Has anyone else noticed how many siblings need rescuing these days in middle grade fantasy? The missing sibling is a much more popular quest item than some non-human object of destiny (although these still exist). Usually (though not always) it is a younger sibling of the opposite gender of the protagonist. Examples include The Peculiar, Summer and Bird, Claws, Seven Sorcerers, 13 Curses, Wildwood, Breadcrumbs (if you count really close friendship as almost siblingness), The Golden Door....
The Spindlers, by Lauren Oliver (HarperCollins, 2012, middle grade), begins with the hideous Spindlers of the title, nightmarish soul stealers, infesting Liza's little brother Patrick, and I felt as though I was on familiar ground. Liza, as expected, must go on a quest through Below (accessed via her basement) to rescue Patrick's soul. On the way to the dark and mysterious stronghold of the Spindlers, she encounters dangers and is almost killed. She finds an unexpected ally, a large sentient rat named Mirabella who seems mentally unstable; she is able to overcome her repugnance of Mirabella's ratish ways and think of her as a friend. She outwits the Spindlers thanks to some clever thinking and frees her brother.
It's all perfectly fine--nicely imagined, competently written, briskly paced. The only thing that raised my eyebrows was Liza's relationship with the rat, Mirabella--Liza seemed both ungrateful for the help and companionship, and totally uninterested in why Mirabella might be risking death to accompany her--but that was resolved by the end.
I seem to be the only reader of this one who doesn't find it all that much to write home about. It felt somewhat programmatic to me- finding the way to another land, then moment of danger, miraculous salvation, repeat, then outwit a more a powerful enemy and return to a home that is made better by the experience. It didn't move me emotionally, and it didn't strike me as a particularly three-dimensional fantasy world (more like a series of fantasy vignettes).
Yet the starred review at Kirkus said: "Richly detailed, at times poetic, ultimately moving; a book to be puzzled over, enjoyed and, ideally, read aloud."
School Library Journal gave it a star, and said "This imaginative fantasy emphasizes individual initiative and the power
of hope and friendship. Below is a fully realized alternate world with
echoes of both classic literature and mythology."
Publishers Weekly also gave it a star, and said "[this] magical, mesmerizing quest affirms the saving power of story, friendship, and love."
And I say, gee. It was a fairly entertaining, not unpleasant, fast little read, that I think lots of kids (and clearly, at least some adults) will enjoy lots, but I don't think it's all that.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher at Kidlitcon