Two things make 12-year-old orphan Lottie Fiske’s sad life happier: her friendship with Eliot and the magical apple tree near her boardinghouse.
Every year, Lottie receives birthday presents in a hole at the base of the tree—the exact presents she has requested. This year, Eliot is incurably ill, with just a few weeks to live, so she wishes for his recovery; that birthday, a white finch appears. One day Lottie discovers a sprite in her closet. Adelaide Wilfer takes her “root shooting” in the apple tree to another world layered below Lottie’s. Adelaide’s father is a healer (and the birthday gift–giver) working on medicine for the Otherwise Incurable. Lottie discovers she is a Halfling—half human and half sprite—and also is the Heir of Fiske, which seems to have some significance. When the cruel king of this world kidnaps Mr. Wilfer, Lottie, Adelaide, her brother, Oliver, and a halfling sprite-wisp named Fife journey to the castle to find Mr. Wilfer and the medicine for Eliot. The arduous journey involves magical creatures, a swamp of oblivion, strangling vines, travel through plague-ridden wisp territory and more. Lottie is spunky and likable; the interplay among the four travelers is engaging. Unfortunately, the protracted story introduces unexplained elements and has a weak, confusing ending.
While debut author Ormsbee’s use of language is laudable and the fantasy details are imaginative, they cannot compensate for the novel’s flaws. (Fantasy. 10-14)