Magnusson’s debut YA fantasy follows a young boy’s flight from the wrath of bullies, taking him to another world from which there may be no escape.
On the run from bullies, new kid at school Stewart seeks refuge down a storm drain. He winds up lost in a maze of pipes until he steps out into a lush forest and the drain pipe entrance disappears. He encounters Cora, a young girl who takes him to a city hidden behind a great wall. Inside are only children, guided by a book written by the Forebears—the previous inhabitants—and fearing the tall, vicious Venators outside. The venerated book prophesizes a devastating final battle, but Stewart only wants a look at its pages in hopes of finding a way home. Magnusson’s novel is an allegory: The Venators, who merely beat their prey in lieu of killing them, are equated with bullies, while the children, who never age, are the perpetual embodiment of innocence. But Magnusson infuses the narrative with stunning imagery that wallops the senses—the cacophony of a construction site as Stewart passes by or the multitude of colors in the forest. Some of the descriptions are made all the more authentic through the impressionable eyes of a child: Stewart likens the landscape to emerald green ice cream covered with candy. Ample action and suspense, including the predicted conflict between the city and its skeletal enemies, help the plot retain a steady speed. The best moments involve Cora and Stewart running through the forest, dodging the Venators; the book even opens with Stewart midsprint. Despite a theme geared for younger readers and the unmistakable moral lesson of facing one’s fears head-on, the author surprises with somber, mature dialogue, as when the Princeps, the city’s female leader, states bluntly, “[W]e are fairly confident that we are no longer on the planet Earth.” For good measure, there are also talking animals, a protagonist who’s more than deserving of a cheering audience and a bittersweet ending, with a slightly greater emphasis on the sweet.
All the fun of a children’s book, coupled with the razor-sharp wit and potent insight that seasoned readers crave.