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Full of unmet potential
on October 28, 2014
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature. We review SFF, horror, and comics for adults and kids, in print and audio daily.
Stealing Magic is the second book in Marianne Malone’s SIXTY-EIGHT ROOMS adventure series for middle grade readers. When Bill and Kelly wrote about The Sixty-Eight Rooms, the first book in this series, four years ago, I was intrigued by the fascinating premise — two 6th grade kids find a way to explore the Thorne Rooms in the Art Institute of Chicago and discover that they can use the rooms to get into the world of the time period the rooms depict. This sounded wonderful to me, but Bill and Kelly were disappointed because there was too little time spent actually exploring the fantasy worlds (which would be the fun part). Bill suggested that the first book might be an introduction to the series and he hoped for more adventure in subsequent novels.
Since the publisher of the audio version of the series recently sent me a review copy of the fourth SIXTY-EIGHT ROOMS book, I decided to give the series a try. I started with The Sixty-Eight Rooms and found that, as I had expected, I agreed completely with Bill and Kelly. The book is a tease — there’s very little time spent in the rooms and the worlds they are portals to. I decided not to review The Sixty-Eight Rooms because I’d just be wasting time and space by repeating exactly what Bill and Kelly said.
In this second book, Stealing Magic, Ruthie and Jack visit the worlds of two of the Thorne Rooms. One is 19th century Charleston, South Carolina where they meet a black slave girl who wishes she could read. They give her a gift to help her fulfill her goal. The other is Paris in 1937 where they meet a Jewish German girl at the Paris Expo. When they later review their history and realize that this girl and her family are in danger from the Nazis, they plan to go back and warn her not to return to Germany. However, someone has stolen the key to the rooms and some items from the rooms are also missing. Ruthie and Jack must solve the mystery of the stolen key, find the stolen items, and get back to Paris to warn their new friend.
Unfortunately, Stealing Magic has the same problems that the first book has. Most of the plot takes place in the real world. There is very little time spent in Charleston and Paris and even that little bit of time simply looks like a set piece with the requisite Paris and Charleston props (e.g. Eiffel tower, cafés, Nazi flags, cruel slave owners). The lack of exploration is disappointing. The lessons that the kids learn are simple and obvious (Nazis are bad, slavery is bad) and given no shading or nuance (the only time we encounter a slave owner is when we see a white boy gleefully stomping ants — ah, this means slave owners are outrageously cruel). The tension is easily resolved (“Hey, watch out of the Nazis” “Oh! Thanks for the warning, I will!”) and the far-reaching (future) consequences of Ruthie and Jack’s interference with the two girls they meet is unbelievable (Kelly mentioned this in her review of the first book). The real-world art thief is also obvious (it’s the only new character) and easily exposed. The story would have worked better if the art thief mystery had been more challenging and Malone had concentrated on just one of the fantasy plots (either the Nazi plot OR the slavery plot). As it is, this story feels like the author dropped her manuscripts of three separate books into the river and concocted Stealing Magic out of the pages she managed to fish out.
Young children (3rd through 5th grade) may be more forgiving of the simplicity of the plot and they will learn a little bit of history in the process, but I think most of them will want to do more exploring of the rooms and the worlds beyond (which would teach them even more history). I will keep hoping for that in future installments because Malone’s premise is full of unmet potential.