The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand, by Jen Swann Downey

The Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand, by Jen Swann Downey (Sourcebooks Jaberwocky, April 2014, middle grade) is a zesty romp of a read that I thoroughly enjoyed; really truly thoroughly enjoyed.  Stripped to its barest bones, the plot might seem an old chestnut, but here the old bones are made fresh and new.  To wit:

Old Bone 1:  There is a secret society of time travellers trying to set history "right" and a bad society working against them.

But these time travellers are librarians (aka Lybrarians)!  Who combine mad shelving skills with mad sword fighting skills!  And who live in Petrarch's library where it's all a lovely geek and combat fest for both the residents and the reader, a place where books and scrolls are combined with swords and axes, and beautiful peaceful outdoor places and architecture of many times,  and tasty snacks (which appear when magically "read" from books.  (Not everyone can read snacks into material things; some can, for instance, make extinct auroches materialize).

And the Lybrarians mission of setting things right is focused on the preservation of knowledge and valuable writings!  They head back in time on dangerous missions to save books!  

Viz the bad society--they remain on the periphery for most of the book, which was fine with me because there was enough internal tension without dragging Good vs Evil into it.  And after all, epic confrontations don't have to happen every day.

Old Bone 2: two kids from our time stumble into the secret society and find out they are special.  They make friends and enemies.  An alpha girl hates the girl main character.   The boy main character gets a crush on a pretty girl.

Well, yes, Dorrie and her older brother Marcus do fall into a Magical World, and they are kind of special.  They've opened a portal to our time, and are therefore the "keyhands" who can open it for others to travel through, and keyhands are a rather special type of librarian.

But no, Dorrie and Marcus aren't all that special, and the fact that they are keyhands actually irks many people rather a lot, and other people don't trust them, and they aren't particular ept at anything of particular value.  Dorrie, for instance, is a sword-fighter, but finds to her chagrin that the standards of 21st-century amature re-enactors are horribly low...

Despite their lack of obvious talents, Dorrie and Marcus get to make places for themselves at the library, grow up a bit, appreciate books more, and start acquiring useful fighting/stealth/ninja skills--which they have to put to the test at the end of the book when things get truly dicey.  (Dorrie gets lessons in sword fighting from Cyrano de Bergerac!)

Moving on to other lines of thought:

--The library, as seen in this book, is rather focused on European civilization (I hope gets broadened in subsequent books), but there are Lybrarians and apprentices from places besides Europe, including Dorrie's new best friend Ebba, whose parents are from Mali, and who almost (but not quite) gets enough page time to be a main character.

--Time travel qua time travel is the heart of the plot (people going back to deliberately change the past), but the lived experience of travelling into different times isn't important to this particular story (and it's time travel made easy with translation magic and wardrobe help).   That being said, the story does end with an emotional zing that's dependent on time travel....

Final thoughts:

The whole set up of the library is just FUN as all get out, and the story zips along just beautifully.   And though I kind of suspected a key plot twist, this in no way reduced my enjoyment.

Best of all in my mind (given the number of books that I have put aside in the past month) I was never once kicked out of the story because of the writing. Which means that either the plot was so fun I didn't notice infelicities, or the writing was very good, or, quite possibly, both.  I think this is my favorite middle grade fantasy of the year so far, and I look forward to more!


  1. Love that series title! I do like the idea that the kids are special, but not that special.

  2. Oh, yay. Love the idea of going back in time to save knowledge and books, although I worry how well I would fare at swordplay if called upon. I'm not that special, either.

  3. Just got this today from the public library, so may have to read bith this AND The Fury og the Seventh Son tonight! What fun. Sounds better than the magical library book I read last night where the library was kind of evil.

  4. This sounds SUPER exciting, Charlotte -- I KNOW what you mean about the umpty-nth book you've set aside because bleuuuch and ugh -- and finding, to your glee, that you're not only reading one ALL THE WAY THROUGH, but that it's made up of awesome with a side of amazing -- that's such a great feeling.

    And, I'm intrigued that there's a character from Mali there. Cool.

  5. This sounds like all kinds of fun, thanks for the great review.

  6. Hooray! I love stories about magical librarians - I must put this on my reading list!

  7. Ooh...I'm right in the middle of The Libriomancer, and a middle grade book about awesome, evil-fighting librarians sounds like so much fun! I love the concept of super cool, super powerful librarians, and I think I'd enjoy a lighter, middle-grade spin on that. Onto the TBR list...


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