Stratton shows impressive versatility in a shift away from his intense teen fare—Chanda’s Secrets (2004), Borderline (2010)—to a playfully dramatic adventure with swashbuckling kids, mountain hermits, avalanche sledding and circus bears.
Infant Hans washes ashore in a wooden chest and is adopted by “a stumpy man of lumps and bumps”—a grave robber. Knobbe raises Hans to follow in his footsteps, though Hans can’t see the honor in it as much as the immorality and ickiness. Nearby, countess Angela (almost 13, like Hans) lives in a castle, developing high-level skill at dramatic play and marionettes. Skirting a forced marriage to corrupt Archduke Arnulf, Angela procures a potion from the sinister local Necromancer to make herself seem dead; she’ll be buried until Arnulf departs, then her parents will unbury her. But the Necromancer informs Arnulf, who kidnaps the parents, leaving Angela stuck in the coffin—until Hans unknowingly breaks in. Together they dodge peril and discover colorful comrades from forest to dungeon across the archduchy. Stratton’s prose is artistic, clever and funny as it shows that even the oldest tropes can feel fresh and cheeky and that wisdom fits fine next to grossouts like poop buckets. The only blot is the Necromancer’s blindness as a symbol of creepy evil.
It’s fun all the way as wit, daring and theatrical skills restore the archduchy. (Fantasy. 10-13)