Dark Magic: Murder at Midnight by Avi
The soldiers and Fabrizio carried the coffin into the ancient crypt. The room was cold and damp. It smelled of decay. Though he had seen them before, Fabrizio could not keep his eyes from the great piles of bones and skulls set against the crumbling walls. God keep us from becoming part of these piles, he prayed.
In a literal cloak and dagger historical mystery, a companion book to his popular Midnight Magic, two-time Newbery winner Avi's Murder At Midnight (Scholastic, 2009) takes us to the tiny city-state of Pergamontio, a bastion of medieval ignorance and machination.
Fabrizio is a ten-year-old orphan, precariously holding on to his tenuous position as servant to Mangus the Magician because of the affection and good graces of Signora Mangus. An uneducated rag-pickers' child, Fabrizio believes that his master is a true wizard of the dark arts, although the Maestro, devoted to the study of philosphy, repeatedly tells him that there is no magic in his work, only illusion which he practices only to feed the household. But when a performance in a local tavern results in his arrest for magically producing hundreds of identical handbills advocating treason against the superstitious ruler, Fabrizio knows that, with his mistress away from town, the job of proving his master's innocence is his alone.
Cleverly escaping the executioner himself, Fabrizio forms an alliance with another prisoner whom he frees in his escape, a young girl whose blackened face and arms almost convinces him that she herself is an ally of the Devil. Maria is indeed a devil--a printer's devil--and her family's newly set-up press is the true source of the magically identical copies, and Fabrizio realizes that he and his master are pawns in a power struggle between the king, his power-hungry crown prince Cosimo, and the frightening and manipulative Count Scarazoni.
In a plot which deserves the term "Byzantine," involving murders in underground dungeons, a lonely amoral executioner with a sense of humor, multiple chases through dark tunnels and midnight streets, and many twists of plot, Fabrizio and Maria concoct a precarious plot to free Mangus at his trial in the shadowy underground crypt below the Castello. Using a magician's coffin with a double bottom and a bit of his master's illusionary powers, Fabrizio stage-manages an eerie appearance by Maria, transformed into the figure of death with a good coating of Signora Mangus's pale face powders and armed with freshly printed "magical" copies, hastily run off on the family press, of a document which convinces the impressionable king of the identity of the true conspirator.
In a fast-moving plot replete with improbabilities and heavy with delicious atmosphere, Avi, ever the master storyteller, has concocted a page-turning tale which will keep the reader absorbed and amused by his picaresque protagonist. Fabrizio is indeed a breezy and imaginative hero, a resilient, street-wise improviser, and middle readers will love this brief immersion in the world of early Renaissance intrigue and superstition.