Yay! I'm back to writing reviews, and (surprise!) I have a lovely middle grade fantasy to write about tonight--Seven Sorcerers, by Caro King (first published in the UK in 2009, published here in the US by Simon and Schuster in 2011).
I was very pleased when Seven Sorcerers was nominated for the Cybils--I'd been wanting to read it for ages, and it wasn't in my library system or local bookstores (I am trying not to buy books on line for myself). Happily Simon and Schuster sent review copies...and after a small false start in which I received a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Mom instead by accident (why, I wondered bemusedly, before I thought to check the packing slip, did anyone think that was a good fit for my blog???), they kindly tried again (thanks, S. and S.!), and I dove into a beautifully enchanted world (so engrossing that it competed successfully with Christmas-time for my attention, which is saying a lot!).
All that is left of Nin's little brother Toby is his sock monkey, and Nin's memories. Nothing else--her parents no longer even know they once had another child. But one person believes Nin's version of reality--a mysterious boy named Jonas, who suffered a similar fate--he, like little Toby, was kidnapped by a bogeyman, and taken to a magical land known as the Drift, to be offered up to the sinister master of the Terrible House. But unlike Toby, Jonas escaped...only to find his family had forgotten him.
Nin is determined to find Toby, and bring him home, and Jonas agrees to help. So they set off, into a land of magical creatures and dangerous pitfalls, a land where Seven Sorcerers worked strange enchantments in a desperate effort (that hasn't worked all that well) from slowly loosing all its magic. As if the dangers of the Drift aren't enough, they are pursued by Bogeyman Skerridge, the one that took Toby, who has set his sights on Nin. And though, time after time Nin's good luck saves her from disaster, luck alone is no match for what Nin finds when she finally reaches the Terrible House....
I was very pleasantly surprised by just how interesting I found Nin and Jonah's adventures. On the face of it, the bare bones of the plot don't sound wildly original, but I found the particulars of their encounters with various strange things to be very tasty, fresh, reading. Not only was the world-building enticing, but there was nuance to the bad guys and assorted minions that made the story delightfully tricksy. Oftentimes I lose interest when the "good" characters are running away from/fighting with the "bad" characters--and I was very happy that to find I didn't have to face that problem here.
I especially liked the fact that this isn't "a quest by the chosen child of Light." Nin's motivations are personal, and there's nothing (at this point) that makes me think she's been Chosen (although she is awfully lucky....). She is arguable perernaturally self-controlled (as opposed to being, more realistically, an emotional mess about her situation), but she is also self-aware, not just doing things, but questioning, and reflecting, wondering who to trust; wondering, at times, if her pride is going to be enough to keep her from screaming. And I also enjoyed the fact that the action also doesn't stick entirely to the magical realm--trips are made back to our world, which has the somewhat counterintuitive effect of making the Drift more real, by contrast.
In short, the only thing I didn't like about the book was that it stopped too abruptly....I wanted to stay with Nin, and Jonah, and Toby, and even Bogeyman Skerridge, just a little while longer. Truly it was one of the most jarringly sudden ends I've read in ages. Happily, there's a sequel, Shadow Spell, already out in the UK, and coming here in May 2012. Oh would that my birthday weren't next week, and my presents already asked for and bought....
Some of the violence is very violent indeed, and I think I would have been troubled somewhat by it, and by the whole disturbing premise of Vanishing from one's family, at the tender age of nine or so, so I'd give this one to the tougher ten year old, or better still, the eleven year old.
Here's another longer review, at books4yourkids, that goes into more detail about what makes this a fine mg fantasy.
(disclaimer: as stated above, I received a review copy from the publisher for Cybils purposes, and I wouldn't have said anything about the packing mistake if I hadn't been amused by the book I got instead...)
Edited to add: the sequel, Shadow Spell (my review) was also excellent.