THE CROWLINGS. By Louise Lawrence. Collins pound;9.99. THE INTERREX. By Catherine Fisher. Bodley Head. pound;10.99.
The first book of Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic quartet begins slowly. The mage Niklaren is gathering four unlikely young recruits for The Winding Circle Temple: an aristocrat, a dishonoured trader, a thief (the only boy) and a clumsy child rejected by her own merchant parents.
At the Temple, the children learn the discipline and the magic of their crafts: weaving, blacksmithing, gardening and the shaping of weather. The pace is deliberate, for this kind of learning, the fusing of magic and the craft itself, is won only through perseverance. Some young readers may love the detailed information about each craft, while others might be impatient for action.
Once these foundations are laid, there is action in abundance. The Temple is attacked by pirates who have enslaved mages to work for them. The four children are bound together in a magical unity and though Book Two concentrates on the weather-working Tris (the bespectacled, overweight merchant-child), The Temple needs the powers of all the young mages if it is to survive. This is a world where human qualities are harnessed to magical skills. The whole series is informed by the need for balance, whether within an individual or the environment.
Ecological concerns are more overt in The Crowlings. Three stories span five generations of a family whose planet is colonised by humans (the star-people), refugees from their own desolated Earth. The aboriginal people are kin to North American Indians in their culture, and young Small Fry sets out on his quest for his power animal, from whom he will take his name and nature. To his horror, he finds he must be called after the crowling - a tiny, ferocious bird which scavenges on dung heaps, rotting flesh and garbage. Over the generations, his descendants abandon the old ways as they and their land come under pressure from the colonisers. The native people adopt the settlers' lifestyle, but are eventually driven by menacing flocks of savage crowlings - the only birds to survive another eco-disaster - back to their old roots and, finally, to an even older civilisation which, like King Arthur, lies beneath the mountains waiting for the fit time to revive the land.
Catherine Fisher's The Interrex continues her fine Book of the Crow sequence which began so excitingly with The Relic Master. The central characters return and again embark on a desperate quest, hunted by malevolent enemies. Action flares and time and again Fisher leads readers to a cliff-edge and flings them into disturbing surprises.
The dilemmas faced by the protagonists are finely balanced; they are right to be confused and ambivalent, to weigh the life of a friend against allegiance to a cause. As in Tamora Pierce's novels, magic is hard-won and used only at the cost of physical and mental energies. You may think that Right is bound to triumph, but you also fear that the writer, if she must, would kill off a character you care about.