After posting my last review, I asked my co-worker, Chris Jager, to look it over and give me her thoughts. Chris is the fiction buyer for the store and does tons of book reviews on her blog, so I value her opinion as I hone my craft. She read it and said, “It was a very clinical review. You didn’t say anything bad, but you stated facts without letting people hear your voice.”
So, my main goal for this review is to infuse a little more of myself into my impressions of the book. My secondary goal for this review is to point out the things that the writer did which worked well and are worth emulating. That way, we can all become better writers (by including some of the elements in our own stories) and better readers (by thinking critically about what and how we read).
My book this week is The Mistmantle Chronicles Book One: Urchin of the Riding Stars by M. I. McAllister.
Urchin the squirrel was born on a night of riding stars. It was the same night he arrived on the island of Mistmantle, and the same night that his mother died and was washed back out to sea. Discovered by Crispin the squirrel and Brother Fir, Urchin was sent home with kindly but simple Apple to be raised by the community in Anemone Wood. Once Urchin was old enough to enter the island’s work parties, he is asked to become Captain Crispin’s page, a dream come true. But his dreams turn to nightmares when the King’s only son is murdered and the blame falls on Crispin. Tragedy and adventure walk hand-in-hand with Urchin as he tries to protect his captain, himself, and his whole community from a creeping evil that has come into the kingdom.
I knew nothing about this book when I picked it up from the shelf, but it didn’t take long before I fell in love with it. There are five things that stood out to me about McAllister’s writing that puts it above most other children’s books.
– The author isn’t afraid of a body count. The book opens with the death of the main character’s mother. In the first chapter, the animals are discussing the new and horrible practice of culling (killing off the weak and misformed) that is now practiced in the kingdom. By chapter three, the prince is dead. Death happens and I respect an author who isn’t afraid to show how it affects characters differently. Urchin’s mother was willing to die in order to rescue her unborn baby. The king is willing to kill because the of the grief of losing his son. Children are just as much affected by the death of loved ones as we are and McAllister gives us a reference to be able to talk to kids about how to feel and how to act.
– The evil is EVIL. When bad things happen in the book, they are very bad. The bad characters are not just mean, but manipulative, sneaky, and murderous. The author helps us hate the evil that exists in the story, and gives us something to root against. Urchin has so much to overcome that when the evil is dealt with, we are not just pleased but elated.
– The good is not without flaws. Urchin is likeable because he is flawed. He cares deeply about the people around him, but he cares just as much about what they think of him. I can relate to this because I know that I am a people pleaser. If put in a situation between doing what is right and doing whatever will make me liked, I have a dilemma. By giving Urchin a flaw, he is relateable. We root for him all the more because he is like us.
– Suspense, foreshadowing, and misdirection are skillfully applied. By having a dire evil to overcome and showing that she isn’t afraid to kill off a character or two, McAllister creates real suspense for the story. And she weaves in enough details that when we finally figure out what is happening, we hit ourselves for not seeing it sooner. I love it when an author surprises me with a twist.
– The tension escalates throughout. Like all good fiction, the main character finds himself in increasingly horrible predicaments. Just when you think, “well, at least it can’t get worse,” you find out that you are wrong.
Like I said, I loved this book. In fact, the whole series is great. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough for me to read it to them. I’d start now, but my oldest doesn’t have the attention span for chapter books yet and I’d end up just reading it out loud to myself. Then again, it was such a good story that I may just read it anyway. I can always read it again to them later.