The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance (Candle Man, Book One) by Glenn Dakin (Egmont, 2009, Middle Grade, 300 pages)
Theo has lived all his life a prisoner, shut away in miserable confinement by his guardian (the head of the "Society of Good Works) to keep him from contaminating the outside world with his mysterious illness. But on a birthday outing to a nearby deserted cemetery, he finds a mysterious birthday gift--someone out there knows who he is.
Turns out the Society of Good Works are not good at all. Pitted against that society is another, the Society of Unrelenting Vigilance. And Theo might be just the hero they are looking for. But the Dodo, another mysterious bad guy with legions of extinct creatures at his command, wants Theo too...
Theo finds himself swept into a London of sinister underground tunnels, villains large and small, and creatures that he never dreamed existed (the smoglodytes are especially fun, in a polluted sort of way!). It's all a bit much for a boy whose barely even been outside, but with the mysterious powers of the Candle Man to help him, maybe Theo and his new friends can prevail...
This is an action-packed adventure, that takes the familiar trope of orphaned boy with special powers and runs with it like crazy! There are hints of steam-punkishness that add interest--such as infernal machines down in a dark underworld that never existed. It's definitely middle-grade, in that the darkness is leavened with a bit of silliness, and though there is violence, it is not disturbingly wrenching. It's a great one for readers who enjoy rather frenetic pacing, brisk shifts in the point of view from hero to various assorted secondary characters, and a densely packed canvas of villains, good guys, and assorted fantastical creatures.
The problem with all that, though, is that it doesn't leave much room for strong relationships to develop among the characters, or between the reader and the characters, for that matter. I wish there had been a bit more quite time to spend with Theo when he wasn't in mortal peril. He's a rather wonderfully neurotic character (blame it on his peculiar upbringing), and I hope he brings his quirkiness with him into the next book of the series (The Society of Dread, coming Fall 2010). I'm also hoping to find out more about Chloe--the young agent of the Society of Unrelenting Vigilance who plays a pivotal role in guiding Theo to his confrontation with the bad guys.
Here's one of my favorite passages from the book:
"I would be glad to meet anybody," Theo said eagerly. "There have been thirteen so far if you count a skeleton and don't count--what does Sam call those flying things?" Theo asked Chloe, remembering the garghoul.
"Birds," snapped Chloe." (page 84)
But it really was a garghoul, as Chloe well knows....
The Society of Unrelenting Vigilance has been nominated for the Cybils in the Middle Grade Science Fiction and Fantasy category, and the publisher generously provided review copies for us panelists (thanks Egmont!)