by Colin Meloy/Illustrated by Carson Ellis
First sentence: “How five crows managed to lift a twenty-pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries.”
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What if, across the river from a small community outside of Portland lay an Impassable Wilderness? And what if, a 12-year-old girl, Prue, and her friend, Curtis, were able to get past into the Impassable Wilderness because that’s the direction they saw the crow’s fly with Prue’s baby brother? And what if, when they got into the Impassable Wilderness they discovered an entire community: one with talking animals, and Dowager Governesses and a civil war looming? And what if, they got caught in the middle of it?
On paper, this book has everything it needs to be a grand middle-grade fantasy. Talking animals both good an evil? Check. Bandits in the forest? Check. An evil queen/governess who vaguely reminded me of the White Witch in Narnia? Check. Golden eagles big enough to carry a person? Check. A baby kidnapping, and a subsequent sacrifice for evil gain? Check. A winning hero and heroine who manage to Figure Things Out (and on the other hand, Completely Dopey Parents who are Utterly Clueless)? Check.
So, why didn’t I like this one more than I did?
I think it’s primarily because it was too. long. Unfortunately, a side effect of Harry Potter is that fantasy writers think they need 540 pages to tell a 250 page story. Really? I don’t need all the extra stuff: the inner monologues, the extended prison scenes, the tender asides. Perhaps the world was too big for one book (well, yeah: there’s a sequel), but even so, I think Meloy spent too much time on building the huge world and not enough on tightening up the plot to give me what I wanted — in this case, for Prue to rescue her brother — without all the extra stuff. (I really am spoiled when it comes to reading. I just don’t have the patience.)
That said, it definitely works as a “mood” book. I did feel like I was in Portland in the fall: it’s a rainy and dire world that the children have found their way into. The pen-and-ink illustrations reminded me of the ones Jon Klassen did for the Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, and they were scattered throughout the book providing a needed break from the endless prose.
I guess what I’m really saying is that I think this is one of those books that adults think kids should like. And maybe some will. But, as an adult, I sure didn’t like it all that much.