Quintessence, by Jess Redman (early review)

If you are looking for a rather soothing (tense things happen, but the arc the story moves toward peace), magical middle grade read, try Quintessence, by Jess Redman (July 28th 2020 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; originally slated for May, the date's been pushed back for the obvious reasons....).

Twelve-year-old Alma was horrified when her parents uprooted her and moved to the town of Four Points.  It's been three months, and she can't imagine ever feeling at home there.  Her parents pressure her, in a well-meaning way, to make more effort, but she can't. She started having panic attacks almost immediately, and they haven't let up, so she feels desperately convinced she'll never have friends, and she's hiding them from her parents so as not to disappoint them.

But then she meets the strange proprietor of the town's junk shop, The Fifth Point.  The shopkeeper gives her a most unusual telescope, and sets her on a quest--

Find the Elements.
Grow the Light.
Save the Starling.

That night Alma uses the telescope, and finds that when she looks through it she can see "quintessence," the mystical force of life in all things, that makes them most truly what they are.  And through the telescope she sees a star falling from the sky, into her backyard.  The falling star looks childlike, and runs into the woods, trailing quintessence behind it.  Alma knows this is the Starling she must save, but what on earth is she to do?

A nudge along the way comes when she sees a flyer for an Astronomy club at school.  There she meets the first two of the unlikely friends she'll need to find the elements, studious, geeky Hugo and brightly popular Shirin.  With Hugo's keen mind, and the help of the quintessence, the threesome set out to find the four elements (earth, air, water, and fire) in their true form.  Their nights are spent on this strange and magical scavenger hunt, and with their growing friendship Alma gradually feels her own true self, full of light and hope, returning...but a fourth member of the team is needed, and he is the most likely of all--the boy at school who triggered her first panic attack.

But Alma doesn't give up, and all the pieces fall beautifully into place, and the Starling (and Alma) are saved.

(Nb--this isn't magical healing of Alma's panic attacks; the story ends with her finding help from a therapist.  But the quest does restore to her the sense of "Alma-ness" that she had been loosing, makes her parents more aware of her struggles, and gives her good friends and a personal connection to the geography of her new home town, something important to her!)

When I read the blurb of this one for the first time, my mind defaulted to starling, the bird.  And I thought it seemed odd.  What I'd read about the book before trying it myself also downplayed the fantasy elements.  My expectations, with Starling being the young star and there being lots of magic, were exceeded.  The lovely balance maintained between Alma's internal challenges and the quest set before her (I tend to like magic involving the elements), made this a lovely read for me!  I think young readers who devour fantasy quests will find another magic to keep them happy, and will find the problems Alma faces in the real world, and the friendship story that's central to the plot, will be both relatable, and add interest and depth.  It's a number of balls in the air, but Redman does a fine job keeping them there!

Final thought--I feel that these days there aren't a lot of magical quests (by which I mean stories with wildly fantastical goals external to the protagonist)  set firmly in the real world with ordinary kid protagonists, and so this felt like a nice change!

(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)

1 comment:

  1. This certainly sounds more magical than Redman's debut - I'm here for it!


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