Jemma’s always been out of step with her family. She dreads Mord-days, when the Agromonds make Offerings to demonic entities, and she resents the sentient Mist that keeps the sun from Anglavia. On the eve of her 13th birthday, she learns those feelings are well-founded.
With her two mind-reading rats and a mysterious book from her old nurse, Jemma flees Agromond Castle—hotly pursued—into the Mist-shrouded forest. There she encounters the usual assortment of helpers and hinderers, including her friend Digby. While her book provides clues to her past and future, her adventures teach her courage and fortitude. Sturdy, down-to-earth Jemma’s an endearing heroine, but the evildoers (here Grindstaff’s in good literary company) are more vivid and individuated than the good folk, who share a bland, interchangeable identity. Pacing is slow—getting Jemma out of the castle takes 90 pages, and she retraces her steps so often her hero’s journey feels more like a commute. The tone ranges from whimsical humor (Jemma misses the castle fare: stale bread and sour milk; comfort food is what you’re used to) to solemn high fantasy, but when the evil expands to widespread infanticide, the lighter tone jars.
Debut missteps shouldn’t bother young readers though, and the frequent flashes of charm and originality scattered throughout bode well for future ventures. (Fantasy. 9-12)