Monday, November 9, 2009

Review of Darkwood by M.E. Breen

Breen, M.E. Darkwood. Bloomsbury, 2009.

In Howland, the moon has not been seen in seven centuries, and when the day is over, night slams down over the land without the grace of a sunset or dusk. Why this is remains a mystery throughout this dark and atmospheric fantasy, although we gain an idea of what vile creature is responsible for this black and dangerous night.

In the night, hungry animals prowl - the "kinderstalk," who are held responsible for the disappearance, one by one, of many of the children in Dour County. But when young Annie tries to run away after learning that her uncle is selling her to the mines, she learns the fate of most of these children. And when she goes to tell the King of the evil mining foreman Gibbet and his deeds, the plot thickens - the kinderstalk, who have a complex society of their own, turn out to be major players in the events that are quickly coming to a climax in Howland, and Annie is irrevocably connected to these creatures.

This plot ebbs and flows, driven by the cruelty of greedy men, strange and joyous revelations, and moments of comfort and affection. Exotic details like the sudden night, Annie's inexplicable ability to see in the dark, and her sister's apparently complicated relationship with the King kept me eagerly turning the pages, even when the plot skittered and jolted. The geography of Howland eluded me - I couldn't understand the distances involved between one point and another or where various landmarks were located in relation to each other. This became a bit problematic during a crucial scene when men and wolves and Annie were all racing toward a climactic meeting point - I had absolutely no sense of what was going on and so had to trust that Annie knew what she was doing. Unfortunately, some of her actions and decisions don't make sense; again, the reader has to suspend belief and go with the flow in order to enjoy the story, rather than ask questions like "why, oh why isn't Annie telling those kind sisters Serena and Beatrice about her travails at the mine?"

The prose is mostly straightforward and even plain, rather a comfort in a story whose few good and normal people are surrounded unknowingly by sinister forces and shuttered in each night by the most impenetrable of scary darkness. The ending, both satisfying and horrifying, leaves the reader with a handful of rather urgent unanswered questions, meaning that there will surely be a sequel.

Recommended for fans of the type of atmospheric fantasy that only slowly reveals its secrets. Ages 11 to 14.

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