Reading Level: Middle Grade
Length: 352 pages
Publisher: Walden Pond Press
Release Date: September 24, 2013
Stand Alone or Series: Stand Alone
Source: Borrowed from Library
Rating: 4/5 stars
I was excited to read this book, I absolutely loved the other book I have read by Ursu called Breadcrumbs. While I didn’t like this book as much as Breadcrumbs it was still a very good read.
Oscar is a shop boy for Caleb, the most powerful magician in Asteri. He spends his days in a dark cellar weighing out ingredients for his master and dodging Will, the cruel magician’s apprentice. When Will is killed and Caleb goes missing, Oscar is left in charge of the shop. Then it is brought to his attention by the healer’s apprentice Callie that the children of Asteri are falling ill. Oscar and Caleb find they must work together to solve the mystery behind the illness.
There is some interesting world-building in this book. Asteri is basically a walled city that was protected from the plague by a magic grove of trees called the Barrows. The trees are actually wizards who sacrificed themselves to save the village from the plague. What makes this even more interesting is that magic only seems to exist in the vicinity of the Barrows and no where else in the world.
I have read a lot of reviews that go into great depth discussing Oscar’s characterization. Oscar loves his routine and prefers the company of his cats to other people. He is incredibly smart, but has a very hard time dealing with people and dealing with stressful situations. The author has mentioned that his character was based on her son who has Asperger’s Syndrome.
I liked Oscar as a character, I was a bit sad for him because Caleb treats him so poorly. It was also a bit sad that Oscar felt like he had to find a reason for being different rather than just accepting that he was a bit different from everyone else. It is wonderful to watch as he grows into a larger life and into a “real boy” like he has always wanted to be.
Oscar’s life changes significantly when Callie enters the story. She is the apprentice to the Healer and helps Oscar deal with the people-side of the shop business when Caleb goes missing. She is also the one who notices the strange pattern in the children of Asteri getting sick. She kind of opens up Oscar’s eyes to the life outside of his little cellar and starts to teach him how to interact with people.
There is a good mystery here as Oscar and Callie try to solve the sickness. There is also some mystery around a large monster that starts to attack the town.
The book is well written with excellent imagery. There are some good twists in the story and the story is engaging.
Overall I enjoyed this book. The world is interesting and the characters are easy to engage with. The writing is excellent and the mystery is well done. There are a number of good lessons about accepting who you are and learning to tolerate different kinds of people. There is also some interesting discussion on what would happen if society was dependent on magic. I did like Breadcrumbs even more than this book, so if you liked this book make sure to read that one as well. Recommended to fans of middle grade fantasy.