The Silver Anklet, Book 2 of the Tara Trilogy, by Mahtab Narsimhan (2009, Dundurn Press, YA, 268 pages)
At the end of The Third Eye (2007), Tara thought she had finally seen the end of the evil Zarku who had terrorized her village and family--after all, she had had the help of the god Ganesh. But to her horror, her village's annual fair turns into a nightmare when she realizes that Zarku has returned, vengeful and hungry for power.
One child is killed that day, and two more are missing, victims of unnaturally savage hyenas. One of the missing is Tara's beloved little brother Suraj. Tara knows that Zarku's evil spirit is behind the attacks, and she cannot sit back and wait while the adults search for the lost ones. So she sets off herself into the jungle, joined by her older brother, the siblings of the other missing child, and another boy, the young Ferris wheel attendant.
But Zarku is expecting them--they struggle through the Indian jungle only to find that they have walked into a trap. For Zarku has plans for Tara, and no objection to torturing the other children in passing...and so the story becomes a cat and mouse game of pursuit, fear, and bloodshed, as Zarku sadistically manipulates the children for his own twisted aims.
Once I had grasped who all the characters were (there's a bit of a character dump at the beginning, with many children introduced in rapid succession), I was hooked by their desperate plight. This might not be the most subtle book with regard to characterization that I've ever read-- Tara came alive for me, but the secondary characters, not so much--but the struggle of the children to survive kept me turning the pages briskly. I am, in general, a fan of groups of children/teenagers struggling to survive, and this is a gripping take on that basic story.
The plot became a little odd toward the end, when the final confrontation happened and the mystery surrounding the silver anklet came into play, but I am always willing to give young protaganists (and the authors behind them) a certain amount of latitude when dealing with Villians of Great Power (see this discussion at The Enchanted Inkpot). Especially since, at this point, I was firmly rooting for Tara.
This book is marketed as YA. Narsimhan doesn't hold back on her descriptions of death and injury. A child does die, after all, right at the beginning of the book, and the evil hyenas are an active menace throughout the book. Because things do get somewhat graphic, I'd recommend this to older middle graders only if they have a working familiarity with goryness, even though theme-wise, and lack of romance-wise, this felt more upper middle gradeish to me....
Recommended in particular to those looking to add diversity to their fantasy reading portfolio--Narsimhan has filled her story with details of life in India, which make the book memorable.
(disclaimer: my copy received from the author)