Reviewed by Michael Berry

Three well-regarded novelists for young adults present new fantasies featuring strong female protagonists and otherwordly magic.

"The Circle Opens #1: Magic Steps"(Scholastic Press; 266 pages; $16.95, 11+) is the first volume in a new four-part series by Tamora Pierce, author of "First Test" and "Lioness Rampant." Picking up four years after the events in the "Circle of Magic" sequence, the novel introduces a new young mage to the mix, Pasco, who unconsciously weaves spells through his dancing.

With her beloved great-uncle Duke Vedris still recuperating from a heart attack, Lady Sandrilene fa Toren has more than enough on her mind without needing a young student to distract her. But because Pasco’s magic could run amok if he doesn’t learn to control it, Sandry must teach him the techniques of self-discipline that mage is required to master.

Meanwhile, a pair of assassins has set out to decimate a merchant family infamous for their shady dealings. Sandry must use her enchanted weaving talents to find them before their deadly form of "unmagic" destroys everyone she cares about.

Pierce is a popular favorite among young readers, able to create vibrant characters working within a well-conceived system of magic. The search for a new set of four mages may seem at first to be something of a gimmick, but "Magic Steps" provides enough intrigue and character development to satisfy both new readers and long-time fans.

Best known for such adult science fiction and fantasy works as "The Silver Metal Lover" and "The Flat Earth" books, Tanith Lee turns her hand again to young-adult fantasy with "Wolf Tower"(Dutton; 240 pages; $15.99, 11+), the first volume in "The Claidi Chronicles."

With her parents in exile and presumed dead, sixteen-year-old Claidi has known no other existence than servitude to Lady Jade Leaf, a spoiled, mean-spirited princess sequestered in the House. After a dashing young balloonist named Nemian is shot down and captured by the House Guards, Claidi is given the opportunity to escape with him. In doing so, she must head with Nemian into the Waste, a desolate region rumored to be the home of every kind of danger and monster.

Claidi discovers that the Waste is not as completely inhospitable as she has been led to believe. She and Nemian encounter Waste dwellers who raise and worship sheep, visit a town where a clock is a god, and finally fall in with what appears to be a gang of good-natured bandits. Claidi finds herself attracted to both Nemian and the bandit leader. When forced to make a choice, she chooses unwisely and discovers the meaning of betrayal.

Lee structures "Wolf Tower" as a series of journal entries written surreptitiously by young Claidi. The device isn’t completely convincing, as it tends to dissipate much of the suspense, but it does serve to foster a strong bond of empathy between the character and the reader. By the time Claidi accepts her true destiny at book‘s end, Lee has primed her readers well for the next volume. "Wolf Tower" is a sure-footed and exciting coming-of-age story, one likely to be enjoyed by girls and boys alike.

Gerald Morris continues to explore Arthurian England in "The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf" (Houghton-Mifflin; 214 pages; $15), a light-hearted sequel to "The Squire’s Tale" and "The Squire, His Knight & His Lady."

With her castle under siege by an evil knight who beheads anyone who attempts to come to the rescue, Lady Lynet slips out to seek assistance from the court of King Arthur. On the way to Camelot, she meets Roger, an odd dwarf, who shows her the way. None of the Knights of the Round Table is interested in helping her, but a scruffy kitchen worker named Beaumains steps forward to offer his assistance.

Together, these three unlikely companions set off to do battle with the Knight of the Red Lands. Beaumains proves to be a better fighter than Lynet had expected, and Roger seems to know far more than he ever lets on. The three have a number of adventures on the way back to Castle Perl, but few turn out as expected. There are plenty of hidden identities, sudden reversals and alarming setbacks.

Based on a somewhat inscrutable episode from Malory’s "Le Morte d’Arthur," "The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf" puts a fresh spin on the conventions of the medieval romance. In Lynet, Morris has created a likeable heroine who learns about the deceptiveness of appearances and gains a renewed sense of self-confidence. He also gives the reader a tantalizing glimpse of the Other World, the land of Faerie, as Lynet takes a series of lessons from Morgan Le Fay. Sir Lancelot, Sir Gawain and other familiar characters from Malory also make strong supporting appearances.

Morris does a fine job of remaining true to the spirit of his source material while giving his characters motivations that modern readers can understand and appreciate. His sense of humor is engaging without being anachronistic, and his depiction of the Age of Chivalry is both wry and respectful. "The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf" is a welcome addition to a strong fantasy series.

(c) 2000 by Michael Berry

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