Would-be Harrys lack his magic

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It takes more than a fancy name to save the world. As an Yvonne, I know whereof I speak. Charlie Bucket; Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy; Harry Crewe; Harry Potter - are all synonymous with magical adventures of the best kind.

But in the latest crop of Young Adult fantasies, there seems to be a tendency to mistake creative spelling for creativity. Happily, there's just enough of the genuine article to keep young readers merrily turning pages until a certain boy wizard lands on their doorsteps July 16.

The best of the new offerings is actually a first novel. British writer Angie Sage infuses "Magyk" with plenty of sly humor, generosity toward her characters, and dragon-boatloads of imagination. The book opens with Ordinary Wizard Silas Heap finding a baby girl in the snow. He returns home with her to find that his own newborn, Septimus, has been pronounced dead and whisked away by a midwife.

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Silas names the girl Jenna, and he and his wife raise her right along with their six boys. It turns out that Jenna is a missing princess who is being hunted by the Supreme Custodian, a bureaucrat in the pay of necromancer DomDaniel. A wild chase ensues, with Silas and top wizard Marcia Overstrand spiriting Jenna away to the marshes to hide while they try to find a way to defeat DomDaniel.

Once they're in the marshes, the book's pace sags a bit. And Sage juggles so many characters that not all of them seem full-bodied. But these problems are outweighed by the sheer enjoyableness of the story - at times it achieves a kind of screwball sorcery.

Parents especially will appreciate that "Magyk" eschews the torture and high death count that seem to be part and parcel of junior wizard training these days, and still manages to tell a lively tale. Fantasy aficionados know that seventh sons of seventh sons aren't dispatched so easily, and the real fate of little Septimus is gradually revealed in a satisfying, if not overly surprising, way.

* * *

Sage's accomplishment is all the more apparent when compared with another debut fantasy that's flying out of bookstores. "Leven Thumps and the Gateway to Foo," the first novel by Obert Skye, has just enough creative spark to keep it from being lumped together with Harry Potter knockoffs (even the typeface looks the same). An orphaned teenage boy raised by a loathsome aunt and uncle suddenly discovers he has hidden powers and links to a magical world. Sound familiar?

In this case, Leven Thumps hails from Burnt Culvert, Okla. And it turns out that he is the only person who's able to stop the evil Sabine from bringing the dream world of Foo into the real world. He's joined in his quest by Winter, a teenage nit who can freeze anything; the true king of Foo, who's unfortunately been imprisoned in a toothpick; and Clover, a "sycophant" who resembles Dobby the house-elf, without the fashion sense.

A lot of Skye's jokes revolve around magical candy that temporarily rearranges the eater's features or causes him to inflate to several times his normal size. (J.K. Rowling did this, too, but Roald Dahl did it first.) Skye borrows another page from Dahl in his portrayals of grown-ups, who are uniformly ugly and selfish and behave as though they were valedictorians of parenting classes taught by The Twits.

Skye does have a nice sense of pacing, and the plot rolls on swiftly enough that younger readers probably won't pause to say, "Nits? Wait ... ew!"

But "Leven Thumps" doesn't have the crossover appeal of a Harry Potter, and in the first book at least, Foo never coalesces into a real destination the way Narnia, Hogwarts, or Middle Earth do.

* * *

Teens looking for a fully realized world have probably already discovered the bestselling "Artemis Fowl" series. Irish author Eoin Colfer has turned fairyland on its head - energetically sweeping out the pixie dust and pastel colors and creating a world of streetwise, hard-boiled fairies who talk as if they're auditioning for a role on "Law & Order."

In this world, located somewhere near the earth's core, LEPRecons aren't purveyors of whimsical blarney or breakfast cereal; they are an elite police squad. As the fourth outing opens, the squad's only female member, Holly Short, is having a bad day. She's just received an unwanted promotion that will pluck her wings and plant her behind a desk. And then it gets worse: Opal Koboi, an escaped criminal, blows up Holly's boss - in a protracted scene that seems inappropriately dark and sadistic for young readers - and Holly is framed for the murder.

To get help, she turns to the only humans who have ever penetrated a fairy city: Artemis Fowl, teenage master criminal, and Butler, his trusted bodyguard. Unfortunately, all of their memories of Holly and the fairies have been magically erased.

It's a compelling setup, and Colfer knows how to keep the pages turning. But "Opal Deception" lacks the humor and the sense of discovery of the earlier books (Mulch Diggums, a flatulent dwarf, is now a stand-in for real wit.) And for parents shopping for the 10-and-under set, the level of violence - higher than in the earlier books - is likely to place it out of bounds.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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