In this sequel, Neftzger (The Orphanage of Miracles, 2013, etc.) delivers a middle-grade fantasy adventure tale full of genre hallmarks but with a few surreal twists of its own.
This fantasy’s young main characters face the daunting task of saving their kingdom, which is under the thrall of an unnamed Sorcerer whose spells blur the line between reality and illusion. Hotheaded Kelsey, fresh from training with the king’s army, reluctantly teams up with Maggie, a sensitive intellectual who aspires to be a diplomat. Along with Roland, a wise spirit whose day job is harvesting souls as a gentle grim reaper, the two girls set out on a quest to protect the nation’s threatened supply of sweetly scented hope trees. Maggie’s friend Nicholas stays behind in the castle with a batty magician and an animated stone gargoyle, who teach him the ways of sorcery. Overall, the story hews closely to the traditional fantasy models of authors such as Lloyd Alexander and Tamora Pierce, and fans of the genre will find that the plot contains few surprises. The characters, too, are somewhat one-dimensional, and they remain largely defined by the roles they play in the story: Kelsey is a fighter, Maggie is a negotiator, and Roland is their steadfast guide. However, Neftzger’s skillful wordplay and imaginative worldbuilding set this book apart. In a style reminiscent of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth (1961), it abounds with unexpected relationships between language and reality. For example, a wise woman wears a dress “woven from the fibers of knowledge and sewn together with the threads of learning,” while a shop of memories sells hope-filled dreams. “Emotions and beliefs,” Nicholas’ sorcery instructor tells him, “color much more of the perceived world [than] any one of us can imagine….Things spoken in love always become reality.” Neftzger’s themes of perception and agency are refreshingly sophisticated, and watching them play out within the kingdom’s surreal logic is this book’s greatest joy.
A sometimes-predictable fantasy but one that’s vibrant enough to satisfy eager young readers.