by Kelly Barnhill
First sentence: “Once upon a time there were two brothers, as alike to one another as you are to your own reflection.”
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Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Content: There really isn’t anything objectionable. The pacing is slow, however, which is something that might turn more reluctant readers off. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.
Ned has been “the wrong boy” since the fateful day when he and his twin brother, Tam, tried to sail to the sea and ended up drowning in the river. Or nearly drowning, in Ned’s case. See: his mother is the witch of the village, and she has been the keeper of the magic — dangerous, unruly magic which Ned is never to touch — for most of Ned’s life. And although she couldn’t save Tam, she saved Ned… by sewing Tam’s soul inside of Ned.
Fast forward a few years — ones in which Ned doesn’t have much strength, where he has a stutter, and where he can’t read — to when the Bandit King comes into their lives with the intention to steal the magic for his own. This is where Ned does something remarkable: he takes the magic into himself, and sets off on an adventure. One in which he’ll meet a friend — his first since his brother died — and change the course of the world.
It’s a slow, quiet book; one that reminded me strongly of Anne Ursu’s books. That’s a good thing, except it’s not one for people who are expecting Grand Action and Adventure. Much of the book is spent inside Ned’s head (mostly because he can’t talk, though I did like Barnhill’s methods for portraying Ned’s stutter), which doesn’t lend itself to fast reading. That said, given time, this book is really a fantastic read. I loved how Barnhill portrayed the magic; it had its own personality, one that can be controlled by it’s “owner”, provided the person is strong enough. And I really enjoyed seeing Ned come into his own. Yes, he was pushed around by (some of) the adults in his life (I loved his mother; she’s fantastic), but it’s a true middle grade novel in that Ned (and his new friend, Áine) face the conflict on their own, without adult help.
Speaking of Áine: she’s a remarkable character, too. Self-sufficient, yes, and strong, but she also finds it in her heart to be a friend and a true companion.
I think this is one that will stay with me for a while.