Book: The Fire Chronicle (Books of Beginning, Book 2)
Author: John Stephens
Age Range: 9 - 12
The Fire Chronicle is the second book of John Stephens' Books of Beginning series. I thought that it was better than the first book, last year's The Emerald Atlas. Unlike many middle books of trilogies, which seem to exist mainly to mark time until the final book, The Fire Chronicle is a nice combination of a solid story with its own merits and lead-up to the final volume.
The Fire Chronicle finds Kate, Michael, and Emma, children destined to bring together three world-changing books, marking time in an orphanage. The peace only lasts a few pages, however. Before the reader knows it, the siblings are separated. Kate, keeper of the book that manipulates time, finds herself trapped in New York City, a few days before the start of the 20th century. Michael and Emma travel in our own time with, and then without, Dr. Pym, on a quest for the second Book of Beginning.
Although the action shifts frequently between the two time periods, The Fire Chronicle is primarily Michael's book. He is the eldest of the children in Kate's absence, and the one destined to be keeper of the second book, a book that has power over life itself. I thought that Stephens did an excellent job of character development with Michael, who bore aspects of Edmund Pevensie from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in The Emerald Atlas. Michael comes a long way in The Fire Chronicle, pulled along by the book, and by his love for his sisters.
Kate's story, while less pivotal to this particular book, is also intriguing, as she comes into contact with a boy whose destiny appears tied to her own. Stephens also presents an appealing alternate history for New York City. The premise is that magical beings once existed out in the open (dwarves, elves, witches, etc.). However, after years of persecution from ordinary humans, the magical folk created a "separation" (at the turn of the 20th century), going into hiding and altering people's memories about them. This makes Kate's scenes an interesting balance between what New York City was like 100+ years ago and what the world might be like with magical beings living in the open next door to regular folk.
Stephens uses the dual narratives effectively in keeping the reader turning the pages, switching over at various cliffhangers. Even when he doesn't switch narratives, he still uses cliffhangers at the end of most chapters. Like this:
"The cry of a Screecher echoed up the tower, and they heard boots pounding on the stairs, growing closer and louder. The children backed away from the door.
Michael heard Emma shout his name.
What was he supposed to do? What could he do?
Then the door flew open, revealing the dark, ragged form of a Screecher, and at that same moment, a pair of hands seized the children from behind." (Page 25)
Though there is a lot of danger and drama in The Fire Chronicle, Stephens does give the children small moments of happiness, too, like when Emma sees a penguin for the first time and marvels "That's the best thing I ever saw. Ever." Or this:
"... and as crowded and loud and smoky as the restaurant was, and though she was constantly being bumped and jostled, or feeling cold air against her neck when someone pushed through the rugs by the door, somehow it was all wonderful. It was as if Kate had managed to leave outside everything she carried with her on a daily basis, her thoughts of her parents, the need to find them, her constant worry about her brother and sister." (Page 197)
There are some parallels between the Books of Beginning series and the Harry Potter books. Both feature an evil wizard who was partially vanquished, but is now trying to come back to life, to take over the world. Both feature a kindly, not always forthright, elderly wizard who guides the orphan(s) trying to save the world. Both have the magical world existing next to, but rarely interacting with, the real world. And so on. But the Books of Beginning have more of a high fantasy feel to them than the Potter books do, with large swaths of the books taking place in settings like tunnels below ground, elven communities up in the trees, and so on. There's also more of a tie-in with actual historical events in the Books of Beginning series, which is a nice touch.
The Books of Beginning series isn't as humorous as the Harry Potter series, though Stephens does present a pretty funny view of vain elves in The Fire Chronicle. But Stepehens' choice to make the three protagonists siblings, rather than friends, gives a certain emotional heft to the books.
The Fire Chronicle is a strong second book in a solid middle grade fantasy series. The plotting is fast-paced, and the narrative structure pulls the reader forward. I enjoyed seeing Michael's character development throughout this book, and look forward to something similar when youngest sibling Emma takes center stage (presumably) in the next book. The Fire Chronicle is highly recommended for middle grade fantasy fans (but read The Emerald Atlas first).
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: October 9, 2012
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
© 2012 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).