I have to admit at the outset that I didn’t read Matthew Cody’s first book (The Peddler’s Road) in THE SECRETS OF THE PIED PIPER trilogy. But that turned out not to be much of an obstacle as Cody does a very efficient job early on of catching the returning reader up on the events of book one, so I never felt lost in what was happening. Obviously, I can’t comment on the quality of that first book, but book two is a solidly entertaining story in its own right, though not a complete one; readers will have to wait for the third book to conclude the tale. If you haven’t read book one either, fair warning that there will be some inevitable spoilers below.
Thanks to the concluding events of The Peddler’s Road, the brother-sister team at the story’s core have been split up: Carter is trapped on the Summer Isle where the Pied Piper had taken the kidnapped children of Hamelin centuries ago, while his older sister Max is back in our world, frantically trying to find a way to rescue her brother.
Getting to the Summer Isle (short of being abducted by the Piper) is not easy. In fact, there appears to be only one entrance nowadays, a single door cursed by the Piper to remain forever locked. Only one key exists for the door, and it is held by the soul-stealing magician Vodnik. Max’s attempt to get the key from Vodnik and her search for the door in to the Summer Isle makes up one third of The Magician’s Key. She’s aided in her quest by her elvish housekeeper/friend Mrs. Amsel and an unexpected ally she picks up along the way.
Meanwhile, Carter has his own quest back in the Summer Isle — to prevent the Piper from finding his magic pipe (hidden by the Peddler of book one). The Pied Piper was thwarted in his attempt to steal all the children of our world by Max and Carter in the first book and obtaining his powerful pipe would allow him to continue to chase that goal. Carter is joined on his mission by the loyal if dim kobold Bandybulb. The third storyline deals with the defense of New Hamelin (home to the stolen children, who thanks to the Isle’s magic haven’t aged in the centuries they’ve been gone) against an alliance of giant rats and ogres. Weaving throughout those two Summer Isle plots is the evil witch Granny Yaga, who is hunting Carter for her own mysterious purposes. Meanwhile (highlight here to see a spoiler), with the death of the Peddler at the end of book one, the defenses he set up are failing and evil is encroaching more and more throughout the Isle. [end spoiler]
Max’s story is mostly a plot-oriented episodic tale as she tries to find first the key and then the door. There are several chase scenes, a few fights, and some revelations about what’s happened with the “Winter Children” — the children of the Summer Isle who went missing at the same time the Piper took the 130 kids from Hamelin centuries ago. Max is spunky, feisty, and determined, and if obstacles are overcome pretty easily, her story moves along pleasantly and quickly. The New Hamelin story is a bit darker, has a greater sense of danger and tension to it, and a greater cost as well. It’s marred a bit by some awkwardly depicted adolescent romance and some overly clear telegraphing (maybe less of a concern for the target audience), and some of the logistics are a bit muddy in spots. Carter’s plot thread, I thought, was the most interesting once it moved away from the basic chase scene it begins with, though I don’t want to say much more about it to avoid spoilers. I will say this storyline delves much more deeply and rewardingly into the characters themselves as opposed to skimming along the surface action. That deep dive into character adds a complexity and richness missing in the rest of the book. My one issue here was that Carter often sounds much older than his stated age.
Some of the storylines are resolved, others are to be continued, and new questions are raised. The Magician’s Key is clearly a bridge book in that characters are being put into place to try achieve various goals, but it offers enough plot and character development (mostly in Carter’s story thread) that it isn’t solely a bridge book, as can so often be the case. It was entertaining enough that I imagine its Middle Grade readers will move on quickly to the final volume in the trilogy, The Piper’s Apprentice, expected to be published in October 2017. One last note is that I’d say The Magician’s Key is definitely an MG book; most high school readers will find it a bit too simple in plot, characterization, and resolution of obstacles.