don’t yet have the vote, but they are respected as scientists and artists and their strength is taken for granted.

The series has been compared with Harry Potter, which seems about standard right now. Sorry - not remotely alike, except that both protagonists are teenagers who are good at magic, hang out with two other teenagers and can’t get up the nerve to ask a girl to a dance. If anything, it reminds me of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy - Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen - and the world of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy. Fans of both series should enjoy this one.

Anyway, much as I loved the Potter books, I’d rather go out to a party with Aubrey than Harry; at least he doesn’t whinge or worry about what the Dark Lord is plotting when he’s supposed to be giving his partner a good time. Sorry, J.K. Rowling.

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