Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact, by A.J. Hartley
Eleven-year old Darwen Arkwright is an unhappy transplant from northwest England to Georgia, come to live with his aunt after the death of his African American mother and English father, and sent to an ultra expensive boarding school where he is a fish out of water. But Darwen is confronted with something even stranger than an elite American middle school when he spots a strangely horrible flying creature in the local mall, and begins a journey that will take him to another world.
"There was one more shop, right at the end of the corridor beside the exit sign, a tiny ramshackle place that looked like it had been lifted out of an entirely different location and dropped in... It looked like a shop from another age. Above its door, suspended from two chains, was a faded wooden sign with gold lettering:
"Mr. Octavius Peregrine's Reflectory Emporium: Mirrors Priceless and Perilous
"Clinging bat-like to the sign, its head cocked in Darwen's direction, was the little winged beast. It blew a raspberry at him, then hopped onto the wall of the shop and through a half-broken diamond of leaded window glass.
"Darwen ran to the door but hesitated as he put his hand on the tarnished brass handle. There was something odd about this place. He could feel it. The window displays were dusty, full of antique mirrors in ornate frames, many of them faded, speckled, and scratched, some with obvious cracks.
And how, he wondered, could mirrors be "priceless and perilous"?" (pp 11-12 of ARC)
Darwen is about to find out. The owner of the shop, Mr. Peregrine, gives him a small mirror. And much to his amazement, Darwen finds that he can travel through it, to Silbrica, a magical and beautiful place filled with wonders, and populated by strange and magical creatures.
Unfortunately, not all of them are friendly. Some are so unfriendly, in fact, that they are seeking to take over our world...and destroying Silbrica in order to do so.
With two new friends, Rich, an aspiring archaeologist, and Alexandra, whose irrepressible spirit the heavy weight of their school can't squelch, Darwen must solve the mystery of the mirror world creatures, and figure out how to foil their evil plans.
Darwen's magical mirror is no wardrobe leading to Narnia. Although he does pass through, what happens to him there is only a minor part of the story. The important events take place in the real world, with Darwen's life at school and at home getting the bulk of the page time. His grief and loneliness gradually become ameliorated by his somewhat unlikely friends and the shared challenge before them, and this is as crucial to the book as the actual confrontation with the evil bad guys coming through from the mirror world.
It's a somewhat slow moving book--there is not one pivotal moment where the Adventure Begins, and then never lets up. Instead, the tension increases gradually, mirroring the tension inside Darwen as he lets himself hope that somehow the fantasy realm and the dangers it poses was related to the death of his parents--making their deaths more than just a random accident.
It's not a book for those seeking escapist fantasy--the problems of the real world are too much in the center of things for that! And it wasn't one that I personally loved--the juxtaposition of the real world and the fantasy realm felt jarring, with aspects of the later not quite as well developed as I would have liked, and I found it rather hard to read about Darwen's loneliness and grief, and his wretched time at school. But those who want real-world emotional resonance mixed with their fantastical creatures, and who are willing to spend time in a truly unpleasant school along with poor Darwen, should find it a rewarding read.
A note on age--this one felt at the upper end of middle grade (11 to 12 year olds) to me, not because of the content (there's no sex or bad language, that I noticed--"Chuffin' 'eck!" is as strong as it gets), but because it is a somewhat weighty book, that requires patience from the reader.
Explore the world of Darwen Arkwright further at the book's website, which includes an illustrated bestiary of its mysterious creatures of Silbrica.