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Mearsies Heili Bounces Back: CJ's Second Notebook by Sherwood Smith

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

In Over the Sea CJ found her place among Claire's group of girls, fighting baddies and helping rule the tiny kingdom of Mearsies Heili. For in this world, kids not only can decide never to grow up, but they can adopt what would normally be adult roles, including ruler -- without any pesky adult regent to rule in their name, and quite possibly to adult favor and the child ruler's despite.

But that freedom doesn't necessarily mean that everything's wonderful -- remember that part about fighting baddies? Some of them are just pesky, like stuck-up little Prince Jonnicake and his equally obnoxious mother Glotulae, who fancies herself a Queen and thinks that Claire should be easy to dislodge since she's just a girl. But others are far more sinister, like Kwenz of the Chwahir, who rules the Shadowland beneath the capital, which was raised to the level of the beautiful palace of white stone on Mount Marcus long ago. Kwenz knows magic, and particularly the dangerous and destructive sort of magic that is often called dark or black because it spends magic energy, leaving darkness behind.

Like the previous volume, this one is primarily linear in its plotting, with adventures coming one after another like beads on a string. However, all of them sufficiently exciting and enjoyable -- not to mention funny -- that you'll probably sink into them sufficiently that you won't care whether they're tightly plotted or complex or any of those wonderful literary vitamins they tell you about in courses in school. Most pre-teen readers (kids the age of CJ and her friends, about the age Sherwood was when she originally wrote the first versions of the stories in this book) really couldn't care less about those kinds of things -- first and foremost, they want their reading to be FUN, with lots of exciting action and heroes overcoming the villains in silly ways that make them look ridiculous instead of scary. And there's plenty of that here.

The first major event in this volume actually is history -- the story of five-year-old Claire's first adventure with her little friend Jennet, after the wicked Kwenz of the Shadowland tricked a whole town into drinking wine upon which he'd put a spell. They were compelled to go into the Shadowland to be servants, since the Chwaihir settlers were all too busy being soldiers to do any of the ordinary work of keeping a society going. So Claire was trying to rescue them as best a child of five could manage, which promptly entangles her and her friends with the mysterious Rosey, a villain who's allied himself with Schnit of the Chwahir, the even nastier younger brother of Kwenz.

After that important bit of history is conveyed, Claire's girls finally get to meet the youngster Kwenz has chosen as his heir, as mentioned in the end of the first volume. Unlike PJ, who's unbelievably stuck-up and spends most of his time running around ridiculously overdressed and making sure everybody defers to him properly, Jilo actually knows some useful skills. Magical ones. Specifically black magic, although mostly directed toward illusions intended to make his opponents look ridiculous rather than stuff to cause actual harm like Kwenz and Schnit favor.

But his isn't the only nasty magical game in town, as the girls find out when their magic-transfer spell is tampered with and they suddenly find themselves halfway around their world in a land called Bermund. There the capital lies under a terrible spell that turns people to stone, all save a single man who calls himself a painter and putters away with his paints. However innocent he may seem, there are dire hints that things are not right about him.

So the girls have to find the secret that will enable them to break the spell and free all the people who have been turned to stone over the years. It's a spell that was apparently brought from another world when the people who settled Bermund came through the worldgate, although its nature is never really explained, nor is there any evidence that there are consequences that ripple outward to touch other events, as they probably would in some of Sherwood Smith's more recent novels. Furthermore, there's one loose thread left dangling, namely the lost cousins Laurel and Lael, left wandering in a sort of twilight half-world -- although it is finally resolved in Senrid, which was actually published before this volume, so that a person who read them in publication order rather than the order of the internal chronology would be left with the feeling that the thread had intruded out of nowhere and had nothing to do with the rest of that novel.

But their adventure doesn't end there -- while they're wandering around the area enjoying the land they've just liberated from the spell, they are grabbed by bad old King Schnit of Chwairsland. Of course they now have to find a way to get free of his nasty spells, including another go-round of the shrinking potion he used in the first book. And their reward is to get to have some fun telling stories, including one that's a child's-eye view of the Cold War and spycraft. It's one of those delightful pieces that can be read at two levels -- a present-day kid reading it will enjoy the slapstick elements reminiscent of the old Maxwell Smart spy-parodies, but a reader who's old enough to remember the days when there still was a Soviet Union, it's a reminder of the days when spy movies represented a release for our very real fears, a consolation that yes, our good guys were stronger than their bad guys, as well as adventures full of high-tech gadgetry and lovely babes who fell into the hero's arms at a moment's notice.

And that's just the first part. The second half of the book is much more a unified story rather than an episodic sequence of adventures, belonging as it does to a time when the author was beginning to get a more nuanced understanding of the mechanics and craft of storytelling. However, this should not be taken to indicate any diminution of the exuberance of the story, which continues to delight with fresh surprises as CJ is kidnapped off to yet another distant land where magical and ordinary efforts are expended to make her forget her role as a princess of Mearsies Heili and settle down to be an ordinary girl. And her struggles to resist that particular brand of villainous bullying lead her to confront some far bigger questions about the nature of duty and what it means to be good.

There is supposed to be at least one more volume coming out of these early Sartorias-deles stories. Although they are quite different in tone from the more mature and searching voice of the Inda books or even Crown Duel and A Stranger to Command, they are so full of the sheer delight in storytelling that most readers will forgive them any lack in tightness of plotting or care in worldbuilding. And that goes double for young readers.

Review posted July 31, 2010.

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