Darkbeast, by Morgan Keyes (Margaret K. McElderry Books, middle grade, August 28, 2012), is a book that you can judge by its lovely cover. At least, I myself was completely taken with it--the strong stance of the girl, the raven poised to fly, the hint of danger in the falling feathers....And I bet that any ten or eleven year old (or so) girl who's a fantasy reader will feel the same way.* Happily, the story inside lives up to its cover beautifully!
Keara has lived with her raven Caw since she was a baby--sharing all her thoughts and dreams with him, and hearing his voice in return. He is her darkbeast, able to take all her faults and failings away from her when she tells them to him. Every child has a darkbeast, often a toad, or a snake, or a lizard, bound to them until their twelfth birthday, but not every one's darkbeast is their beloved friend (it is, perhaps, easier to be friends with a raven than with a snake, but regardless, Caw has tons of personality, and Keara loves him).
But the thing is, when you turn twelve in Keara's world, you are too old to have a darkbeast anymore, and are supposed to grow up and conquer your own faults. And so your darkbeast must die, in a ritual enforced by the Inquisitors.
When Keara turns 12, she cannot kill Caw. And so she must flee her village, and the Inquisitors she's offended (they are not nice people, those Inquisitors). Fortunately, she finds refuge with a band of travelling actors, and begins to make a new life for herself and Caw, pretending to still be a child. The fear of being found out is always with her, and the actors themselves are in danger for sheltering her. The Inquisitors are hunting her...and they will not rest until Caw is dead, and Keara punished.
It's a very good book. The constant danger Keara's in keeps the tension humming, the relationships among the characters (and their darkbeasts) are very nicely done, and the world building, which includes a panoply of gods, is sufficiently detailed to interest, without going overboard in dotting every socio-political i.
It's a story that I think will be taken straight to the heart of girls reluctant to grow up (like me when I was eleven). The crisis of emotion that Keara, and every other child, to some degree, must face when they turn 12 is the center of the book, and it packs a powerful punch. And I must say that I really really appreciated a book in which the central girl character, though strong and determined enough, is an ordinary girl. She's not, for instance, a theatrical wonderkind, stepping into the lead roles in the plays her new community performs, though she does make a useful place for herself. She never grabs a sword to start whacking inquisitors. No handsome dude falls for her (she's still a kid). There's wish fulfillment in plenty--Keara's relationship with Caw is something that I bet many girls will envy**--but Keara is always someone who it's easy for a young girl to imagine being.
That all being said, even if you are not suffering from the angst and loneliness of adolescence, you might still really like it. Like I said, it's a good book. And even if you are a boy, you should still try it.
*I have little data to back up my feeling about the cover--just one reaction, from my grown-up friend Anamaria, of Books Together, who came over for a visit and spotted it first thing amongst the books I had out to talk to her about...And the fact that my boys, despite it being left enticingly face out for days, don't seem to have noticed it.
**hands up anyone like me who was eleven in the early eighties who really wanted a fire lizard
disclaimer: review copy very happily received from the publisher