The Thickety: A Path Begins, by J.A. White (Katherine Tegen Books, May 6, 2014, upper middle grade/younger YA), is a gripping fantasy full of fascinating magic, but it is a dark one, not for the faint of heart!
Generations ago, Kara's people had been led by a charismatic leader to an island far from the rest of the world, to live free of the evil taint of magic. But though the words of the leader were dutifully chanted, and all references to magic shunned, the island was far from being free of it. For on the boundaries of the settled lands loomed the great, magical, horrible wood known as the Thickety, and only the work of the Clearers--hacking and burning at its fringes (and risking death every day from deadly incursions of its magical creatures and vegetation) keeps it at bay. And though all on the island are taught that witchcraft is the worst evil, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
Kara's own mother was killed for witchcraft when she was five. For the next seven years, she and her little brother have struggled onward, with no help from her deeply depressed father, and shunned by all the other folk. Kara, well-indoctrinated, won't admit her mother was a witch. But she was.
And now the Thickety is calling to Kara....and she crosses its boundary line. There in the strangeness of its shade she finds a magical book, one that lets her make magic of her own. But magic comes with a price. Kara must face supernatural and human enmity, and resist the lure of absolute power, or else join her own mother as a character in the stories of evil witches. But when magic seems the only way to save her brother's life, and her own, can she keep from letting her wild talents run free?
With momentum that builds from a slowish start to an ever faster turning of page, Kara's journey into magic is fiercely gripping. And I use "fierce" very much on purpose--this is not a "fun with magic in an enchanted woods" book. The grim beginning, with shunned, neglected Kara struggling to keep her little brother alive, sets the tone, and Kara's discovery that magic is real is not a joyous release. Rather, she quickly learns of the terror at the heart of the Thickety, and just as quickly learns that power can be horribly addictive (especially for one who has been powerless and ill-used).
As the story unfolds, all manner of dark injury, torture, and death become part of it. There is much to make a sensitive reader flinch, from your basic attack of a swarm of magically-controlled rats to flat-out torture. The book begins with the terrible death of Kara's mother, which I think is useful for weeding out readers who will be bothered! I wouldn't recommend this to the younger middle grade reader--as a parent myself, there are images I don't want my 11-year-old to have in his head just yet, though I might well offer it to him next year. That being said, the grimness is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that Kara never succumbs to the selfish misuse of her power, and stays "good," which keeps things from being too terribly disturbing!
My one quibble with the book is that a lot of physically challenging things happen to Kara (no water for three days, torture, a badly injured leg, etc.), but none of these things seem to hold her back--for instance, at one point, after the three days without water, she and her friend are communicating with hand signals because their mouths are so dry, but then have a long conversation the next paragraph down; at another point her leg is badly hurt, but a few pages later she's perfectly mobile.I think if you make your characters suffer terribly, there should be realistic physical consequences!
In any event, this is a really truly gripping story, which I read (to the extent my circumstances allow) in a single sitting at a very rapid pace. If you like dark fantasy with young heroines facing formidable obstacles, you might very well like The Thickety very much indeed. And boy, does it end with a twist that makes the reader want More Now!
Here's the (starred) Kirkus review; they suggest 11-14 as the readership age,which is just about right, especially if the younger readers have a taste for horror. And here's the starred Publishers Weekly review (which pushes the age down to 8, making my eyebrows raise).
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.