The Puzzle Ring, by Kate Forsyth (2009, Scholastic, middle grade, 439 pp)
"Hannah Rose Brown was not quite thirteen years old when she discovered her family was cursed."
That was the day the letter came from Scotland, from the great-grandmother Hannah didn't know existed. Not just any great-grandmother, but one with a title who lived in a castle, of sorts, both of which Hannah would one day inherit (along with the curse). Because of the curse, Hannah's father had disappeared long ago. Because of the curse, Hannah is the only heir left...but when she and her mother head off to Scotland, Hannah meets three other children-- 2 boys, 1 girl-- exactly her own age. And one of them (but which?) is heir to a far different, more magical inheritance. That story began more than four hundred years ago, when Mary was still Queen of Scots, and a fairy woman bore a child to Hannah's distant ancestor...
But the story of the fairy woman had a horrible ending. She was burned as a witch, and as she died, she cursed her husband's family, and cast away the four pieces of the puzzle ring he had given her. Until the pieces are found and reunited, Hannah's family will suffer mischance, sorrow, and death.
At her ancestral home, Hannah discovers clues her father left from his own attempts to break the curse. When the time of year comes when the doors to other worlds grow thin, Hannah and her three age-mates travel back in time, to find the pieces of the puzzle ring that were scattered over Scotland long ago. But there are dark forces from the realm of fairy anxious to stop them. Although the children find allies back in the past, who help them survive 16th century Scotland with only a few accusations of witchcraft, they are beset with dangers, both from humans and supernatural creatures...and time is running out.
The Puzzle Ring has two sharply different halves. The first 195 pages are set in the present, with Hannah exploring the family estate, learning about her family history, meeting the other children--very much to my taste! The magic that surrounds Hannah's new home comes gradually into the story, the mystery begins to unfold, wondrous discoveries are made--lovely stuff.
The second, slightly longer, section describes the time-travel quest, and this part didn't quite work for me. The adventures of the four children in the past seemed to me more like set pieces than an organic narrative whole, and the world of 16th-century Scotland never quite came alive for me--despite lots of details, and a rather interesting entanglement with Queen Mary, it felt a bit flat. (I did, however, very much like the Water Horse--a fine creation). My other problem with this second half of the book is that I had expected to get to know the other three children better than I did while travelling with them on their quest, but the characteristics that set them apart from each other struck me, for the most part, as a tad told by the author, rather than shown by the story.
That being said, although I recommend it primarily for its lovely first half (great wish-fulfillment for any fantasy reading 12 year old girl!), the book as a whole is a fine read, one I would have loved when I was the aformentioned type of girl, looking for a good escape...
I seem to be the only reader with any reservations...Here's a sample of the glowing reviews this has been getting, at Rhiannon Hart's blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, So Many Books, So Little Time, and many more at the blog tour Forsyth just recently had.
Although The Puzzle Ring isn't available in the US yet, you can get it easily (like I did) through the wonder that is The Book Depository (no shipping costs!)