Excessive length dilutes this fantasy adventure.
Holly lives “on a block of identical houses,” in an American town where “[e]veryone bought clothes at the same mall.” Woefully bored, she dreams about “lives she d[oes]n’t lead.” Then her parents pack up the family and take Holly and younger brother Ben to the English village of Hawkesbury, where their rental cottage’s mysterious caretaker/landlord gives Holly an iron key. Using the key to open a door in a tree, Holly, Ben and local boy Everett venture into an alternate realm resembling the Hawkesbury countryside but stocked with (way too many) fantasy creatures and dialects. In Anglielle—which is vaguely medieval in the vein of so many fantasy novels—Ben’s hand-held video game and asthma inhaler still work, but Holly’s key transforms into a magic wand, and there’s a hostile king and prince. Caterer’s plot has sturdy bones (Ben and Everett are imprisoned in a castle; Holly attempts various rescues), but the likable protagonists’ challenges are too easily overcome, and their supposedly huge mistakes oddly inconsequential. These combine with the tale’s meandering length to create a watery result. Efforts are too drawn out, indistinct and laden with destiny (Holly “knew the Old Tongues, somehow”) to seem quite meaningful. A Sauron-like figure lurks as an overlay for later in the series, never coming into play.
Fine enough as fantasy goes—but there are better. (Fantasy. 8-12)