In Zaman’s well-paced debut YA novel, 11-year-old Clara Skilten has adventures at a training academy.
Clara has always sensed that she is different, particularly after a tragic fire consumed her home and stole her family’s lives. Lifted from an upsetting, stressful experience at an orphanage, she shows promise at a new academy, particularly in her fighting classes. She makes a new friend in a young girl nicknamed Lithium. Yet mysteries abound; for example, the name Muscaria seems to terrify students and faculty alike. Gradually, Clara learns that Queen Muscaria is a tyrannical ruler who plucks children from the academy, whisks them away to her palace, and imprisons them. Clara is offered a chance to go to Muscaria’s palace to try to find out the queen’s intentions. It turns out that Muscaria is responsible for many other crimes, and she has many enemies, including Clara’s own deceased father. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that Clara was chosen for the task not at random, but as part of a calculated plan. She finds herself tested physically and emotionally as she fights for her life and those of her peers and countrymen. Zaman shows remarkable finesse in her ability to situate readers in an unknown world, balancing expository descriptions with thrilling fight scenes and creative wordplay (one aggressive character’s name, for example, is Diator Glad). Clara is a compelling heroine whom young readers will cheer as she battles against pure evil. At times, the worldbuilding seems shaky, as it’s hard to determine whether the book is meant to be fantasy, dystopian, or contemporary realistic fiction. Furthermore, Clara seems to be a remarkably mature preteen, speaking with an elevated vocabulary and sophisticated syntax that seem somewhat unrealistic. However, the teenage Zaman is a promising new voice in YA fiction who can clearly write circles around much older authors.
An entertaining tale for adventure-hungry readers.