Reviewed February 1, 2013.
Harper, 2013. 360 pages.
2013 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 Children's Fiction
Jinx is the first book I've read in 2013 that's also published in 2013. (I was catching up reading 2012 books for Capitol Choices the first few weeks of January.) And I like it! I recently read lots and lots of middle grade fantasy for the 2012 Cybils shortlist, and this one stands out from the pack.
Jinx has world-building with faultless, albeit complex, internal logic. (Messed up internal logic is always my pet peeve with fantasy books. This one has no such problems.) Jinx has grown up in the Urwald. (That's German for "primeval forest.") Here's how the book begins:
In the Urwald you grow up fast or not at all. By the time Jinx was six he had learned to live quietly and carefully, squeezed into the spaces left by other people even though the hut he lived in with his stepparents actually belonged to him. He had inherited it after his father died of werewolves and his mother was carried off by elves.
But then a spark from a passing firebird ignited the hut, and within a few minutes it had gone. The people in the clearing built another to replace it, and this new hut was not his. His stepparents, Bergthold and Cottawilda, felt this keenly. Besides, the harvest had been bad that autumn, and the winter would be a hungry one.
This was the sort of situation that made people in the clearing cast a calculating eye upon their surplus children.
With that beginning, you might get the impression the book is darker than it is. Yes, there's danger pretty much throughout the book, but Jinx is so good-hearted, the overall feeling is much more positive. Jinx's stepfather does try to abandon him in the Urwald, but he gets picked up and taken in by a wizard named Simon.
I like the complexity of the characters in this book. You're not quite sure all along who is good and who is bad. And when you figure it out, the good characters still have plenty of flaws, and the bad characters have some good qualities.
I love Jinx's magic. He can see the shape and color of people's thoughts. He thinks everyone can do that. He's also exceptionally good at listening, even to the trees of the Urwald. But he's good at listening to other people and things, too, and quickly picks up a variety of languages. Simon and his wife are clueless about Jinx's abilities, because they aren't nearly so good at listening. I liked that little detail. And Jinx's seeing Simon's thoughts gives him good reason to wonder whether Simon is good or bad.
The biggest catch to this book is that it's the start of a series. Yes, it ends at a good place, but Jinx and his friends are about to start off on an adventure, and that's likely to be significant. There are some unfinished details we'll want to find out about. But that's also a good thing about the book -- I'm happy there will be more to come.
This book lays the groundwork. It tells about Jinx growing up in Simon's house and figuring out how things work. About halfway through the book, when Jinx is 12 years old, he sets off to seek his fortune. He gains two companions and sets off on an ill-conceived adventure. The adventure is ill-conceived, but I can believe the author's explanation of how Jinx got pulled into it. The rest of the book deals with the consequences.
The big strengths of this book are the fascinating world Sage Blackwood has built (Hmm. Could that be a pseudonym? It's almost too perfect for writing about the Urwald.) and the complex characters. Besides not knowing who is good or bad, I love the way Sage's abilities affect his character. His two companions each have a curse on them, and that makes them all the more interesting, as well.
All in all, my 2013 reading year is off to a marvelous start!