In a grim season, one rural tradition seems less like a boys' romp and more like a gateway for the old powers.
This ought to be a banner year for 13-year-old Ash, finally selected as the stag boy. As the lead runner in his British town's annual Stag Chase, Ash should be preparing to race his best friend, Mark, and the other boys their age, hounds to his stag. If only the whole town weren't shattered with grief. A foot-and-mouth outbreak has devastated the area, with tragic consequences; Mark's dad hanged himself in the barn. Ash's own father, an army captain, has returned from the war—afflicted with PTSD, haunted by visions and rising alcoholism. Even the Stag Chase itself seems corrupted. Ash sees creepy crows in the woods, skulls draped in the trees, ghost stag boys, and (most uncanny) Mark living in the woods, dressed in rags and daubed with clay. The old ways are rising, Mark insists, and the stag boy's destiny will not be a happy one. In haunting, lyrical prose, Ash tries to protect himself from Bone Jack the soul-taker while learning to be a better son and friend. With a deft hand, Crowe twines the ancient folk motifs around her evocation of modern Britain—with one exception: characters’ races go unspecified, leaching it of its multicultural vigor.
A lovely, eerie adventure that balances the ancient magic with its protagonist's very real character growth. (Fantasy. 11-13)