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Martin Booth's teenage alchemist returns in "Soul Stealer: The Alchemist's Son Part II," a somewhat shaky but somewhat stronger fantasy thriller. It's a more entertaining, creepy adventure than its predecessor, though the "alchemist's son" of the title is the book's biggest weakness.

Tim and Pip are about to start at their new school, which would seem normal if Sebastian had not given her an "evil detector" pendant. The two of them soon discover that not all is well at their school: One of the teachers, Yoland, is an evil magician who helped kill his father, and the local bully Guy Scrotton is an undead wodewose ("wild man").

So Pip and Guy take their riskiest step yet: Enrolling Sebastian in a modern high school. The three teenagers begin searching for Yoland's master plan, while trying to keep the savage Scrotton from ripping them to shreds. Then they learn that his plot may have something to do with their upcoming field trip... to a nuclear plant.

"Soul Stealer" has something of the same general plot as "Doctor Illuminatus" -- teen heroes, cameo by Satan, megalomaniacal sorcerers, beast-men, sheep with fangs, computer hacking, and some creepy medieval alchemy. It wouldn't take much more than that to make a really entertaining fantasy thriller.

And to some degree, the book is more engaging than its predecessor. It has a strong unifying plot, more descriptive prose and fewer brand names. Booth has obviously gotten a handle on his storytelling, now that he has introduced the main characters. What's more, he has some truly chilling villains, especially the savage wodewose Scrotton.

Sebastian the teenage alchemist is the biggest problem of the book. He comes across as rigid and humourless, useful mainly for historical background. Putting him in a typical school setting could have given the book some much-needed humour, and shown Sebastian in a more human light, but it never happens. Worse, Booth uses Sebastian to spout bits of historical minutiae that aren't really relevant.

The "alchemist's son" is a major weakness, but the "Soul Stealer" is a stronger second installment in Martin Booth's series. Flawed, but worth reading.
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