John Clark sharing a series find in young adult fiction. Years ago, I deliberately avoided reading any of the Harry Potter books until I finished the second book in my own YA fantasy series. Once I got into them, I understood why there was so much interest. (I even listened to all of them on unabridged audio, something I strongly suggest if you want a darker take) Not only were they extremely well written, but they got kids, parents and even grandparents hooked on reading. As a librarian I’m convinced it was the best thing to happen in terms of literacy in the past fifty years. When the series ended, I felt a sense of withdrawal, but soon found other YA fantasy worth reading. In fact, the whole YA market exploded after Harry Potter and continues to this day, something I both bless and curse.
However, series comparable to the Potter books don’t come along very often, but I stumbled on one worthy of comparison completely by accident. I trade books on Paperbackswap and have four saved searches I run regularly, one of which looks for any teen books published after 2009. I’ve discovered several hundred titles that way, many self-published or issued by small presses. Last month, I claimed one called Legacies written jointly by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill. It was the first in a four part series called the Shadow Grail Quest. I had never read any of Mercedes’ books, but remembered something musician David Arkenstone wrote in his liner notes for a CD I got years ago. Mercedes was quoted in it as saying that she listened to his music for inspiration while writing. I was using Medwyn Goodall’s music for similar creative energy at the time and liked the validation.
I read it in a couple days and borrowed the second one, Conspiracies, through MaineCat. No copies of the last two were available when I neared the end, so I bought Sacrifices and Victories. As I read the remainder of the series, I couldn’t help but think about some of the similarities to the Harry Potter books (all quite favorable).
The story begins with Spirit White in a hospital, recovering from serious injuries suffered in the car crash that killed her parents and younger sister. Faced with pain and grief, Spirit isn’t sure what will happen when she’s well enough to be discharged because she has no living relatives. Even more distressing, the family farm located in a remote area, burn. Lightning is the official cause, but the more things happen, the less Spirit believes this to be true and she has recurring dreams where something huge and evil appeared in the road just before the crash.
She’s whisked off in a fancy car after being informed that she’s destined for magical greatness at a private school called Oakhurst in the middle of a remote section of Montana. The party line is that her parents went there and as a legacy with mage ability, she’s getting a full ride which starts as she and another boy are flown to Montana by private jet. Odd that her parents never mentioned anything about magic or having attended the school.
Her first experience with the headmaster, Dr Ambrosius, it traumatic as he turns her into a mouse while morphing into an owl. Despite being assured she has one of the magical powers derived from earth, air, fire or water, every time Spirit is tested, nothing shows up. All the other students, including her small circle of friends (friendship is discouraged, while competition and mistrust are promoted at Oakhurst), Burke, Loch, Addie and Murin, have at least some measurable level in one of these.
When the teens realize that students are disappearing, including some who were supposedly hospitalized in Billings, but never return, they start investigating and discover two frightening facts. First, there are records in a basement storage area where students have ‘Tithed’ on their folders. Each is among the missing as far as they can tell. Second, someone inside Oakhurst seems to be disarming the magic wards surrounding the campus when teens vanish. The first book ends in a slam bang battle.
Just when Spirit and her friends think they’ve been successful in defeating the extremely scary band responsible for the vanished kids, the school is infiltrated by ‘graduates’, under the direction of Mark Rider, head of a very lucrative gaming company. He and his henchmen ramp up the distrust level among classmates by instituting some really scary new classes, survival riding (think Hunger Games like surprises while riding on a horse over an endurance course) and ‘almost have to kill the instructor to pass’ defense/martial arts classes.
By the time they reach book three, our heroes are dismayed because many of their fellow students think the second round of baddies has been vanquished, but instead, these Shadow Knights have infiltrated the faculty. At the same some of the good students are beginning to have odd dreams that seem to go back to Arthurian times, ones where they’ve become a person involved in the battle between Guinevere and Mordred. At the same time, Breakthrough, Mark Rider’s gaming company, has set up shop in Radial, the nearest town and seems to be glamoring the citizens so they don’t have the slightest inkling that something evil is overtaking the town and Oakhurst. Even when the town library is destroyed by monsters, the damage and the student deaths are attributed to bad weather. It’s clear to Spirit and her friends that it’s time to flee Oakhurst and regroup elsewhere so they can figure out how to defeat the evil presence at Oakhurst. Sadly, one of their group is killed while creating a distraction that allows the other four to escape.
The final book involves the four survivors finding the mysterious online entity QUERCUS who befriended her after she found a mysterious thumb drive in a bag after going shopping in town and made it possible to bypass the school wide block on outside internet access while proving to be evasive and elusive whenever asked a direct question. As he/she gives them periodic instructions, leading to another, older escapee from Oakhurst, Spirit finally comes into her own magic which is derived from a fifth school, one extremely rare, but essential to defeating the person Mordred became before Oakhurst was opened. I was particularly intrigued by who/what QUERCUS turned out to be and where he was hiding. The final battle is a dandy one that involves the mastery of four ancient artifacts the surviving heroes found.
I understand this series won’t be for everyone, but I really enjoyed getting lost in it and relating to the main characters. There are many details I needed to leave out in order to preserve a decent level of unknown. All four books are available from member libraries in MaineCat.