Spell Robbers, by Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic 2014) is about a boy, Ben, who discovers he has preternatural powers (in this case, the ability to alter reality through the mental manipulation of matter and energy), and who is whisked off to the headquarters of the good guys so that his preternatural powers of actuation can be honed and used against the bad guys. He then is the chief player in an adventurous ploy that foils the bad guys.
This is not, in and of itself, an original plot, and I was doubtful. But as the story unfolded, more complexity of plot and character were added to the mix, and by the end of it, I'd found it enjoyable, and am happy to recommend it to ten (or so) year olds who love to cheer for outstanding kids in extraordinary circumstances.
Here's what made it hard for me to become invested:
The bad guys are called the Dread Cloaks, and the good guys are the League. This is not subtle, and it makes it hard to take the Dread Cloaks seriously. The Dread Cloaks, in general, never rise above the level of cartoonish villains--they too have powers of actuation, and it's pointed out to the reader that even small manipulations of reality can have cataclysmically evil results. The Dread Cloaks, however, seem more concerned with turf wars and petty heists than true evil, making them less dreadful than they might have been.
The reader is required to carry out a huge suspension of disbelief--once Ben (and other kids) are taken into the League, all trace of them is wiped from the minds of everyone outside the League. Which is a pretty stupendously difficult thing to do, but we have to accept that it happened, only I kept wondering how on earth you could find everyone who ever knew a kid, and erase their memories. Thoughts of material remnants (what happened to all his possessions?) kept drifting through my mind, which was distracting.
On the other hand, there was enough I found interesting to balance out these reservations:
Ben is the bestest actuator of all (no surprise) but he actually has to learn things and it doesn't all come (totally) naturally.
More importantly, Ben really, really hates that his mother's mind has been wiped. He loves his mom, and wants to be reunited with her, in large part because he thinks she needs him. And this makes him rather hostile toward the League, adding interesting internal conflict. Both Ben and the reader don't know who to trust, and the reader strongly sympathizes with Ben's reluctance to become a pawn in a game that he doesn't comprehend. Clearly, the Dread Cloaks are bad (or they would have picked a different name), but is the League actually good? With the addition of a character with a questionable path and questionable motives, the ambiguity increases, and this is what kept me turning the pages.
And finally, I found it interesting to read about a kid who's primary motivation is to be reunited with his mother. It made a really nice change for a book to address a kid's separation from his parents as something that actually is meaningful for the kid, and which effects his actions and choices. Middle grade kids are beginning to toy with the idea of separation themselves (some more enthusiastically than my own), and I think this is a theme that might well resonate with many of them.
So in the end, despite my initial reservations, I found myself looking forward to the sequel.
Here's another review at Random Musings of a Bibliophile, The Englishist, and Ms. Yingling Reads
Note on label: though the people in the book maintain that actuation is science, not magic, I just cannot believe it is possible enough to lable this book science fiction! It is more like superpower fantasy.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher