In Winterling, which comes out tomorrow (Jan 3, 2012) from Harper Collins, Sarah Prineas has done something very nice indeed. She's taken a story whose elements might seem old hat to many of us adults, and made it into one that I can imagine will be a touchstone for young readers beginning their own enchanted journeys.
Fer, short for Jennifer, is happiest out in the woods beyond the snug safety of her grandmother's house...at school, with its taunting classmates and the muzzy-headedness that overwhelms her, she is an outsider, and even the coziness of the small house where she lives, with its beehives and herbal workroom, is confining.
And then one day, wandering into the dark woods just as winter seems to be giving way to spring, Fer rescues a strange boy from the savage attack of three wolves...and magic enters her life. Her grandmother had been keeping secrets from her; secrets that will change everything.
“We live here, my girl, because it is close to the Way, and echoes of its magic are felt in our world. The Way is a path leading to another place, where the people are governed by different rules. Magic runs through them and their land.”
But that land is cursed by the dark power of the Mor, who promises to bring an end to a winter that has lasted too long...with blood of those pursued by her wild hunt. Fer, all unwitting, has opened a way into this land, and when she learns that her parents were lost there long ago, she sets out to find them. In a land of magical creatures (not least of whom is the "boy" Fer had rescued, whose fate becomes tangled with hers), Fer must confront the evil beguilement's of the Mor, and find her true self...or doom the land to never ending winter.
Basically, here's an orphan girl with a magical destiny, aided and thwarted by magical creatures, pitted against a dark queen of a fairy-esque realm where the natural order of things has gone badly awry. As I said, it isn't all that "new" a story, on the face of it.
There were moments where the pictures made in my mind--of Fer riding through the winter sky, the "wilding" of the land's people, slipping unwilling into animal shape as the blight grows stronger, of the blood shed by the wild hunt, when I forgot I wasn't the target audience, and simply enjoyed it for my own sake. Questions thrice asked and oaths thrice sworn, a seeing stone that reveals truth when you look through it, and the shapeshifterish magic of the land's inhabitants were a great pleasure to read about. Being me, I especially liked the herbal healing elements! And I liked Fer as a central character just fine, with her hair that keeps getting untidy and her pluckiness and her willingness to do the right thing.
That being said, there were also moments when I found Fer and her magical destiny almost too much to swallow, probably because I could guess where things were headed....
But oh, to be ten and to read this! To be given such an escape from the stifling confines of school and growing up, to lose oneself in the story and become Fer, magical and meaningful and able to stand up for what is right against dark powers (with the added bonus of a cool horse friend)...that would be something wonderful indeed.
I think ten is just the right age for this (or even a tad younger)--there's a reader-friendly, companionable feel to the writing, the darkness is enough to thrill and chill without being too disturbing, and the magic should delight.