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Thursday, Jan. 8, 2004

ON THE BOOK TRAIL

"The Legend of Spud Murphy," "Lily Quench and the Dragon of Ashby"


"The Legend of Spud Murphy," Eoin Colfer, Puffin Books; March 2004; 90 pp.

If you have no clue why your older siblings rave about author Eoin Colfer, you're probably too young to have read about the wild escapades of Colfer's hero, Artemis Fowl. But his latest book, "The Legend of Spud Murphy," is your chance to find out why his fiction is worth all the fuss.

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Marty and Will have been sentenced by their parents to spend their holidays where no other boys their age would dare to go: the local library. Being surrounded by shelves of books that look like they're about to jump off the shelves and bore you to death is bad enough. However, there's one thing -- or one person -- that's even worse: Spud Murphy.

Spud, otherwise known to unsuspecting grownups as Mrs. Murphy, is the local librarian. But Will and Marty, like all young unfortunate boys who've done time with Spud, know that their mother's assessment of her as a "lovely old lady" is way off the mark.

Spud is reputed to tote a gas-powered spud gun that takes an entire potato in the barrel. Dare to make a noise in her library or venture beyond the children's area -- in fact, do so much as to titter -- and you could be used as target practice.

It looks as though Will and Marty will be sitting out the summer vacation with their backsides glued to the worn patch of carpet in the children's section. Unless Marty (who's a veteran at driving school librarians up the wall) can make such a nuisance of himself that Spud throws him out.

Marty sets about rearranging Spud's precious reference section as part of their great escape plan, all the time half-expecting to be startled by a potato sailing in his direction. But meanwhile, something else happens that is equally startling. Let's just say it has to do with a book Will picks up called "Finn McCool, the Giant of Ireland."

Just as Will must read on to find out more about Finn McCool, so must you if you're at all curious about whether Will and Marty get spudded or not. No one can tell you how it all pans out the way Colfer can, with his wicked sense of humor and a real affection for his young characters who, typically so, are far from models of good behavior.

This should whet your appetite to read about Artemis Fowl next, even if you're a little young for the series. And there's no better time than now to get started -- the fourth installment of Fowl stories is out later this year.

"Lily Quench and the Dragon of Ashby," Natalie Jane Prior, Puffin Books; 2004; 152 pp.

"Where there is a dragon, perchance, there must also be a dragon-slayer and a distressed damsel." -- Medieval proverb

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It doesn't take too much gray matter to figure out that this "proverb" is merely a figment of this columnist's imagination, but there is no reason why such a proverb should not exist. Anyone who's read his or her fair share of medieval legends knows that these tales of yore are as incomplete without the three D's as a medieval castle is without a torture chamber.

But "Lily Quench and the Dragon of Ashby," the first of a fresh new adventure series for younger readers, decides to give the tired old tradition a much-needed break. Author Natalie Jane Prior retains the dragon (after all, few fictional characters can match the drama of a fire-breathing, winged creature). She dumps the damsel in distress for a prince in a pickle. Finally, she presents us with a dragon-slayer in the form of Lily Quench, a feisty heroine who comes from a long and venerable line of dragon-slayers, but who discovers that killing a dragon is nowhere as fun as hanging out with one.

Lily's little town of Ashby Water has been reduced to a smoky hellhole after the Black Count overthrew the last rightful king. The Black Count's two villainous sidekicks, Captain Zouche and Miss Moldavia, now rule on his behalf.

The Black Count is a real killjoy. He forces the people of Ashby into long days of drudgery at the local iron factory and bans anything that could make life more bearable for anyone but him. Smoke billows out of the factory chimneys and blackens the sky, until one day work is disrupted -- when a dragon alights upon the factory roof.

Captain Zouche sends Lily Quench out to do what the Quenches do best: exterminate dragons. But once Lily makes the acquaintance of our dragon, Sinhault Fierdaze, also known as Queen Dragon, she concludes that her efforts are better directed toward finding the last prince of Ashby Water and restoring him to the throne -- with Fierdaze's help.

On the dragon's back, she journeys to the Singing Wood, across the Deepest Chasm and into the Cave of Secrets in search of Prince Alwyn. Contrary to popular belief, the prince did not die like his father, at the hands of the Black Count, but escaped. However, in order to find him before Zouche and Moldavia do, Lily must give up what she values most.

This promising first installment of the Lily Quench series is a zany potpourri of medieval castles, red-hot dragons, captive princes and villainesses who -- believe it or not -- dress in leather and six-inch heels, and drive sports cars. What makes Miss Moldavia such an entertaining villainess is how out of sync she seems with the rest of what's happening around her. She wears heavy makeup and loves only one thing more than her cherry cocktails: a good face lift.

In Prior's take on the medieval romance, anything can happen -- and almost everything does. Miss Moldavia ends up plastered to the tarmac and Lily Quench finds herself considering some changes to the family business. If you've taken to Lily Quench by the end of this book, rest assured that you'll be seeing her again in 2004.



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