Aladdin / Simon & Schuster: 456 pp., $19.99, ages 9 and up
For decades, kids have been inadvertently stumbling into alternate realities through children's literature. In "The Chronicles of Narnia," it was a wardrobe that served as the portal. With "Beyonders: A World Without Heroes," it's the yawning jaws of a hippo.
This intriguing beginning leads to an even more imaginative quest in the kickoff to a new fantasy trilogy from Brandon Mull, bestselling author of the young-adult series "Fablehaven."
Jason Walker is just an average American teenager — studying for tests, practicing baseball and prepping to be a future dentist in the suburban idyll of Vista, Colo. Then he is swallowed by a zoo animal and expelled, at some point during the digestive process, into the medieval-ish land of Lyria.
Post-hippo, Jason's entry point into Lyria is through the side of a dying tree, near a river lined with ferns. It is nighttime, and Jason's sodden clothes from the modern era are not only inadequate to keep him warm, they immediately peg him as "a beyonder" — someone who clearly isn't from the land.
For avid readers of fantasy, Lyria will feel familiar, populated as it is with wizards and brutish men skilled in the arts of hunting and swordplay. But Mull elevates the genre, pairing humorous and imaginative scenarios with intelligence and well-written dialogue in a story that quickly involves Jason in a scheme to depose Lyria's evil emperor.
Early in the book, Jason stumbles upon an elaborate structure called the Repository of Learning. It is inhabited only by Bridonus Keplin Dunscrip Garonicum the Ninth, who introduces himself as the custodian of the knowledge "hoarded" in the building. Bridonus hasn't had a visitor in a decade and is simultaneously thrilled with and wary of Jason.
Being new to Lyria, Jason is concerned only with finding his way back home. But no one seems to have hoarded this particular piece of information, not even Bridonus, who, having nothing better to do, penned many of the books in the Repository.
Snooping around in an off-limits section of the building hoping to figure out how to get home, Jason opens a book written in blood and bound in living human flesh. It doesn't tell Jason what he wants to know. In fact, it tells him something he instantly regrets knowing. Reading the book has brought him to the attention of a man he really doesn't want to meet — Lyria's tyrannical ruler, Maldor.
Maldor, the book says, can be destroyed by the utterance of a six-syllable word. The book, unfortunately, tells Jason only one of those syllables. Jason needs to find the rest on his own.
Officially in pursuit of The Word, Jason comes in contact with an increasingly eccentric cast of characters. There's a blind king who rules over a decrepit and powerless domain, and a headless "displacer" who can remove and reattach body parts at will, as well as Rachel, a fellow beyonder (and potential love interest) who bristles at Lyria's apparent patriarchy.
It isn't easy to negotiate a land where crazy is the new normal and absurdity prevails, but Jason and Rachel somehow manage. Whether it's running across a lake that appears to be made from pancake batter or eating flowers that make them smell dead to throw off predators, together they overcome all manner of unusual obstacles as they collect pieces of The Word and make their way toward Maldor.
With "Beyonders," Mull has taken the tried-and-true quest genre and reinvigorated it with a dense but extremely well-written follow-up to his bestselling "Fablehaven" series. Those books chronicled a pair of siblings who learn their grandparents are taking care of magical creatures in a secret wildlife park. "Beyonders: Seeds of Rebellion" will be out in spring 2012.