Review written by Jonathan Lavallee.
Jinx can see it happening, the hunger in the clearing, the fact that his step-parents just had a new child. He’s going to be the one abandoned in the woods. So, when Jinx is taken into the Urwald he isn’t shocked. Just resigned to his fate. That’s when he meets the possibly evil wizard Simon and decides to live with him.
This is one of those stories that takes a lot of little pieces from various fairy stories and kind of tosses them about. Simon is a friend to, as well as trades with, the local witches who laugh and cackle about eating children and making their homes out of gingerbread. Simon finds a mirror and he watches and talks to a girl wearing a red hood. There is a curse, a possible prince looking for a damsel to save, and an extra evil wizard named the Bonemaster who has a problem with Simon.
The story itself feels very much like the setup for a longer series (which it is) because the book focuses on highlighting the characters coming together. It is also a story about family, about how people get together, and how they break apart. All of it is set in a very diverse and kind of mish-mashed world that works really well.
This book is great for a tween of any age. They will just get something different out of it. Your younger tween will be able to enjoy the mysterious parts, where Jinx is exploring the mysteries that Simon has in his house, as well as the adventure afterwards where they end up confronting the Bonemaster. Your older tween will also enjoy the little bits of fairy tales that they will find as well as the other characters, such as Elfwyn, the girl in the red hood who has been cursed to speak the truth when someone asks her, and Reven who has been cursed so that he can’t talk about his past.
All of it is put together in a pretty entertaining package that isn’t a slug to read through. There is always the right kind of mystery or problem to solve to keep your tween engaged in the story. There are enough tidbits of information that you are constantly putting together how the world works. The dialog is great because the young characters talk like kids; they rarely feel like kids speaking with adult voices. They’re intelligent, and courageous, but not particularly precocious which makes them feel a lot more real. It also makes it a lot more accessible for younger tweens who aren’t dealing with a lot of “stop and go” words (words that require you to stop reading, go look it up, and then start reading again).
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Family is a big, complicated mess in this story. Jinx’s first family treats him poorly for the first few pages, and then his step-father is abusive when he takes him out to Urwald to die. He’s then “purchased” by Simon—he just takes Jinx under his wing as a servant, though it’s a much better life than the one he had in the clearing. Jinx kind of feels like he has a family with Simon and Sophie, but it’s upset when Simon takes Jinx’s soul and puts it in a bottle. Elfwen, Reven, and Jinx are kind of like a family after they try to help Jinx through his trials when the Bonemaster is using him as bait for Simon.
There is reconciliation at the end between Simon and Jinx, but their original relationship is broken and it will never be exactly the same again.
I did say that this is good for tweens of all ages, but there are some disturbing scenes in the story. The first is that Jinx’s step-father gets taken by trolls while they’re in the woods. Then Simon does a spell that steals the life force from Jinx who can no longer read people’s feelings on their faces anymore. Then there’s a fight with some trolls and Jinx manages to cut off one of their arms. The power of the Bonemaster is based around the people he has killed. There’s a giant bone bridge that they have to cross, as well as the dead people’s spirits in jars that they find in a secret room of the Bonemaster’s house.
There isn’t anything in particular referencing real world religions, but there is conflict between what Sophie believes and what Simon believes about magic. Sophie comes from a place where magic is viewed as evil and Simon thinks that magic isn’t good or bad. When Jinx goes looking for Sophie, he runs into the opinion that magic is evil and he has to flee for his life.
This is a good start to a trilogy. If your tween reader devours books, this looks like a fun one to give them. There’s a bit of scary content, although nothing too horrible and graphic; if they’re okay with that kind of content they’ll enjoy the great characters, and the wonderful blend of relationships and action.