Sunday, November 1, 2009
Review of Ring of Fire by Pierdomenico Baccalario
Baccalario, Pierdomenico. Ring of Fire (Century Quartet #1). Random House, 2009.
Four 12-year-old kids - an Italian girl, a French girl, a Chinese boy, and an American boy - are brought together to undergo a mysterious but vital quest. At first it seems mere coincidence that brings them together in the Roman hotel that belongs to the Italian girl Elettra's father, but it is soon clear that there are too many coincidences, the most obvious one being that they were all born on the same day - February 29th.
When they are given a suitcase by a strange and desperate man who is murdered soon after, the contents set them off on a search to find the Ring of Fire, although what that is they have no idea. One clue leads to another, but as the kids look for the Ring of Fire, a contract killer is looking for them.
This adventure has a strong Da Vinci Code feel to it, with a mysterious object that links ancient events to modern times, secret groups, and strange events that occur regularly over the centuries. Rome makes a fine backdrop for the kids' adventures and is brought to life by a full-color "scrapbook" of photos of the buildings the kids visit, receipts, maps, and all the clues they find. There is nothing particularly clever about the clues or the way the kids figure them out, but that makes the story more realistic - these kids are fairly ordinary, not intellectual giants.
What makes this a fantasy and not just a suspenseful adventure is that Elettra possesses a kind of supernatural power or ability - although what it is exactly is hard to tell. She stores up energy and lets it out in powerful bursts that can disrupt electrical power all over town, and these bursts seem to happen when she is close to an answer, as her skin starts to glow hot, her hair writhes, and her eyes turn yellow.
What this means - in fact, what any of it means - is not answered in this installment. Yes, the kids do find the Ring of Fire, but its significance remains utterly unknown to them and the readers. Who the various adults are who work like puppet masters behind the scenes is equally mysterious, except that some are Very Bad. What seems certain is that somehow, the fate of the world is in the hand of these four leap-year children.
Only the barest dashes of personality - and their nationalities - help us tell the kids apart - we don't learn much about them or what makes them tick. They all apparently speak English fluently, allowing them to communicate with each other without a hitch - and Elettra can translate learned tracts like a PhD at the drop of a hat. When one of their number is kidnapped, the kids search for her, but they never seem too worried, nor does it occur to them that it might be a good idea to tell the police or at least a trusted adult. So yes, it is necessary to suspend one's disbelief quite a bit.
However, the exciting plot and the exotic setting make this a fine book to hand to kids - and if they like it, the second installment will take place in New York City. For kids ages 10 to 12.