Baldacci takes a late and none-too-nimble leap aboard the children’s-fantasy bandwagon with this tale of a rebellious teenager in a town surrounded by a monster-ridden forest.
Vega Jane gets by putting the finishing touches on high-quality manufactured goods (which, she later discovers, are thrown into a pit). She gets inklings both that Wormwood has a hidden past and isn’t the world’s only settlement after the town’s other Finisher flees into the deadly Quag, leaving behind a map and a bestiary that catalogs its creatures. Before she finally follows him, hundreds of pages later, she is forced to compete in the town’s Duelum, which is a regular round of previously males-only bare-knuckle fights for which there is no clear rationale. In labored efforts to create a sense of otherness, the author trots in a host of invented animals (garms, adars, jabbits and so on) and uses British cant (“The niff that bloke sent off…”). He also replaces all mention of “man,” “woman,” “human” and “dog” with, respectively, “male,” “female,” “Wug” or “Wugmort,” and “canine,” as in: “a male had killed his female for no cause other than he was a vile Wug” and “I didn’t like my stuff male-handled.” Despite these efforts, this is all familiar territory, from the isolated town with secretive leaders bent on preserving the status quo to violent visions, hidden rooms and libraries, characters with ambiguous agendas, a hot-tempered teen protagonist with nascent magical powers and three magical tools that practically fall into her hands. There’s even a ring. With some perfunctory martial training from her boyfriend, Vega Jane improbably defeats several ravening monsters as well as a string of much larger and more experienced males, then flies off over the town walls to have future adventures.
Like many crossover efforts from name-brand authors: overstuffed and underinspired. (Fantasy. 11-13)