Author: George Hagen
Illustrator: Scott Bakal
Resources for Teachers/Librarians: RHTeachers/Librarians
Pages: 252 (e-book via Nook)
[Disclaimer: I was provided an ARC of this book in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. I was given no compensation or otherwise in exchange for the review and was not required to be positive, just honest.]
If you are a fan of The Hobbit, Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter, The Goonies,and Lord of the Rings (and perhaps a few others) then I think you will like this book. This book has a lot of action, many interesting characters, and some fun along the way towards the end of the story.
This book is an adventure book, but perhaps not so much in the sense of Indiana Jones. The adventures take place in words–a favorite story type of mine. So the story is more in line with The Hobbit because as it turns out the main adventures are found in riddles and puns: word adventures, word games. This makes the book thrilling and keeps the reader engaged. It kept me engaged the entire story as one riddle after another was scrawled across the page and I had to close my eyes to keep from seeing the answer so that I could guess it myself. In my opinion, the book hung on the word games so much that it didn't really matter that there were talking birds and walking desks and magic necklaces and paravolating and more. All of this added to the fantastic nature of the book, but the riddles kept the book grounded in reality and kept it moving forward.
Along the way we meet characters–strange characters, characters we can relate to, and characters we despise. The most frustrating (and my favorite) character was Somes but only because he was so hard to figure from page to page. From the get go I thought he was just going to be a bully all the way through, but in the end we learn some things about Somes that really alter the way we think about him as a character. Along the way, I think Somes actually surprises himself too. Pamela is another interesting character who comes into the story with her mother Trudy. I was a bit confused about why Pamela's mother Trudy was always so bossy towards Gabriel. She was a guest in his house and yet seemed to come in and act like the queen of the castle. Another character, introduced early in the story, Addison, perplexed me because he played absolutely no significant role in the book at all. He was a throwaway character but perhaps the author intends to make use of him in another volume. The end of the book caught me off guard with respect to Abigail's family situation and her 'two moms' (I may have missed it earlier in the book.) There's nothing explicit and it is mentioned almost in passing. We are given no details. It just is. It was a surprise.
There are, of course, other characters. The reader gets hints of these characters' lives–especially the main character Gabriel–but the characters do not drive the narrative. The narrative is driven by the word games that they must unravel each step along the way in order to uncover more clues to the mystery. All of the characters have their issues. Gabriel has parents, but they are nowhere to be found. Somes has a sketchy home life. Abigail, I just mentioned comes from an evidently non-traditional home. Pamela lives with her mother and they both, in turn, live with Gabriel who lives with his aunt Jaz. Even the bird, Paladin, only lives with his mother. The only character whose family situation is relatively typical is Addison who moves before the main narrative kicks into high gear. It's strange why so many stories have to feature chaotic family conditions. Maybe it is these chaotic conditions that drive these children to adventures. For some students, it will be easy to relate to such diverse family conditions.
Along the way the reader learns about families, friends, loyalty, courage, overcoming doubts and fears, and trust; good and evil. Readers are also asked to think their way through the story. I was only a bit disappointed that 'The Duel' only lasted a few pages and a few riddles. The duel reminded me in a lot of ways of the riddle game played by Bilbo and Gollum in the dark cave. In fact, Lord of the Rings seems to have influenced this story in other ways too. When the author wrote, "It [the magical torc] wanted to be found, and after a thousand years, I was the unlucky one to stumble upon it" (109 ARC e-book, NOOK version) I immediately thought of the Ring of Power that also wanted to be found or lost as if it had it's own will. I think it's a good allusion that I hope students who read this book will catch on to. Understanding the allusions to the stories I have referenced will give the reader a deeper appreciation of the nature of the story and enhance the reading experience.
In conclusion I will say this: it's a good story, but it is dark. There is death in the story. There is a certain level of violence. There is a certain level of metaphysical evil (one of the characters is continually referred to and depicted as a demon). There's good; there's evil. This is a complex story in that regard and I am always quick to help my readers understand that some younger readers may need some guidance working through some of these complex narrative devices. In other words, this is not a story for 'everyone', yet it is a story for everyone. Since I am necessarily an opponent of censorship, my main objective here is simply to state that some readers might need some guidance. Might is the operative word.
I liked this story a lot. It is a bit clunky at times and there are a few phrases I might have turned a little differently, but all in all I think it's a good start to what might be a good franchise (spoiler: since the ending is kind of open, the author has left himself an in to future installments featuring these characters.) Good read and an all around enjoyable story if this is your kind of story.