by M.E. Breen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Darkwood / 978-1-59990-259-3
With its lovely cover featuring a heroine with dark hair and bright eyes, framed by two clever cats and trailed by the ominous shapes of black wolves melting into the shadows of the forest behind her, "Darkwood" cannot help but catch and hold the eye of the observer. The premise is even more intriguing: in the world of Howland, there is no dusk, no moon, and no stars - only sudden, complete blackness when night comes. The inky darkness hides frightening dangers - the black wolves, or 'kinderstalk', that take livestock from the farms and steal children under the cover of darkness. When Annie learns, at the start of this fast-paced novel, that her foster uncle and aunt plan to sell her as a slave to the nearby mine, she braves the darkness for the first time, and a world of adventure opens up before her.
Reviewing books meant for younger readers is always difficult because one has to weigh the quality of the writing against the expectations of the intended audience. I was pleased to note that "Darkwood" starts the action quickly, filling in necessary details as the heroine goes along, rather than spending the first few chapters filled with nothing but exposition. Author Breen treats the reader with respect, providing little details along the way that will become significant in retrospect, always with a light touch, never rubbing the reader's nose in. On the other hand, however, sometimes too much credit is given to the imagination, as Breen has a habit early in the novel of moving the characters around too quickly, often to places the reader is unaware of or unprepared for. This sort of 'exposition via teleportation' is a touch disorienting and can be a little confusing. However, the style settles down a bit after the first third of the book or so and 'teleportation' is kept to a minimum afterward. As is not uncommon with fantasy books, some rather wild coincidences abound in order to further the plot line, which might potentially strain the credulity of an adult reader, but not so many as to try the patience of a younger reader, I think.
Although many of the common motifs of fairy tales and children's stories are present here - a quiet orphan, a bewildering prophecy, a dark wood brimming with shadowy monsters - "Darkwood" manages to remain immensely original as it weaves a tale of wars: humans against animals, king against subjects, and children against adults. Annie, our dark-haired heroine, is full of the hopes and fears of youth, and is clever, courageous, and kind without ever being too 'perfect' or unrealistic. She is often quiet, but is not afraid to speak her mind when the situation requires it, and she is not fazed or impressed by the trappings of wealth and royalty. Though she is bemused by her cats' almost magical ability to guide and protect her, she learns to trust them as her unlikely guardians. Breen also provides wonderful supporting characters, including two comical, yet wise, adult sisters who provide Annie with much needed maternal love and support on her hard journey.
Though the target audience of "Darkwood" is 10-14 years of age, I have no doubt that children and adults of all ages will find the original story, the commendable heroine, and the dark world of Howland to be a compelling and interesting read. For myself, I will definitely be watching for any sequels that may come, and I hope that Annie will enjoy many future adventures.
NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.
~ Ana Mardoll
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