Release Date: April 29, 2014
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Age Group: YA
Genres: Fantasy, historical, horror(ish), romance
Pages: 384 (hardcover)
Format/Source: Hardcover, borrowed from library
Find the Book: Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository
Cora and Minnie are sisters living in a small, stifling town where strange and mysterious things occur. Their mother runs the local boarding house. Their father is gone. The woman up the hill may or may not be a witch.
Thomas and Charles are brothers who’ve been exiled to the boarding house so Thomas can tame his ways and Charles can fight an illness that is killing him with increasing speed. Their family history is one of sorrow and guilt. They think they can escape from it… but they can’t.
Arthur is also new to the boarding house. His fate is tied to that of Cora, Minnie, Thomas, and Charles. He knows what darkness circles them, but can’t say why, and doesn’t even know if they can be saved.
Sinister forces are working in the shadows, manipulating fates and crafting conspiracies. The closer Cora, Minnie, Arthur, Thomas, and Charles get to the truth, the closer they get to harm. But the threat is much bigger than they can see. It is strangling the world.
Until one of the boys decides he wants to save it.
I don’t even know how to describe my feelings right now, but this book I can confidently say was excellent.
The first indication I had that I might want to read this was the illustrator, Jim Di Bartolo. Of course, I believed that as the husband of one of my favorite authors, Laini Taylor, he would be awesome – but I’d also encountered some of his illustrations before, in his collaboration with Laini, Lips Touch: Three Times. (Also a ridiculously amazing book.) The illustrations in question fit the tone of the words perfectly and even spun a fair bit of magic on their own. So I was interested in a book that would feature more of Di Bartolo’s illustrations plus the words of an author I’d been wanting to try for a while.
What stands out in the beginning is that the art story is exceedingly confusing at first. It’s unclear about what exactly is happening, which is actually really frustrating. Some readers might find this so annoying that they’ll put down the book – I think it’s very much a matter of personal taste. However, I found it intriguing, and the satisfaction of this art plot lies in its unraveling at the very end of the book.
In fact, I might say that this applies to the work – both equally important halves of it – as a whole: it will appeal the most to patient readers. Things really click together in the denouement, so if you’re looking for instant gratification, this is probably not the read for you.
Still, the art is very creepy (like, I’d caution younger readers about it because it’s so creepy). It sort of runs in a similar vein to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, although slightly more bloody. And there’s fierce beauty and passion captured in those swirling lines and bold colors. This same kind of beauty is what really brought the book home for me – the appreciation for stark, lovely details and the way they fit into the larger picture.
Again, I’ll step back to make more of a general statement. This book is shiver-up-your-spine creepy. It’s unsettling on every page. If you’re easily frightened (though haha, so am I) this’ll scare you. Maybe even quite a bit. It’s eerie, it’s haunting, and it’s ready to break down your mental walls.
So obviously Di Bartolo’s art has accomplished what it set out to do.
However, Kiersten White’s writing style is lovely – not the finest thing I’ve ever read, admittedly, but much better than most. It turns events that might ordinarily be dry into interesting plot points using its fresh, lively descriptions. It shifts in third-person past tense from perspective to perspective almost seamlessly, which is a nice change from the clunky switches of all too many novels.
The character dynamic is also well-done. Naturally, in a main character group of two girls and three boys, there’ll be some romantic tension. To my relief, this element wasn’t overdone at all, and it took an appropriately secondary role to the characters’ primary goals and inner conflicts. The characters themselves were all distinct from each other and interacted in very realistic ways. I especially loved the sibling dynamics between Cora/Minnie and Thomas/Charles – similarly caring yet just slightly different in the manner that’s expressed, like siblings in real life.
Not everything is explained in this book, that I have to concede. And that makes it feel like a chunk of it is missing, a phantom ending that you’ll keeping looking for. It makes it feel somewhat incomplete. This might get on the nerves of some readers more than others – again, personal taste. But I believe this is a standout hybrid novel that should most definitely not be overlooked.
If you like magic: go. If you like scariness: go.
Heck, if you like pretty pictures: by all means go.