Russell’s (Death of an H.O.E., 2013, etc.) YA fantasy novel, the first in a planned series, sends three middle schoolers on a quest through time to prevent a dark bargain that’s been centuries in the making.
When her mother and stepfather leave the country, seventh-grader November Atwood is sent to Danvers, Massachusetts, to live with her late father’s sisters and her 12-year-old twin cousins, Jeffrey and Stephen Atwood; the latter is nicknamed “Hawk” after the scientist Stephen Hawking, with whom he shares both a love of quantum physics and the use of a wheelchair. Near the abandoned State Asylum, the three tweens dig up an old wooden box; it contains a cryptic document, dated “In the second year of the reign of our Sovereign King William III,” or 1700. It includes the mysterious instruction to “Go beneath the stones of Hathorne / On The Eve of Hollandtide.” As they puzzle over what this statement could mean, they’re startled by the sudden appearance of November’s supposedly imaginary friend, Dynnis, who explains that the three Atwood children are part of a line of magic users destined to break the Bargain, a more than 300-year-old blood oath that will otherwise doom their town. But can they overcome the ancient evil of the demon called Astaroth, and save their family’s past and future? Russell’s exciting premise promises to connect the well-known story of the Salem witches with the history of the real-life Danvers State Hospital. Unfortunately, the details of these local legends are soon replaced by a standard tale of good vs. evil, and the use of Celtic lore seems irrelevant to the setting. This aspect is particularly disappointing because Russell’s writing is often vivid, incorporating not just visuals but sound and even scent: “it stunk of mildew, rotted plaster, and wood, but there was something more. This smell was almost sweet—like stale gingerbread.” It’s worth noting, though, that November’s narration is frequently ableist until late in the novel: “Up until now I’d done a pretty good job avoiding anyone in a wheelchair. I didn’t even make eye contact with them in public places.”
A potentially compelling historical fantasy that sadly squanders its sense of place.