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Queste and Syren (Septimus Heap 4 and 5): Angie Sage: Middle Grade Book Review

Book: Queste (Septimus Heap, Book 4) and Syren (Book 5)
Author: Angie Sage
Illustrator: Mark Zug
Pages: 624,
Age Range: 9-12

I recently read the fourth and fifth books in Angie Sage's Septimus Heap series. I never reviewed books 1 through 3, although I enjoyed them, because I listened to them on audio (and I find I need to be able to flip back through flagged passages to write a proper review). The Septimus Heap books are a solid middle grade fantasy series, well-suited to kids who like the early Harry Potter books or Sarah Prineas' Magic Thief series. They are light and fun, filled with lush descriptions and humorous moments. While the characterization isn't as deep as, say, that of the Harry Potter books, Sage has a knack for capturing bad guys and characters of decidedly mixed motives.

The Septimus Heap books are set in a wholly fictional country with castles and wizards and ghosts and a series of ice tunnels that run below ground. Book 1, Magyk, introduces the Heap family, their adopted daughter, Jenna, and the seventh son, Septimus, who was spirited away at birth, and is believed by the family to be dead. Parallel story lines follow Jenna, an orphan called Boy 412, and a young apprentice to a dark wizard. There are assassination attempts, secret identities, diabolical villains, and, of course, magical spells and potions. Other books in the series flesh out various characters and add elements such as time travel, dragons, and alchemy. While major elements are resolved in each book, other threads are left open, to be continued from story to story.

9780060882075 Book 4, Queste, begins as Septimus, Jenna, and Septimus' friend Beetle set out to rescue Septimus' brother Nicko and his friend Snorri, who were lost in the past after an incident with a time-travel mirror. A time-traveling alchemist is able to give them a clue as to Nicko and Snorri's whereabouts, but a dangerous quest is required.

I found Queste to be a bit darker than the earlier books in the series. There's a long, bleak trek through a winter wood, for example. And Septimus' fate lies under a cloud for much of the book. However, there are also lighter elements, such as Beetle's growing crush on Jenna, and another character's addiction to licorice. Here are a couple of passages that I flagged as representative of the feel of the book:

"He stopped and took a last look at the broad sweep of the Castle below him before he descended once more into his bright basement. It was breathtakingly beautiful. The moon was riding high in the sky, casting its cool, white light across the rooftops and sending long shadows down the streets far below. A myriad of pinpoint candlelights glittered across the vast expanse of the Castle, in a way that Ephaniah had never seen before." (Page 318, paperback edition)

"Septimus sat next to Beetle and looked through his Physik tin with anticipation. At last he was getting a chance to try out the Physik he had learned on a real patient. Beside him his unwitting patience dozed peacefully on the floor of the tree house, pale but breathing steadily." (Page 488, paperback)

9780060882105 Book 5, Syren, picks up the very day after the end of Queste. While returning from their previous quest, Septimus, Jenna, and Beetle find themselves stranded on a mysterious island, an island inhabited by a Syren. They eventually cross paths with Septimus' old friend Wolf Boy, traveling unexpectedly with Lucy Gringe (girlfriend to Septimus' bad apple of an older brother), and have to fight off multiple terrifying enemies.

I liked Syren better than Queste - there's a bit  more character development, and I preferred the island setting to the forest of the previous book. It's a nice combination of idyllic and menacing. I enjoyed Jenna's relationship with her usually absent father ("Jenna fought back the urge to kick him" - Chapter 17), as well as the baby steps taken by prior bad guy Simon towards rehabilitation. Here are a couple of quotes that caught my eye:

"It was a bright, blustery spring day in the Marram Marshes. The wind had blow away the early-morning mist and was sending small white clouds scudding high across the sky. The air was chilly; it smelled of sea salt, mud and burned cabbage soup." (Chapter 2) (Can't you just feel this scene?)

"Spit Fyre had flown a very agitated Marcia Overstrand all the way to the House of Foryx without a single mistake. Given the fact that Marcia had got the basic dragon-direction instructions completely backward, this was quite an achievement. Marcia naturally believed it was her innate dragon-riding skills that had gotten them safely there, but in fact it was down to Spit Fyre's innate ExtraOrdinary Wizard-ignoring skills." (Chapter 13)

In general, the adults in this series are presented with a sort of benign, affectionate ridicule, while the kids, though flawed, too, are the real forces to be reckoned with. This is as it should be for this type of book, I think. Sage's writing style is a nice combination of light-hearted humor and multi-sensory description.

Both books featured a wrap-up chapter at the end, with sections giving some additional background, and filling in details of what happened to particular characters. I found these sections anti-climactic and distracting (and I don't recall whether or not the first three books did this, too), though some useful information was conveyed. There's also a tendency for the plotting in the Septimus Heap books to rely on coincidence (Oh look, there's Wolf Boy, turning up on the deserted island that we're stranded on. How fun!). But those are minor points. I still think that the Septimus Heap books are fun, kid-friendly stories that will please middle grade fantasy fans. Recommended.

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Publication Date: March 31, 2008 and September 9, 2009
Source of Book: Review copies from the publisher
Other Blog Reviews: The Bookette, Melissa, Bookworm Blogger

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).