I've mentioned before that screenwriters are infiltrating—no, let's make that merrily joining—the world of children's book publishing. The Familiars is a shining example, as screenwriting buddies Adam Jay Epstein and Andrew Jacobson team up on a children's book which, coincidentally enough, is already in the process of being made into an animated movie by Sam Raimi and Sony Animation. (You'll be able to buy the book itself the first week of September.)
High concept? You got it. The premise is really quite marvelous: this book's main character is a young wizard-in-training's animal familiar, and his two sidekicks are also animal familiars. Our star is an alley cat named Aldwyn (think Harry Potter), accompanied by a magically talented blue jay named Skylar (Hermione), and a goofy tree frog named Gilbert (Ron). As the authors themselves put it in a guest post at Karin's Book Nook, every children's fantasy writer today (and even some authors writing for adults) longs to hear those four magic words, "the next Harry Potter."
The book opens in a quasi-Medieval town with Aldwyn stealing a fish and being chased by an animal catcher who is rather more dire than your usual city pound employee. Grimslade, we are told, is "what was commonly known as extremely bad news," an animal bounty hunter dressed in black leather, wielding a mean crossbow, and accompanied by spectral hounds.
Aldwyn hides from his pursuer in a pet shop specializing in familiars and is bought by a young wizard named Jack, a kid who instantly bonds with the cat and is even given a spell so that he can talk to his new familiar. Jack is one of three apprentices to the great and kindly wizard Kalstaff; the other two are Marianne—Jack's sister and Skylar's "loyal"—and Dalton, who is Gilbert's loyal.
Unfortunately, something is wrong with Queen Loranella, who used to be perfectly nice: she comes after Kalstaff with her minions and kills him, then kidnaps the three apprentices. When the three familiars escape, she puts up WANTED posters and sends people like Grimslade out to find them. The apprentices are protected within the thin skin of Kalstaff's dying spell, but they are still in Loranella's clutches and the spell won't last. Aldwyn and his buddies have to hustle if they're going to save their loyals!
The rest of the book is a quest story, as Aldwyn, Skylar, and Gilbert set out to find the spells they need to free the three kids. They have all kinds of adventures along the way, with Aldwyn finding it increasingly difficult to hide the fact that he's only pretending to be able to use magic.
The authors world build rather blithely, inventing a new monster or spell at every turn. Some of these rely on existing fantasy tropes, but others are surprising, such as a witch's cooking pot that is also an octopus (an octopot, naturally!). I especially liked Gilbert's swampy tribe of divining frogs.
We get some predictable plot twists in this fast-paced book, and then some unpredictable ones. Also a lot of clever lines, like Skylar's remark about Gilbert's divination ability using water: "'Don't look at me,' said Skylar to Gilbert. 'I don't speak puddle.'"
There's even a civil rights message in The Familiars, as the familiars uncover new information about the history of human wizards and their familiars.
The writing itself is fairly ordinary, and I think you'll feel, as you're reading, that the book is a depiction of an extra-long Saturday morning cartoon, or yep, an animated movie. And yet, The Familiars is a very fun story. Middle grade readers are going to eat it up—and then go see the movie.
Note: This review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher. The book will be available on 9-7-10. You might want to check out the authors' website and their blog.