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Page history last edited by RichiesPicks 11 years, 1 month ago

15 March 2004 THE BOOK OF DEAD DAYS by Marcus Sedgwick, Random House/Wendy Lamb Books, October 2004, ISBN 0-385-73055-1; Lib 0-385-90158-5


"Offstage, Boy pushed the lid of the cabinet up with his head until there was enough space to lift it with his hands.

" 'Out you come, then,' said a stagehand. Boy took the man's hand gratefully..."


THE BOOK OF DEAD DAYS has nothing whatsoever to do with Jerry Garcia. Nevertheless, you'll find yourself tiptoeing amidst a rather healthy crop of skeletons if you dare to follow a pair of young orphans, and a magician on his last legs, as they race the clock through the dark recesses of a fantastical old European city in the final, frigid days of a year set on the verge of the modern scientific era.


"He climbed out and stood for a moment in the wings, rubbing his sore calves and watching as Valerian began his grand finale.

"The Fairyland Vanishing Illusion.

"Boy was not needed for this part of the act. He watched Valerian from the side of the stage.

"How many times has he done this? Boy wondered. He had forgotten how long he had been working for Valerian, but it was years. Boy could only guess at how many thousand times he had hidden in boxes, pulled levers, set off thunder flashes and opened trapdoors. He helped Valerian with trick after trick, week after week in the Great Theater, which was as much of a home as anywhere to Boy."


The "dead days" of the title are those five or so days of the year that mess up what would otherwise be a neat and orderly calendar of twelve 30-day months. Both the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs shoved those leftover days into an ominous no-man's land at the end of their calendar year.


THE BOOK OF DEAD DAYS is a tense drama in which Valerian seeks to save himself in those last days before the tolling of the new year, by tracking down a powerful old book that is somewhere hidden away. In the process, we are led through the underseams of some of the most claustrophobic settings that I've encountered.


It was, in fact, from a rather small hiding place that the orphan, known only as Boy, had fallen many years earlier when he first came eye to eye with the magician:


"Small, cramped dark spaces had filled Boy's life. Long ago, he had even been hiding in one the day he was found by Valerian in an old church, St. Colette's. Boy had crammed his narrow frame into a space at the top of a pillar in the nave...

"Even then Valerian looked haggard and pale. His nose, long and fine, twitched in the dusty atmosphere of the old church. His skin was gray, so was his hair. He looked like a dead man walking. But his blue eyes were full of life, and his gaze roamed the dark spaces around him.

"Then Boy had heard his midnight rumble of a voice, so deep the stone he was clinging to shivered with it.

" 'The doctor,' intoned Valerian, 'pronounced me either dangerously sick or dead.'

"It was while trying to understand the strangeness of those words that Boy lost his grip and plummeted to the flag floor of the church, where he lay looking up at Valerian, scratching his nose nervously, his short-cropped black hair sticking up at interesting angles the way it always did.

" 'O-ho!' Valerian had said. 'What have we here?' "


Now this unusual pair embark on a life-and-death search through, beneath, and around the outskirts of that City. Accompanied by Willow, an assertive young woman who falls in with them during these Dead Days, they are alternately aided and impeded by Kepler, a brilliant inventor who has been an acquaintance of Valerian's since their years together at the Academy, The unceasing echo of the clock ticking dictates that false moves be avoided, and that the horrors encountered be taken in stride.


"He looked down at what lay within, and his jaw dropped. He had listened intently to what the old woman in the pillar had said about the Master of Burials and his animals, but nothing could have prepared him for what he saw now."


THE BOOK OF DEAD DAYS will leave you bent over breathless and back aching as you try to adjust to the light in hopes of determining just where you are now. And once you catch your wind and your bearings, you'll be wondering impatiently just how long the wait is before we get to return to the City in Book Two.


Richie Partington




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