Kathy Dawson Books, $16.99 hardbound, ISBN-10 0803739753, April 2014
Alice always thought fairy tales had happy endings. That–along with everything else–changed the day she met her first fairy. When Alice’s father goes down in a shipwreck, she is sent to live with her uncle Geryon–an uncle she’s never heard of and knows nothing about. He lives in an enormous manor with a massive library that is off-limits to Alice. But then she meets a talking cat. And even for a rule-follower, when a talking cat sneaks you into a forbidden library and introduces you to an arrogant boy who dares you to open a book, it’s hard to resist. Especially if you’re a reader to begin with. Soon Alice finds herself INSIDE the book, and the only way out is to defeat the creature imprisoned within. It seems her uncle is more than he says he is. But then so is Alice.
This creepy, sneaky book is a little bit Coraline, a little bit Eyre Affair, a little bit Series of Unfortunate Events. Wexler has a solid grasp on the psychology of the abandoned/orphaned child in literature, a representation of the human fear of standing totally alone. Alice doesn’t fully believe her father is dead, but she’s nonetheless trapped in a web of enemies and frenemies, some of whom are talking cats or extremely repulsive fairies. On top of that, she’s just discovered she is a Reader, someone who has the power to read herself into the world of a book. While the power sounds great–Falcor, it’s like the Nothing never was!–the reality isn’t always so awe-inspiring. Some books are Portals to other places, but Alice primarily encounters Prison books, in which she must defeat the imprisoned entity. If she does, that creature becomes both her servant and an attribute she can assume. If she doesn’t, she’s trapped in the book. Also, since Readers are rare, her talent makes her desirable and vulnerable to older Readers in search of apprentices. In other words, Alice needs a reliable, strong mentor, but all anyone seems to tell her is, “Trust no one! Especially not me!” There’s a horror aspect to her emotional isolation that softens readers (not Readers) up in a way that makes the action scenes scarier. Of course, being kid lit, it’s head trip lite, but still, I found it quite effective.
Wexler’s talent for world-building and evoking a Gothic atmosphere bring this title, first in a series, roaring to life. He doesn’t do anything readers haven’t seen before, but his spin on the familiar aspects makes the material feel new again, and bonus points for the strong, relatable heroine.
Recommend to: Tweens who like some light scares in their fantasy a la early Harry Potter, Coraline, Inkheart
To buy or not to buy: Of course, buy. Why wouldn’t you want to add a book that turns reading into an adventure?