Today I am going to review two middle grade novels for you. Both of them fall within the scope of fantasy though both of them significantly different from each other. In fact, the only thing both have in common is a complex heroine who takes you places you don’t think you’d go by yourself. Both of them are slightly creepy so here’s the requisite gif because gifs are so much fun.
Fun? I think so! The first book I’m going to review is:
The Thickety: A Path Begins by J. A. White
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published May 6th by Katherine Tegan Books
This book, by far, is the darkest middle grade novel that I have ever read. And I don’t mean dark as in “I’m scared of the dark” but dark as in “people die and monsters live under the bed.” The novel opens with a hanging – the protagonist’s mother is sentenced to death on charges of being a witch. The reader is taken to a field where a makeshift gallows has been created and the unfolding events are told through Kara who was kidnapped and brought there because the leader of her village suspected Kara of being a witch just like her mother – even though Kara is but 5 years old at the time. Her mother has just given birth and somewhere in the darkness, her baby brother is taking his first breaths. Nobody comes to save Kara’s mother, not even her husband who condemns her as a witch.
We skip seven or so years later and see Kara doing her best to live with what she has been given – a father who is drowning his grief with bouts of insanity, neighbours and villagers who would much rather spit at her than invite her into their fold, the thickety which sings a siren call that Kara does her best to ignore. There is even a scarier, more developed version of a mean girl whose beauty is all on the outside except for a maimed leg that she blames, inexplicably, on Kara. Kara’s life is not all that bad, however, she has a brother, who, though sickly, makes everything a bit brighter, and a friend who gives her shelter from the jeers and cruelties given to a witch’s daughter. Things begin moving when Kara is drawn into the thickety (a nightmarish forest that has supernatural creatures) and finds a grimoire there – a grimoire that perhaps belonged to her mother.
The novel, though targeted as middle grade readers, deals with issues and themes that are far more complex than anything I read when I was a middle grader. As such, I believe it has the potential to appeal to older readers and become a crossover novel that answers to anyone looking for a sophisticated narrative.
When Kara finds the grimoire, and her powers awaken, she first feels the influx of power but with the power, she understands the unavoidable truth: her mother was a witch. And not just that, so is she. She is tempted to use her powers to avenge herself upon the people who have heaped abuse on her and her family, and sometimes she does, but the book takes care to elaborate upon the sacrifices required by magic.
Power comes with a price and the story asks Kara if she is willing to pay. And that, there, is one of the most awesome things about this novel. Every issue has two sides and White is careful to show both sides without romanticizing either one. Kara, without power and without agency, suddenly gains both but manifest in these unexpected gifts is a sinister price. Then there is the matter of the obfuscated Dark Lord character of whom not much is said but whose presence is enough that even the shadows cower at his mention. The antagonistic of the piece, too, for all that she pretends otherwise, is powerless and her actions are a perfect foil for the protagonist’s. She is far easier to understand and perhaps even feel sympathy for than one would think and this adds a nice depth to the narrative.
The relationship between child and parent in the novel is, like every other thing in the novel, complex. As is characteristic of children’s literature, the parent figure is either missing or somehow reduced in mental and physical capacity – in this instance, I’d say both. Kara becomes the reluctant head of her family and the parent figure to her brother. A lot of emphasis is given to storytelling in this novel and I quite appreciated the way it is used in the narrative.
The twist at the ending was surprising and I’m not sure how I feel about it but I guess it achieved its goal as I am far more intrigued by the sequel than I would be otherwise. All in all, I do recommend this to you if you’re looking for something sombre, something darker and creepier, something that illuminates the unsavoury parts of human nature.
Now on to the next book on my list of awesome books!
Paperback, 496 pages
Published May 10th by Pan Macmillan Children’s
A Face Like Glass is the second title by Frances Hardinge that I have read (the first being Cuckoo Song which I absolutely loved) and I think it would be safe to say that she is fast becoming a favourite of mine. There are so many things I want to say about this book that I fear I will not be able to articulate properly the reason why you need to get this book immediately and read it as soon as you can.
I suppose I should first tell you what it is all about.
In the city of Caverna, which, as the name suggests, is located underground and composed of labyrinthine tunnels, babies are born with blank faces. They and their parents do not automatically arrange their features in expressions that express their inner feelings. Instead, they must be taught by “Face Smiths” to make faces, that is, to twist their lips, eyes and cheeks into expressions. And these expressions have such deliciously odd names such as “Uncomprehending Fawn Before Hound” and “Violet Trembling in Sudden Shower.” (I would dearly love to see these expressions.) Apart from people with blank faces, Caverna also boasts Artisans who create the most wondrous things ever: cheese that can evoke emotion (or kill), Wine that reveals truth or induces forgetfulness (and can also kill), desserts that are sweet and can be deadly – you notice a theme here.
Into this world comes Neverfell, so named by Grandible, a Cheesemaster who creates the killer cheese, when she is found in a vat of curd. The wondrous thing about Neverfell is her changing expressions – she wears her thoughts on her face – what she feels, she expresses on her face – and this makes her an anomaly in Caverna, a curiousity and perhaps a danger. For the world of Caverna is deeply mired in the politics of the Court that is headed by the significantly crazy Grand Steward. Grandible, the Cheesemaster, keeps Neverfell locked away from the world of Caverna until she’s 12 when she escapes through a crack in the wall, chasing after a rabbit.
“In Caverna lies were an art and everybody was an artist, even young children.”
This novel is so incredibly complex that once again, I marvelled at the quality of literature available to middle graders. The politics are complicated: families having allies and hidden agendas, the fickle nature of the Grand Steward (his Right Eye and Left Eye are at war with each other), the dangerous products of the artisans and amongst them all, a Kleptomancer who dares to steal from the Grand Steward. And there is Neverfell, in the midst of them all. Neverfell is a lovely heroine and she subverts all the stereotypes and expectations you may have of a heroine.
“Well, they set spiders and snakes on me for a bit and blew me up and there was this really scary cake, but it’s mostly all right now, I think. Except I don’t ever want any more cake. Look!”
She is neither strong nor weak, neither brave nor a coward; she reads much like the young girl she is but it would be a mistake to dismiss her as a simple child. Because she cannot remember who she began the world as or how she ended up in Caverna when everything in her and about her paints her an Outsider (someone who dwells on the surface), there is a fractured feel to her, an anger that is probably unhealthy for her but that makes for an intensely fascinating character. Her fey disposition and the little moments of insanity that punctuate her narrative also make her a wonderful character to read.
“Zouelle had forgotten how tiring it was listening to a Neverfell at full pace, like being bludgeoned with exclamation marks.”
When Neverfell, falsely accused of many different things, decides to make a difference, to teach the servants to express a feeling their faces were not taught to display, she grows as a person and it is a glorious moment. Social reform and revolution along with a quest for identity are themes that crop up often in this book. I also found the awareness of Caverna as a sentient being, one that is full of ambition to expand and engulf to be fascinating. The ending is satisfying and all the more sweet because this is a standalone novel.
I fear I haven’t done this book the justice it deserves so all I can say is, read this. You will not be disappointed and if you are, well, we probably like different books.