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by Doug Weller

Publisher: Manuscript

A girl and a leopard discover a supernatural threat to human and animal life in this fantasy.

After her parents’ divorce, 12-year-old Calico Rae is sent to spend the summer with her dour uncle on his farm in the English countryside, unhappily separated from her older brother, Luca, who is living with their father in the United States. Life is dull until Calico finds a hidden, derelict old mansion with grounds once home to the long-forgotten, once-famous Menagerie. Una Ornithol, the Menagerie’s bird-bonded guardian, lives there with a boy and a girl who provide care for the animals that still reside on the premises. When Calico encounters the mansion’s self-isolated black leopard named Pardus, she finds that they share an unexpected affinity. “In days long passed,” Una explains, such a connection was called “genifying,” and with training, those so bonded shared their skills and senses. That Calico will need to develop her bond with Pardus becomes clear when the Menagerie comes under threat and her brother suddenly disappears during a visit to her uncle’s farm. From the start, Weller establishes a pleasantly unsettling undercurrent of something off-kilter about the townspeople and Calico’s uncle, increasing the tension with Luca’s disturbing “game” with bees, his mysterious research involving butterflies, and his distant attitude toward Calico’s warmth. The fantastical adventure then takes off, literally, in a flying caravan powered by birds. The author ratchets up the suspense with a vicious, blood-spewing monster called Grime; a secretive Central American tribe; Calico’s dangerous genifying trials; a bizarre Insect Queen; and a city, empty of all animals and many of its citizens, loomed over by a pair of towers where a new power source, claimed to be world-saving but rooted in a terrible secret, is about to be revealed. Although unlikable Luca doesn’t come into full focus (his relationship with the Insect Queen and apparent betrayal of his sister call to mind Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”), Calico grows with her eventful experiences, informed by compassion and empathy. Readers are left with intriguing hints about Calico’s upcoming escapades with her leopard companion in a sequel.

An offbeat adventure with a strong tween protagonist, high-stakes action, and heart.