Vodnik, by Bryce Moore (Tu Books, middle grade/YA, 359 pages), is an immensely enjoyable journey to a place where old, strange, crazy magic fills the streets of a medieval city. It's part mystery, part the story of a boy finding magical powers (while dealing with culture shock), part an exploration of ancient stories, and altogether engrossing.
When Tomas was an ordinary American teenager of 16, his house burned down around him. Miraculously, he survived unhurt--not like the time when he was a child in Slovakia, when someone (or some thing) almost drowned him, and another someone/thing badly burned him. After that first accident, his parents whisked him away from Slovakia to the United States, and tried to pretend it had just been normal bad luck. After this second brush with death, however, they decide to return to Slovakia, for purely practical reasons, even though they fear that the strange events of Tomas' childhood aren't safely buried in the past.
And they have very good reason to be afraid. The city of Trenčín is a rather busy place, malevolent supernatural being-wise. There's the titular Vodnik, whose home is in the old castle high above the city, who imprisons (or lovingly preserves, depending on who you ask) the souls of its victims in teacups (the city has an unusually high rate of deaths by drowning). There's a watery ghost girl, who haunts Tomas' dreams, a fire víla, and Death herself (a practical person, busily going about her work).
Real life isn't more peaceful. The residents of Trenčín despise Tomas's people, the Roma (aka gypsies), and aren't exactly subtle in expressing this, and with his dark skin, it's impossible to blend in. But their bullying prejudice pales in comparison to the threat that hangs over the head of Tomas' cousin Katka. Unless Tomas and Katka can make a deal with Death, and outwit the water víla, there will be no happy ending...
It's a wild trip for Tomas as he unravels the mystery of what happened to him long ago, anxiously peruses his handy supernatural self-help book for those in the business of Death, tries to stay alive, and slowly finds out what he's really capable of. It's funny, with flashes of dry wit that made chuckle. It's gripping, with some truly spooky moments. It was a treat, as well, to spend time with the magical beings of Slovakian folklore--it was refreshing to have a somewhat blank supernatural slate, and there was real uncertainty about which of the various beings were allies, and which enemies.
Tomas is a great character to spend time with--I found him to be completely convincing and very likable. He has a lot on his plate. Not only must he deal with the standard angst of teenage life (made more angsty, in his case, by his badly scarred arm from the childhood fire), and the standard middle grade/YA fantasy angst of facing down supernatural creatures, but he's also faced with culture shock and racial prejudice for the first time. Plus his family's return to Slovakia forces them to confront buried family history-- lots secrets that were never told. And then on top of that, there's the fate awaiting his cousin; it's harsh that the first time he gets to form a close relationship within his extended family, it's threatened more than a little. And so there's a lot of depth to Tomas' experience, making it much more than a smack down with bad elemental spirits.
I highly recommend it. Though it's labeled YA, the lack of a romance sub-plot (Tomas thinks about girls, and there's hinting about a future romance, but it's not happening yet here), makes it very friendly to upper middle grade readers, boys in particular. Adding to its boy friendliness are references to Star Wars and the Princess Bride, some jousting, and self-defence lessons from medieval knight reenactors, a desperate fight with a water dragon, a little cartoon death dude (shown on the cover) that keeps popping up, and Tomas' convincingly young-teen attitude. In short, I'd give this to an 11 or 12 year old boy in a heartbeat, even faster if said boy was a Princess Bride fan (I know several 11 year old boys who are). Which isn't to say that older readers wouldn't enjoy it lots too--I know I did!
I now want to a. read the sequel b. go to Trenčín and visit the castle, shown below.
Elitist Book Reviews: "VODNIK is a terrific YA novel. There's no doubt about it. It's uniqueness and characters overcome the shortcomings. You should buy it and read it. It's well worth your investment. Prospective authors should read it as an example of how to write a non-conformist Urban Fantasy. The best thing I can say about VODNIK is that it makes me want to read the sequel RIGHT NOW!"
Finding Wonderland "....full of The Crazy, and funny. This is a Tu-worthy book, indeed - another hit out of the ballpark for Lee & Low's amazing little imprint that could."
UMS Tigers Read: "....instead of Vodnik being a depressing read (I mean, Tomas does make friends with Death herself!), there is sarcasm, irony, and snarkyness that drew me in. The more I read the book the more I liked it and finally I decided that finishing the book was more important than doing laundry or going to bed at a decent time."
Beyond Dragons and Wizards: "I was truly impressed with Vodnik. If I were to explain it to someone (which I suppose I am, right at this moment), I would say it's a mix of middle-grade teen lit, crossed with Urban Fantasy, crossed with some kind of Societal Awareness piece. While magic is prominent in the book (and quite cool by the way), the story stands on its own as a really interesting tale of a kid who gets plopped down in a far off country, with strange people, weird food, and unfamiliar fairy tales."
Here's an interview with the author, Bryce Moore, at Kimberly Pauley's blog.
(comment on cover--at the publisher's blog, there's a two part (here and here) look at the evolution of the cover. I like the final version lots (I think Tomas' expression is spot on), and am so glad they got the little death dude in!)
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)