A fantasy debut grapples thoughtfully with all-too-mundane evil.
Fourteen-year-old Marah may be intelligent, hardworking and musically gifted, but a mere “sparker” (the insulting slang kasir magicians use for the despised halani underclass) has little chance of a future. Such concerns seem trivial, though, when a mysterious plague devastates the city of Ashara. Marah forges an unlikely partnership with Azariah, a talented young kasir, to decipher a forbidden ancient text that might offer a cure—but what if the epidemic conceals a more sinister threat? Social injustice is a rare theme in middle-grade fantasy, but Glewwe conveys the insidious poison of prejudice by grounding the narrative in evocative details, constructing Ashara from an intriguing mix of the familiar and the alien. Marah is a terrific heroine—smart, determined and ferociously devoted to her friends and family—but she also makes mistakes, asks for help and finds herself torn between conflicting desires. If the other characters are less rich, they are still commendably complex and diverse. The grim subjects—racism, disease, betrayal and genocide—demand a dark tone, but it is never graphic or gratuitous. Nor is this tale devoid of light; but while insisting that triumph over systemic oppression is possible, it does not pretend that victory will be easy or without compromise.
A compelling story on a difficult topic, addressed with maturity and grace. (Fantasy. 10-15)