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Remaking make-believe

Recent works of fantasy forsake the medieval for brave, newer worlds

Peter and the Shadow Thieves
By Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Disney/Hyperion, 556 pp., $18.99

Fly by Night
By Frances Hardinge
HarperCollins, 496 pp., $16.99

Murkmere
By Patricia Elliott
Little, Brown, 352 pp., $16.99

Pucker
By Melanie Gideon
Razorbill, 256 pp., $16.99

Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling
By D. M. Cornish
Putnam, 404 pp., $18.99

Ranger's Apprentice
Book Two: The Burning Bridge

By John Flanagan
Philomel, 256 pp., $16.99

Dragons, knights, princes and princesses, armor and swords, evil guys and really, really evil guys -- that's what fantasy is all about, right? But how much magic can be left in a box of thousand-year -old props and costumes recycled more often than tokens on the T? What can we poor fantasy authors and readers, raised on everything from ``Narnia" to ``The Goose Girl," do to discover anything new?

First, we get out of the Dark Ages. The battle between good and evil didn't end with the Renaissance, after all, and such luminaries as Robin McKinley , Philip Pullman , and Jonathan Stroud have more than demonstrated that fantasy can thrive in other eras and cultures.

This year a surprising number of young-adult fantasy authors have chosen to put all the medieval baggage in storage and head for the Age of Enlightenment (and beyond). Pirates and square-rigger ships, science and religion, cannon and colonialism, are the new materials, and the results are well worth the risk.

Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's ``Peter and the Starcatchers" series -- based on J. M. Barrie's classic ``Peter Pan" -- offers the easiest entry into the new time period. The second book in the series, ``Peter and the Shadow Thieves," begins with an unnecessary run of Disney-esque dioramas -- Peter taunting, Captain Hook raging, Smee bumbling, Tinkerbell tinkling. But once Lord Ombra, a cowled, specter-like being seeking the box of ``starstuff" introduced in the first book, floats onto the island, the story quickly turns murderous and magical. The writing is workmanlike and the details sometimes questionable , but readers who prefer a mix of the familiar and the new will enjoy this series.

For a bolder step away from conventional fantasy, try Frances Hardinge's artfully written ``Fly by Night." Modeled after early 18th-century England, her Fractured Realm is a kingdom divided between royals and revolutionaries, guilds and tradesmen, religious fanatics and scholars. When young Mosca Mye escapes from her cruel uncle, she accidentally becomes entangled in a conspiracy involving illegal books and soon has the entire kingdom searching for her. There is no magic per se in ``Fly by Night," but there is a hero and a quest and a wealth of imaginary details, including water-bleached villagers, floating coffeehouses, and the most dangerous goose in the world.

Patricia Elliott's ``Murkmere" takes a darker approach to fantasy. Aggie, a commoner, comes to Murkmere Manor to be a companion to the master's troublesome ward, Leah. As Aggie spends more time with her, she begins to uncover a connection between Leah and the ancient race of half-bird/half-human creatures called the ``avia." Elliott uses Puritan England -- including a cruel Lord Protector -- as the inspiration for her fictional theocracy. To this she adds magic, science, mythology, and fairy tales. But it is her coupling of fantasy with the brooding humanity of Gothic works like ``Jane Eyre" or ``The Secret Garden" that makes ``Murkmere" so fascinating.

Melanie Gideon's ``Pucker" also features a Puritan-like society, though with echoes of Mennonite culture. Seventeen-year-old Thomas Gale and his Seeress mother have lived on Earth since their exile from a parallel world called Isaura. Thomas, disfigured in a fire, keeps mostly to himself. But when his ailing mother sends him back to Isaura to get her ``Seer-skin," he is miraculously healed. If he returns to Earth, his scars will return. If he doesn't, his mother will die. The tension between Thomas's love for his mother and his desire to be ``normal" makes the story sharp and engrossing, and the differences between the two worlds -- neither perfect -- highlight the agony of Thomas's choice. Teenagers who enjoyed Meg Rosoff's ``How I Live Now" will especially like this book. But there's enough magic for everyone.

For something completely different, pick up D. M. Cornish's ``Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling," the most original, sophisticated, and compelling fantasy since Stroud's ``Bartimaeus Trilogy." Set in a vaguely 18th-century European-style society, ``Monster Blood Tattoo" tells of Rossamünd Bookchild, an orphan at Miss Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls. Rossamünd wants to be a ``vinegaroon" in the navy and fight such fearsome monsters as ``kraulschwimmen." Instead, he is made a ``lamplighter," the dullest assignment imaginable. But before he can report for duty, smugglers kidnap him. Nearly everything about ``Monster Blood Tattoo" feels original -- the world, the characters, the technology (ships run by pumping muscles, people who can produce bolts of lightning ). But what is most impressive is that in the midst of all this inventiveness, Cornish is able to deliver a good story and sympathetic characters.

Finally, for those readers who can't go cold turkey on their medieval habit, there is John Flanagan's ``Ranger's Apprentice" series. Tapping into the never fully developed idea of the Rangers from J.R.R. Tolkien's ``The Lord of the Rings," Flanagan has created a medieval-era hero with a difference: he is more ninja than knight. Stealth, knowledge, knife, wit -- these are apprentice Will's weapons, and they are a refreshing change from the usual sword and sorcery. The second book, ``The Burning Bridge," follows Will and his friend Horace as they stumble upon evil doer Morgarath's secret invasion plans. The Tolkien influences are rampant, but Flanagan manages to throw a few surprises at us -- not the least of which is that Will is not always the hero.

To be honest, reading these books has made me a little jealous. When I was a young adult (way back in the 1970s), fantasy was Tolkien and Lewis, L'Engle, Le Guin, and Alexander, and once you'd run through this magical canon, there was almost nothing else. Worse yet, the difference between young adult and juvenile fantasy was only the reading level. Adolescence didn't seem to exist for fantasy authors.

Now, in the same way that Europeans slid into the Age of Enlightenment by questioning long-held beliefs about God and man and nature, fantasy writers have entered a new age by questioning their assumptions about what makes good fantasy. Religion, politics, history, psychology, family, sexuality -- they're all allowed now, and in far more colors and combinations than ever before. Teenagers don't have to check their emotional development at the door to keep reading fantasy, and adults don't have to abandon all hope of good literature.

Does this mean traditional sword-in-the-stone/knight-in-training/wizard-school fantasy is dead? Definitely not. But for those readers old enough to crave something different, what could be more refreshing-- ``enlightening," even -- than to ditch all that armor and chainmail for a little while and try on a nice silk bodice or waistcoat?

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