Conditional Recommendation: A thirteen-year-old boy accidentally falls into a fantastical world and is thrust on a dangerous mission to overthrow an evil and clever king.
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
To be honest, I stopped at the hippo. The first time I read this book I could not get past the hippo (I’ll explain more below)! My husband finished the book and said it was good and I’d like it so I gave it another try. After getting past the hippo, I found such a fantastic, humorous and immensely creative adventure that I’m so happy I tried it again!
Jason Walker has often wished his life could be a bit less predictable—until a routine day volunteering at the zoo ends with Jason suddenly transporting from the hippo tank to a place unlike anything he’s ever seen. In the past, the people of Lyrian welcomed visitors from the Beyond, but attitudes have changed since the wizard emperor Maldor rose to power. The brave resistors who opposed the emperor have been bought off or broken, leaving a realm where fear and suspicion prevail. In his search for a way home, Jason meets Rachel, who was also mysteriously drawn to Lyrian from our world. With the help of a few scattered rebels, Jason and Rachel become entangled in a quest to piece together the word of power that can destroy the emperor, and learn that their best hope to find a way home will be to save this world without heroes.
This book contains some of the most creative world-building I have ever read in middle grade fiction. The places, creatures and races of people are beyond my imagination and I’m in awe of the creativity, imagination, and development of these fictional beings and places. For example, the displacers—these are a race of people originally created by wizards that can disassemble their body parts and continue to live and control the detached body parts. Jason and Rachel meet the displacer, Ferrin, when they come across his head strung up in a bag on the side of the road. They help Ferrin locate his body and then reassemble himself. Then there are places like Whitelake on which nothing floats. When Jason, Rachel, and Ferrin come to it they discover the contents of the lake have a very low density and it also have high viscosity on initial impact—they can run on the lake without sinking but the moment they stop applying pressure to the surface they begin to sink into the sludge like quicksand (a shear thickening non-Newtonian fluid for you physics nerds out there). I only touched on two of them, but as you can see there are some pretty creative people and places in this book!
The story is experienced mostly through the point of view of Jason with about one or two chapters from Rachel’s perspective. I found these main characters to be good-hearted, innocent, and humorous. They speak bluntly and avoid drama by asking many questions and being upfront about everything. This meant that most of the conflict in the book was from enemies, creatures, and circumstances rather than with each other. I really appreciated their ability to act like responsible human beings who seek to communicate with each other rather than make assumptions and develop all sorts of angst over those assumptions. Jason and Rachel quickly learn to work as a team on their quest and they display loyalty, care, and chivalry to one another throughout the book. They complain little, do what needs to be done, rely on each other’s strengths, trust one another, and display great courage in the face of impossible odds and dangers that they don’t fully understand. I really enjoyed experiencing the adventure with them.
Let’s get the hippo over with: in the beginning of the book, Jason enters Lyrian by getting swallowed by a hippo. Yep. He falls from the top of the hippo enclosure and the hippo swallows him whole. It’s the most ridiculous part of an otherwise well-conceived story. It’s so ridiculous that I’m actually disgusted by it. Of all the wonderful possibilities out there of ways to enter a fantastical world we went with “swallowed by hippo”? Why? Why?! My only consolation is that Jason makes fun of this absurdity throughout the book. It makes me think the writer does know how ridiculous it is. Anyway, on to the good stuff…
To put it simply, the plot of this book is well done. I’m surprised how much plot was packed into one book! Jason and Rachel’s quest to find and piece together the syllables to form the word to destroy Maldor lead them all over Lyrian. The twists and turns, the characters that weave in and out of their adventure, and the endless difficult circumstances they come against all make for a very engaging read. This book is perfect for someone whose attention is only kept by a fast-paced plot.
I give it a conditional recommendation because there are some scenes of violence, allusions to torture, and some elements that could be considered creepy like a book bound in living flesh. Those aspects aside this is such a good book because of the good characters and engaging plot. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes fantasy worlds and creatures and who likes a bit of adventure, mystery and humor amid an ingenious premise. Be warned: there’s a cliffhanger ending…. Happy reading!
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