A 12-year-old boy tries to save a world made of words in this middle-grade fantasy novel.
British-Iraqi Ankido Gulzar is saddened by the news his archaeologist father has disappeared in Iraq. Unfortunately, Habubti, Ankido’s beloved grandmother, is leaving him behind as she searches for his father. An acclaimed fantasy novelist, Habubti asks her grandson to care for her latest, unfinished book, cryptically specifying to keep it out of the hands of Aunt Geraldine. In Habubti’s absence, Geraldine makes a grab for the Gulzar estate by sending Ankido, the heir, to a boarding school. On the way, the boy loses consciousness, awakens, and soon finds himself in a “crossroads between worlds.” He meets Zinaida, a wanderer, who tells Ankido that “the Land of Mesopo”—the title of Habubti’s book—is dying. Mesopo is made of words and a thief, Humbaba, is gradually stealing all of them. Evidently, the Book (Habubti’s) has chosen Ankido as the new Tale Smith; indeed, the boy lately has been dreaming of entirely new words. With an ability to create worlds with invented words, Ankido may be able to rescue Mesopo, as its many books are “the pillars of mankind’s literacy.” Ankido is a well-rounded protagonist, wielding words as a weapon but also struggling to overcome sporadic fits of anger. Dynamic characters fill the pages, from creepy, fishlike River People (Humbaba’s bondsmen) to Geraldine’s winsome stepdaughters, Leila and Salma, who find their own way to Mesopo to help their cousin Ankido. Dietrich (The Great Rainbow Hug, 2011) masterfully visualizes the fantastic world: Recurring blots or pools of black ink signify Mesopo’s slowly diminishing word count. Kallick’s (Sophie’s Quest, 2018) complementary artwork is colorful and detailed, though, disappointingly, there are only two of her dual-page illustrations. The engaging tale is a quick read for young readers and adults. And while it seems the author is priming it for a series, this book can act as a stand-alone.
Vibrant characters and prose energize this literary adventure.