Conditional Recommendation: Cole must learn how to survive in a fantastical world, try to save his captured friends, and help new friends set things right in a world gone wild.
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
I’m enthralled with Brandon Mull’s fantastic imagination! Once the character falls into the fantasy world, you are absolutely sucked in. Seriously, the fantasy worlds, magic systems, creatures, plot twists are amazingly creative. Good-hearted characters against extreme odds and disadvantaged in an unknown world plus a huge helping of fantasy elements to make everything interesting = one really fun, fast-paced adventure.
On Halloween below a haunted house, Cole Randolph wanted to have fun (and maybe get to know Jenna Hunt a little better). But he dives after friends whisked away to The Outskirts. The five kingdoms lie in between wakefulness and dreaming, reality and imagination, life and death. Some people are born there. Some find their way there from other worlds. And once people are in the Outskirts, they find it very hard to leave. With the magic of the Outskirts starting to unravel, Cole and an unusual girl named Mira must rescue his friends, set things right in the Outskirts, and hopefully find his way back home…before his existence is forgotten.
Read this book to enjoy Brandon Mull’s imagination if nothing else. Who thinks of a “jumping sword” that pulls you wherever you point it when you shout “Away!”? I love the creative objects, politics and magic systems Mull creates—it makes for stories you don’t want to put down and worlds you don’t want to leave. For the sake of this review, you must know the magical ability in this book is called “shaping.” Everyone in the Outskirts has some measure of shaping ability—literally the ability to shape renderings (objects made by or enhanced by shaping) or semblances (animated beings created by shaping that have personalities but are just a semblance of life and not actually alive). Each of the five kingdoms have their own unique magics and each book takes place in one of the kingdoms. This one is set in Sambria, a world based around dreams.
Loyalty and self-sacrifice in friendship is a theme that operates on two different planes for Cole—his loyalty and efforts are to rescue his friends from Earth while he also has loyalty and risks himself to help his new Outskirts friends too. It’s a very strong and obvious theme of this book.
There’s quite a bit of identity shifts throughout this book: free to slave, slave to free, semblances learning what they really are, secret identities, etc. There’s a particular conversation that happens between a semblance and its creator that put me in mind of the spiritual reality. Humans want to make their own identity apart from their creator, apart from God. We want to be independent, be free, and “be ourselves” and yet we will always find our identity in our Creator who made us in His image. He is the only source of our identity and thinking that it is freedom to be independent of Him or that we can only be ourselves apart from Him who made us is misguided and false. Look for the identity shifts throughout this book. How do they relate to what the Bible says about our identity and the spiritual reality?
Cole is a sixth grader, an all-around good character, moral, and without any major inner conflicts (at least for this book). He feels responsible for the predicament his friends are in and though he was accidentally missed when the others were being rounded up to be taken to the other world, he follows intending to help them. Once he arrives in the Outskirts, his goal is to somehow free his friends and get them all home. I love that he is self-sacrificing, not only for his old friends but for his new ones too. His friendship with Mira is largely based on his willingness to help her even at his own peril. He is a hero like Captain America only without the special abilities. I enjoy his goodness, his realistic reactions to the craziness around him, and his moral compass. Where Jace, one of his Outskirt friends, is hit or miss morally, Cole is always on target.
The plot seems to jump all over the place—the kingdom is based on dreams so I suppose it fits—and yet there’s a structure to it if you pay attention. It’s all the fantastical elements of the world that can distract you because they are numerous and you’re seeing a new fantastical place, object or creatures every couple pages. At least, that’s what it feels like!
This ending isn’t a cliff hanger, but it’s definitely a lead in to the next book in the series. Be prepared and have the second book on hand ready to read!
Here’s the deal, I’m not a fan of how Brandon Mull drops characters into the other worlds. It’s not so nice as stepping through a wardrobe, and this one could be considered scary by sensitive readers. The haunted house the kids visit ends up being a kidnapping by people from the Outskirts who have traveled to earth specifically to capture kids to use as slaves in their world. Any kids who’ve visited the haunted house are put in cages, manacled and forced to go down a man hole one by one to drop into the Outskirts. Besides that, this book is filled with the fantastical and imaginative and there’s many, many scenes of peril and monsters.
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