I have tracked down Soul Stealer, but I must confess that my search for the third book in this series will be even more lethargic than the search for this one. Despite a strong beginning, and excellent use of real history and alchemical knowledge in the shaping of his story, Martin Booth continually fumbles in his melding of ancient and contemporary times.
First, the good components: Booth creates a beautiful setting for his characters; an English countryside full of “autumn leaves, mist over the river, and red antlered stags”. In fact, it reminded me a little of the utterly fantastic Children of Green Knowe series by Lucy Boston, in its dark and dreamy feel. Likewise, though the twins are still a little bland, Pip has made a big improvement in becoming a strong female character (in the previous book she was simply a foil to the boys’ adventures), and Sebastian is as interesting as ever in the failsafe story-plot of an innocent outside his comfort zone.
Likewise, the villains are more interesting this time around; still a little two-dimensional, but with intriguing quirks and motivations: Yoland who is described as “an evil psychiatrist” (and is the soul stealer of the title), and Scrotten, a “wodewose” (a wild boy living feral in the woods) — both of whom are acting undercover in the twins’ new school as teacher and student.
But from this strong beginning come several weaknesses. Booth has always had trouble combining ancient and modern elements, which here results in several weak plot points. One minor issue is the twins enrolling Sebastian in school, somehow undermining the school’s entire registration process, but mostly it is the climax of the story that involves a fieldtrip to a nuclear power plant which sadly makes no sense at all. Characters behave and situations change in whichever way is convenient for the story, resulting in an overblown evil plot that involves nothing less than the devil himself. It’s all a bit much, and does not have the right build-up or basic logic to be carried off.
For me, Soul Stealer was altogether weaker than Doctor Illuminatus, due to this illogical ending. Martin Booth is strongest when he’s dealing with the more intimate interactions between Sebastian, the twins and the various forces of evil; not comic-bookish evil plans. I’m intensely interested by the information that he slides into his story concerning English history and belief, and the basic premise of the story is also intriguing and certainly a lot darker than anything in Harry Potter.