The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer: Strickland phones it in

The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer by John Bellairs & Brad StricklandThe Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer by John Bellairs & Brad Strickland

The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer by John Bellairs & Brad StricklandThe Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer appears to be the final book in the LEWIS BARNAVELT series of horror novels for middle graders. The series was started in 1973 by John Bellairs but most of the novels were actually written by Brad Strickland after Bellairs’ death. There’s nothing in The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer which indicates that it’s the last book but, since it’s been 13 years, I’m just assuming.

Despite all of Lewis’s heroic experiences in the past 11 novels, he is still full of anxiety and lacks self-confidence. This time, Lewis becomes superstitious, believing that bad things come in threes. Since a couple of bad things have already happened (he gets hit in the head by a baseball and he loses his allowance), he thinks something even more horrible is right around the corner. He’s especially concerned that something is going to happen to Uncle Jonathan and that Lewis will be left, again, as an orphan. (From Lewis’s perspective, this is perfectly understandable.)

Sure enough, Jonathan has some trouble in this installment. In fact, the story is less about Lewis and more about Jonathan’s rivalry with a fellow wizard from his past. The guy was jealous of Jonathan’s success and, when Lewis spots a strange man in a cloak hanging around town, he assumes the wizard has come back for revenge. When Jonathan’s wand goes missing, and then Jonathan himself disappears, Lewis is certain that his uncle will die.

The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer by John Bellairs & Brad StricklandIt was nice to get some of Jonathan’s backstory in The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer. He’s a great character — a benevolent, supportive, and steady adult in Lewis’s young life — and I certainly understood Lewis’s concern for his safety. However, experiencing Jonathan’s travails through Lewis’s point of view dampened the emotional impact — it wasn’t scary enough. Instead, I found it kind of dull.

Additionally, as I’ve mentioned in my last few reviews of the books in this series, most of the plot elements in The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer were things we’ve seen before, often multiple times, such as a shadowy sinister figure in a cloak who turns out to be a wizard looking for revenge. I could go on about the repetitive plot elements, but I won’t.

Another minor complaint is an error I noticed in the text. I’m not one of those readers who is checking every detail for internal consistency, but this one disappointed me because it jumped out at me and highlighted Strickland’s neglect to fact-check his document. In The Sign of the Sinister Sorcerer, Strickland tells us that Mrs. Zimmerman named her car Bessie after a cow she had once known, but we learned in the third book, The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, that Rose Rita was the one who knew a cow named Bessie and named Mrs. Zimmerman’s car. Not a big deal, but disappointing because it was a memorable event (if I remember it, many other readers are likely to) and an easy thing to check (took me 2 minutes using the search feature at Amazon) and it’s just another indication that this final installment in a long series, a book which should have ended the series in some spectacular (or at least not boring) fashion, instead felt like it was phoned in.

What wasn’t disappointing, though, was George Guidall’s performance in the audio edition published by Recorded Books. The audiobooks have been fabulous and my daughter and I had a great time listening to them together.

Published in 2008. Lewis’s hopes for a peaceful summer vacation are shattered as one accident after another plagues him. Is all his bad luck really just a coincidence? Or does it have something to do with the mysterious hooded figure he keeps seeing?

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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