Midnight Magic
(Scholastic, 1999)

The title and the cover of Avi's newest book both scream "fantasy" but nothing could be further from the truth. Midnight Magic is a clever historical mystery set in a fictional kingdom in 15th century Italy.

The story begins on a dark and stormy midsummer night when Fabrizio, servant of Mangus the Magician, lays out the tarot cards and gets an alarming reading. His fear is compounded when, at that moment, a summons arrives from the castello. The reason for his alarm is genuine and compelling, for Mangus has been forced to publicly recant all use of magic and now leads a solitary and studious life with his wife under house arrest. Fearing for his master's life, Fabrizio accompanies Mangus to the castello.

Mangus and Fabrizio are surprised to learn that they have been summoned because the Princess Teresina, King Claudio's daughter, claims to be haunted by a ghost. It is up to Mangus to prove or disprove the ghost's existence, and if she is being haunted, dispel the ghost. The problem for Mangus is that he doesn't believe in ghosts -- he doesn't even believe in magic beyond the sleight of hand he used in his former profession.

Mangus and Fabrizio set out to solve the puzzle and find themselves drawn into a tangle of intrigue, conspiracy, and murder which seems to involve everyone. Both Teresina and her mother, Queen Jovanna, elicit Fabrizio's alliance and cooperation, but the behavior of both confuses him more than anything. Meanwhile, Count Scarazoni has threatened both Mangus and Fabrizio, informing them that their lives are forfeit unless they find no ghost. Furthermore, they're running out of time -- the Count is due to marry the princess in only a few days.

From the dramatic beginning to the suspenseful and entirely satisfying climax, Avi keeps the story moving at a breakneck pace, maintaining control the tension which he tempers with humor. Observant readers will pick up enough clues to solve the mystery of the ghost with Fabrizio and Mangus as well. In the end, magic is no match for logic and reason -- or is it?

The characterizations are marvelous, particularly Mangus and Fabrizio, whose relationship is less master and servant than teacher and student -- or father and son. When they argue, they fling proverbs at each other, and when they work together you can almost hear their brains humming in tune. The other characters appear at first to be stock characters lifted from the cards Fabrizio deals but soon reveal their complexities and universal human qualities.

Older readers looking for a unique and exciting mystery should be encouraged to try a little Midnight Magic.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

Buy Midnight Magic from Amazon.com.