Whizz through hell's portal or delve into the Cryptid Files


10- TO 12-YEAR-OLDSA FANTASY FEST awaits readers willing to save the world, but be prepared for a deja-vu sensation: imminent doom, demon hordes, portals into Hell, time travel and convoluted plots abound.

John Connolly, the thriller-turned-fantasy- writer, sets the tone with Hell’s Bells: Samuel Johnson vs the Devil Round II(Hodder and Stoughton, £11.99). Samuel with his dog, Boswell, and the inept, well-meaning demon, Nurd, previously foiled the Grand Malevolence and its aide, Mrs Abernathy, who were bent on destroying the planet. Sam and Boswell are whizzed through hell’s portal, accompanied – unintentionally – by a vanful of beer-sodden dwarfs, two policemen out of Flann O’Brien, and an ice-cream man. Mrs Abernathy wants revenge on Sam but has not reckoned on Nurd. Connolly’s deprecating wit is reminiscent of Eoin Colfer, and his clever footnotes are like vintage Roddy Doyle.

As Connolly warms up, Michael Scott’s series nears conclusion. The Warlock: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel(Doubleday, £10.99 ) is the penultimate book and already an American bestseller. It sets the scene for a grand finale, a battle of epic proportions with, predictably, the salvation of humanity at its core. Only San Franciscan twins Josh and Sophie can prevent the evil Dr Dee from destroying the world, but they are at loggerheads. Josh heads for Alcatraz with Dee, where Machiavelli and Billy the Kid are intent on releasing monsters to destroy humanity. Sophie remains with Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel – he is the guardian of the world’s most powerful spells – although her faith in them is tested. Flamel’s strength diminishes alarmingly: pages are missing from the codex containing his immortality spell. Meanwhile Flamel’s allies, including Scathach, Joan of Arc and Shakespeare, travel back in time to distant Danu Talis to destroy it, in order to save humanity. Watch for the twist in the tail of this complicated volume.

John Stephens’s The Emerald Atlas: The Books of Beginning(Doubleday, £12.99) was the talk of Bologna Book Fair 2011. Stephens’s Hollywood and television screenwriting experience is evident in his heavy reliance on dialogue. His tale begins with three children incarcerated in stereotypical fictional orphanages: Kate, the responsible one; Emma, combative but all heart; and Michael, often bullied yet resilient. When they discover the Emerald Atlas, one of three Books of Beginning, each linked to one child, a highly dangerous series of events unfolds. (Expect two more volumes in the series.) The children are separated, captured, and shuttle between past and future to save the world and their family, assisted by dwarfs, a giant and a magician. One of the best-wrought characters is an evil countess intent on inveigling the atlas from them. Her easy charm is convincing, even if her undead hordes induce yawns.

There are alternatives to the intensity of fantastical otherworlds. One that straddles the divide is Jean Flitcroft’s The Cryptid Files: Mexican Devil(Little Island, €6.99), a story of myths, monsters and magic set in Mexico. Flitcroft’s teenage protagonist has a gift for recognising cryptids, animals that may exist in nature but are not accepted by modern science. Vanessa learns that a mysterious creature, known as the Chupacabra, is killing the farm animals. Her investigations lead to the exposure of murder, blackmarketeering and bloodsucking witches in this fast-moving tale.

Paula Leyden is that rare thing a natural storyteller who conjures a rich magical-realist terrain in which sorcery and modernity coexist. Her Zambian childhood provides the material for her moving debut, The Butterfly Heart(Walker Books £5.99 ). The world beyond school, cursed with poverty and Aids, begins to impinge on twins Bul-Boo and Madillo. They discover that their little schoolfriend Winifred is to be married off by her drunken uncle to his drinking companion. Ifwafwa, who keeps homes free of snakes, counsels them. With parents who are medical doctors, the twins inhabit a dual world of science and of folklore at odds with Winifred’s and Ifwafwa’s traditional lifestyle. Leyden intimates that child marriage is barbarous, but resists didacticism. Her portrait of the children’s woefully ignorant teacher, Sr Leonisa, is convincing and hilarious – if ignorance were not so tragic.

Another consummate storyteller is Mary Arrigan: she has published numerous suspenseful adventures. Her latest, The Rabbit Girl(Frances Lincoln, £6.99 ) is a subdued tale that reverberates with human resilience overlaid with her characteristic suspense. While it evokes poverty, it avoids emotional poverty and mawkishness. It tells of a motherless Irish boy evacuated from war-torn London to the Lake District, where new friendships assuage his aching loneliness. Then there’s the independent Mallie, growing up in contemporary London. She knows two things: that she needs pocket money and that her single mother needs male company. The stories eventually converge, and Arrigan’s ending adds an unexpected layer of meaning.

Mary Shine Thompson’s book, Young Irelands: Studies in Children’s Literature, will be published by Four Courts Press later this year