Day of the Scarab by Catherine Fisher

Day of the Scarab is the third and final book in Catherine Fisher’s The Oracle Prophecies series (see The Oracle Betrayed and The Sphere of Secrets). I have really enjoyed this series – as the above reviews indicate – but for some reason this last book felt a little anti-climatic in parts. The richly imagined world, the created mythology, and the strong characters were all there but the pacing and excitement seemed missing at times. Nevertheless, the Oracle Prophecies series is an imaginative and entertaining young adult fantasy series and I would recommend it to young and old alike.

For those who have been following along in the series, at the end of book two Argelin, the military ruler of the Two Lands, unintentionally kills his lover and co-conspirator Hermia. When book three opens, Argelin has seized dictatorial control not only of military and political power but also of the Oracle and the Nine. He has proclaimed himself Archon and is systematically destroying statues and symbols of the gods. His particular obsession is with his sworn enemy the Rain Queen who he blames for all his problems and his is on a mission to erase any trace power.

Mirany – the central character of the books – is trying to stay alive and help her friends plot a resistance and eventual revolution. Seth, the scribe, and the Jackal begin to carry out the plan they conceived of in book two where Seth acts as a double agent to betray Argelin from within while the Jackal, and his gang of thieves, undermines his power from without.

At the same time foreigners have invaded. Northern mercenaries are working for Argelin while enemy ships have the country surrounded and their ships wait menacingly at sea. Argelin, however, has the Prince of this fleet held hostage and this is temporarily able to hold off the invasion. Not to be outdone, the resistance fighters have a plan to free Jamil and use him against Argelin.

The climax of the story, however, comes when Argelin, Mirany, the Archon, and the musician Oblek are taken on a voyage to the land of the dead; the Rain Queen’s garden. Argelin is seeking to bring his beloved Hermia back from the dead while Mirany hopes just to return back alive with the Archon before Argelin’s madness destroys the world as they know it.

As you can see from the above, Scarab is a complicated and multi-layered story. There are a lot of characters and plot lines to keep straight. But Fisher does a good job of keeping the individual stories fresh and connected. Fantasy readers love to dive into stories this complex and with this much depth and background.

Mirany and the others passage through the nine gates, however, left me a little flat as a climactic adventure for the series. The descriptions were interesting and the imagery is again an interesting mix of Rome, Egypt, and Fisher’s unique creation, but as it progressed you never got the sense that anything would threaten the safe return of Mirany and the Archon. There wasn’t enough suspense or tension. The battle being waged in the “real world” was much more interesting and exciting than the procession taking place in the underworld.

It had the feel of something that sounded good as a plot device, and it is a rather classic one – the quest to visit the land of the dead and return to tell about it – but as it actual played out it lacked the pace and excitement necessary to sustain it. Once the group returns to the land of the living the pace again picks up and the book ends with a flourish.

Perhaps, I lacked the patience to appreciate what Fisher was trying to accomplish. Or perhaps it just didn’t grab me. Maybe younger readers will be comfortable with the less complex aspects of the story angle, but for whatever reason it was a bit of disappointment.

But as I noted above, this is just a small quibble with the series. Overall, I think The Oracle Prophecies series is a great example of young adult fantasy. Fisher’s richly imagined world, her well developed characters, and her exciting story lines make it a must read of fans of the genre.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Kevin, one question: do you find it difficult to suspend disbelief while reading this writing? It’s a big problem for me. No, I’ve not read any of this author. But I do like YA fantasy. It’s just that there is so little of today’s fantasy that is.. real.

    ULeGuin has a marvelous set of essays I keep for reference. In one she dissected the writing of a then new fantasy writer (still publishing) by comparing her–hardly fair– to Tolkien. The new writer certainly understood the devices. But to write GOOD fantasy, LG said, one must create a new world, one that suspends disbelief. Tolkien could; K.Kurtz (then) could not. So, I wonder, if your author here is able to do that.

    The very best YA author I grew up with was Alice Mary Norton. Honored in the only way the counts: readers, she was the most popular of SF/fantasy writers of her time. The critics/award markers scarcely deigned to recognize her until very late in her life. (Lin Carter reviews her work in a 1966 essay but never understands the secret of her success.)

    ONe remark of hers I remember–she came from that best of all backgrounds, a children’s librarian– may be good advice for today’s authors. ‘I am just an oldfashioned storyteller.’

  2. Yes, Alice Mary Norton, better known as Andre Norton, was a wonderful storyteller. I especially like her Witch World series.

  3. heila, most male readers (boys especially) will prefer Miss Norton’s sf. She had the ability to create spectacular backgrounds in the type of adventure tale that no long exists.

    I found her WitchWorld tales, for the most part, difficult to follow. They seemed rather comic book, raw and unfinished, which was definitely not her style.
    She always were understated except in this genre.

    Her greatest creations were the SF fantasy novels ( the Janus series is one). Very few authors are able to weave myth. Her best tales are touched by the sense of the otherworld.
    I think she understood the worth of medieval/ Western literature in ways my university professors never grasped. They analyze it; she created with it. Her range of subjects ( using sources from ancient Egypt and China, to Victorian America) displayed that mastery.

    The ‘compilation’ works at the end of her career were always disappointing. The pairing of a contemporary author(ess) (shallow and full of ego) with a spirit of great learning made for poor results that resembled lead mixed with gold. And mostly lead.

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