by Jo Keroes
Enough with the vampires. Consider instead a novel filled with just the right combination of fear and fantasy, heroism and heartbreak, all rendered in lively and lucid prose. The setting is Howland, where darkness falls so oppressively that there are no stars, no moon. Ever. The novel is Darkwood, by M.E. Breen. Among its pleasures are Annie, the gutsy thirteen year old hero who can see in the dark and is brave enough to attack a king; a family betrayal; a prophecy; the reappearance of a beloved sibling long lost; and a group of mysterious beasts, the kinderstalk, who, so Annie has been told, have snatched and swallowed the host of village children who have mysteriously vanished. (In reality, those children have been abducted by evil miners who have put them to work chiseling precious stones out of rock.) When Annie figures out that she herself is about to be sold to the miners, she sets out alone for the forest. You can see we’re in fairy tale country here, but it’s a sophisticated landscape Breen creates, complete with a pleasure forest – a vivid green lawn banked by wild roses and raspberry bushes - and a wonderfully comic pair of twin sisters, one enormous, the other miniscule, who dwell in a tiny cottage filled with spiders and offer Annie refuge and kindness, as her journey evolves into a serious quest and confrontation with the dark side.
I’ve tended in this space to review books for either young children or adults. But there’s a vast audience of teenage readers whose tastes are wide and various and who deserve, not to say yearn for, strong narratives well told. At once a coming of age novel and hero’s quest narrative, Darkwood rewards and tantalizes its readers with an ending filled with just enough foreboding to demand a sequel.