Reviewed April 9, 2013.
Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2013. 262 pages.
2013 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 Teen Fiction
Wow. This is one of those books that after reading, I just sit there in amazement at the level of craft that went into it (well, actually lie there -- I read in bed). It's one you want to read over again to fully appreciate all the details. Though next time, just for the fun of it, I might read it backwards.
How to describe it without giving too much away? The book is a series of interconnected stories. The first story takes place in 2073. The next section takes place in 2011. And the sections go progressively further back in time, all the way to prehistoric times, with a section going back to 2073 at the very end, tying everything together. So well done.
I won't give away exactly what the connection is. You'll get the idea quickly. Certain common elements occur in all the stories, and finally at the end, you understand why.
All of the book is set on an island in the far north, an island called Blessed. The island is home to a rare "Dragon" orchid. And strange things happen there.
Every story is creepy, disturbing in some way or other, atmospheric. But I don't usually like creepy stories, and I loved this. He manages never to cross the line into awful. There's a lot of variety in the stories, including a vampire story and a ghost story, but even though I usually don't like vampire stories or ghost stories, every one of these stories was exceptionally good. There's a lot of untimely death in the stories, but they never sink into despair.
Another thing that perplexed me was that recently, I made some comments in School Library Journal's Battle of the Books regarding Jepp, Who Defied the Stars as to how strongly prejudiced I am against books that are written in present tense. But this book was written in present tense (all the different time periods), and it didn't bother me in the slightest. So I am going to have to modify my analysis. Clearly present tense isn't the problem. It must be something about the way it is often used. Maybe it bothers me when there's too much telling in present tense and not enough showing? I'm not sure how he did it, but Marcus Sedgwick made the present tense storytelling seem absolutely right. Maybe it just takes a truly outstanding writer. Now I'm going to look harder at which present tense books I hate, which I can tolerate, and which blow me away with their craft. (So far, this is the only one I can think of in that category.)
Anyway, since I don't want to give away what's going on in this book, I'll finish my review with the beginning of the book, set in June 2073, and so full of promise:
The sun does not go down.
This is the first thing that Eric Seven notices about Blessed Island. There will be many other strange things that he will notice, before the forgetting takes hold of him, but that will come later.
For now, he checks his watch as he stands at the top of the island's solitary hill, gazing to where the sun should set. It is midnight, but the sun still shines, barely dipping its heavy rim into the sea on the far horizon.
The island is so far north.
He shakes his head.
He's thinking about Merle. How something seems to wait in her eyes. How he felt calm, just standing next to her.
"Well, so it is," he says, smiling with wonder.
There! Just writing that out, I noticed the significance of one little detail that I hadn't noticed before. I must read this book again to appreciate the craft even further!
This book is amazing. It's got sinister undertones, but the even those who don't like creepy books (like me) may be won over by the sheer brilliance, as the author uses the unsettling elements in a way that adds to the story's power. This is one that will stick with you.