Amazon Vine offered me the chance to review: Young Houdini: The Magician’s Fire by Simon Nicholson, in exchange for my honest opinion.
I chose the book because I have been very impressed in the past by authors who work back into a character or person and create children’s fiction out of it. I am thinking in particular here of Charlie Higson’s Young Bond series, and Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock books, both of which are excellent.
I had never thought of Houdini to be honest, until I saw the book title, and then realised that he would be a splendid person to make some fiction out of. His escapology, the mystique of his life and his magic tricks are all ripe to be reinvented by a good author, and are subjects that children will revel in.
So how did it turn out?
Well, as with all books that are going to be part of a series, there are strengths and weaknesses with the first book. Because the author has the intention of building up the characters and plot lines over several books, you don’t always get the best of them from the first volume, where a lot of time can be spent setting up narrative arcs and plot devices that might only really come to fruition two or three books down the line.
I felt to some extent that that was a problem here. There wasn’t a huge amount of background to the characters, and at times some of the plot lines felt a little sketchy. If they are developed further later on, this will resolve itself. If they are not, it isn’t so good.
Other readers who have reviewed this have complained that the author has fiddled overmuch with the truth of who Houdini really was. In this book Harry Houdini is alone in New York, scraping a living as a shoe shine boy until his tricks are discovered by two friends who help him find his vocation. In real life, according to reviewers, Harry Houdini came to New York with his family, and was already a seasoned performer by the age of nine.
I would argue that very few, if any, children reading this book will know that, and for those that do know that it is only going to matter to a handful of purists. This is, after all fiction, and its main job is to entertain. You know when you are buying the book that it is not going to be a factual account, and a good story should not be compromised by adherence to facts in this case.
The story is quite engaging, telling as it does of the disappearance of Harry’s friend and mentor, an elderly magician called Herbie Lemster, who has encouraged Harry in the past. Harry and his friends are determined to figure out exactly what has happened to Herbie and try and save him.
There is a moral to the story, and a lesson that Harry has to learn, which I think is handled quite clumsily, and as if it has to be there rather than it being an integral part of the plot. I found it pretty weak, and the story would have worked much, much better without it.
The chapters are short, and action driven, which will suit most children. As with my review of Francesca Simon’s Sleeping Army, it is something I was frustrated with, as I would have preferred more depth and would have been happier if the book had been longer and accounted for all the little niggling jumps and omissions.
Unlike the Young Bond and Young Sherlock series, these books are written for younger readers, and this might explain the lack of depth and the shortness of the book in comparison to its counterparts in terms of genre. It is good that younger children have some more interesting material to get their teeth into, and I think that children aged 7-10 will enjoy these, and it will provide a potential springboard to things like the Young Bond series, which is most definitely for older readers.