Angie Sage's Septimus Heap series came out just after I stopped reading children's books, so I ignored it for years - but in December, when I was turning to children's books as a break from the intense studying, I picked up the first one in the series on a whim. I can't even tell you how much I loved it. Magyk was amazing! It was almost like the first time I read each of the Harry Potter books - I had the same sense of wonder and glee and appreciation. Like the Harry Potter books, there was such a fantastically matter-of-fact introduction to each new element in this magical world, but you could tell the author was enjoying telling you about them. It was also (and again like HP) so delightfully full of references: literary, historical, and even Scriptural. Galen! The Witch of Endor! There and Back Again Row! And brilliantly, even Harry Potter references - Sage no doubt knew her books would be compared with Rowling's, and tossed in playful nods to her model.
Magyk is a long book (564 pages), but the pages themselves are short and the story so engaging that I found myself speeding through and always eager to return when I had to put the book down. It's a fairly complex plot with a large cast of characters, almost all of which are instantly individualized - Sage is fantastic at getting across the feel of a character in just a few seemingly innocuous sentences. I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll just share the initial set-up: on the same night that the Wizard Silas Heap's seventh son Septimus dies, Silas discovers an infant girl freezing in the woods and adopts her. Shortly after, the Queen of this city, called Castle, turns up dead and a Supreme Custodian is installed, who quickly turns Castle into a totalitarian state, all in the service of a Darke wizard who wants to take over. Pretty soon, the adventure begins for Silas, his adopted daughter Jenna, Jenna's brother Nicko, the current ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand, and somehow, Boy 412 of the Young Army, who gets unwillingly caught up in it all.
As secrets are discovered, our enterprising cast of characters flee to the nearby marsh to escape the Supreme Custodian, the Darke wizard DomDaniel, who was formerly the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, DomDaniel's Apprentice, and the murderous Hunter. It's a dangerous adventure, but they are aided by a wonderfully quirky set of friends, including Aunt Zelda, who lives in the marsh, the now-dead former ExtraOrdinary Wizard Alther (who's now a ghost), the marsh Boggart, and even a Message Rat (Sage's nod to Rowling's mail owls).
Despite the obvious nature of many of the surprises - this is a children's book, after all - and the ongoing annoyance of all magical spells being given in Bold, Magyk was a hugely engaging and spectacular funny read. Though it had nothing to do with the plot (or perhaps because of its gratuitous nature!), this was my favorite passage. By this point, DomDaniel has taken over the Wizard Tower and annexed Marcia's apartment for his own. The ghost Alther decides to cause a little trouble...
Back at the Tower, the Apprentice had stumbled to the sofa and fallen into a cold and unhappy sleep. Alther took pity on him and kept the fire going. While the boy slept, the ghost also took the opportunity of Causing a few more changes. He loosened the heavy canopy above the bed so that it was hanging only by a thread. He took the wicks out of all the candles. He added a murky green color to the water tanks and installed a large, aggressive family of cockroaches in the kitchen. He put an irritable rat under the floorboards and loosened all the joints of the most comfortable chairs. And then, as an afterthought, he exchanged DomDaniel's stiff black cylindrical hat, which lay abandoned on the bed, for one just a little bigger. (181-182)