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Worlds of magic and mermaids. New novels stretch imagination - but not too far from home

THREE new novels stir familiar fantasy elements into magically fresh brews. With everything from fire-breathing dragons to beckoning mermaids, these tales transport young readers to worlds that are faraway and wholly imaginary, yet maintain reassuring ties to their own experience.

The Crystal Stair, by Grace Chetwin (Bradbury, New York, $13.95, 225 pp., ages 10 and up), is a typical quest adventure in many ways. Gom Gobblechuck, a talented young wizard, who can converse with animals in their own languages, was reunited with his mother in last year's ``The Riddle and the Rune'' - the previous book of the author's ongoing ``Tales of Gom'' trilogy. Here, Gom is forced to continue his voyage of self-discovery on his own, as he searches for a wizard teacher and tries to save his world of Ulm from destruction at the hands of the evil Karlvod.

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Author Chetwin unveils a dazzling array of props, from living crystals that grow like trees to talismans and parchment scrolls. Her characters are crisply drawn and find plenty of support in one another: Says Gom of his maverick mother, she's ``the measure of any in the world, and anyone with moth brains would know it!''

It takes the author 30 pages or so to recap the preceding adventure and to set the scene for the escalating plot to come, but from there on her tale takes flight. The worlds she creates - of Seven Realms hovering in a universe filled with star gates - are equal to those of Ursula Le Guin and Madeleine L'Engle.

There's good fun here, as well as memorable, quieter moments. As his magic lessons progress, for example, we learn that Gom ``was beginning to see there was more to sorcery than knowing mixtures and such. One also needed the wisdom and courage to apply them.''

The jacket illustration for The Lives of Christopher Chant, by Diana Wynne Jones (Greenwillow, New York, $11.95, 230 pp., ages 8 to 12), is unfortunately an echo of ``The Crystal Stair.'' Both are done by the same artist, Joseph A. Smith. While the two publishers will want to sort that one out, readers can be assured that the story inside is a striking original.

Young Christopher Chant, the son of an enchanter father and sorceress mother, has been selected to become the next Chrestomanci - a government appointee whose job it is to prevent the misuse of magic worldwide. By night, Christopher is also a spirit traveler, winging his way by dreams to ``Almost Anywheres.''

Although the author's plot twists often threaten to swamp the narrative, she succeeds in keeping the story moving with likable characters and their often zany misdeeds.

Christopher is a thoroughly believable youngster, who likes making magic almost as much as he likes playing cricket. He's a true-blue friend, as well - readers will understand the choices he faces as he sorts out his responsibilities and loyalties.

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Mollie Hunter's latest tale of rescue, The Mermaid Summer (Harper & Row, New York, $12.95, 118 pp., ages 8 to 12), is rooted in the timeless legends of her native Scotland. In this rendering, a vain mermaid needs to learn a thing or two about fairness. Who better to teach her than 12-year-old Anna Anderson? The granddaughter of a fisherman who's been driven from his boats by superstitious village folk, Anna is crowned Herring Queen for an important annual pageant and uses the occasion to outwit the vengeful mermaid.

There is plenty of suspense and some laughs as Anna gets the best of her slippery opponent. Far from being distractions, the Scots usages (``bairn'' for children, ``gansey'' for woolen sweater) give young readers a glimpse of the local scenery and help turn an ancient myth into an approachable contemporary story.

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