In this YA debut, siblings return to a fantasy realm to find fresh conflict brewing.
Since his parents’ divorce two years ago, 14-year-old John Jenson has lived with his father in Hunter’s Run, Maine. He dearly misses his 13-year-old sister, Violet, and can’t wait for her upcoming visit. While in school, however, he learns that she’s gone missing en route. The police find her backpack by a river in the woods near the bus station. Unlike his father and Officer Wilkins, though, John doesn’t suspect the worst. He believes that Violet can swim in river rapids because she did so two years ago in the Valley, a realm of magic and talking animals where he and she fought the foul Soldiers of Sorrow. In his memories, though, John isn’t completely sure that the Valley wasn’t just a hallucination that he and his sister shared. Then, as he investigates, a creepy old man points him to a rowboat on the river. When John hesitates, a tropical bird on the stranger’s shoulder says, “Just get in the darn boat and save us all a headache.” Meanwhile, Violet and her small white dog, Hodgey, wake up in the Valley’s Gateway Glade. They meet a deer named Ripple who informs Violet that a rebellion has broken out, and the Soldiers of Sorrow have returned. Selbrede merges idyllic fantasy trappings, such as the deer chief Boulder’s cave garden, and elements similar to those in comic books like Fables. He splits the chapters between John’s and Violet’s viewpoints, and within these chapters, he offers many glimpses into the siblings’ first visit to the Valley. The prose revels in teenage snarkiness and humor, as when John thinks, “I had been told about avoiding strangers, especially ones climbing trees in bathrobes.” As the narrative progresses, magical artifacts come into play, including the Ivory-Bound Book, which can reveal “the darkest secrets about oneself.” Tension comes from not knowing which human or animal characters might be possessed by the Soldiers of Sorrow, who embody traits such as jealousy, hate, and despair.
A lengthy first installment that sets up darker perils to come.