After reading his excellent adult Musket and Magic fantasy series The Shadow Campaign – read my review of The Thousand Names, the first book in the series here – I was delighted to come across this children’s offering. Would Wexler make a successful transition from writing very adult books, to catering to the reading tastes of far younger readers?
Imagine a world… where cats can talk, where fairies are snarling bald beasts with needle-like teeth, where a huge dark library hides secrets in its shadows and dangerous creatures prowl the pages of books… Dare you join Alice on her quest to find a happy ending?
The gorgeous cover and the creepy blurb on the back are a very fair indicator as to the emotional tone and overall feel of this book. Alice is on a mission to discover what has happened to her father, but it looks as though it was nothing good. In the meantime, she has been apprenticed to a rather unpleasant character called Geryon, who has access to a very dangerous library, where a monster read means something quite different from a large, densely written book…
A sense of menace pervades the book throughout, reminding me of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. It is definitely a page-turner. The pacing and growing tension as I continued to read to discover what is going on is skilfully handled. Alice is an enjoyable protagonist – spiky and adventurous, however managing to portray sufficient vulnerability in difficult circumstances so that we care about her. She is also very bright and quickly adapts to her new existence. And it is just as well she shows bags of resilience in difficult conditions as there isn’t a single adult around her who is remotely likeable or trustworthy. And that also goes for most of the creatures she encounters on her quest.
Wexler presents us with a puzzle at the start of the story, which steadily unspools with a variety of answers which add substance and a backstory to this unsettling world she appears to have slipped into. It’s neatly done and I think most 10+ year olds will thoroughly enjoy it. However, my caveat would be those children who are innately nervous, or very stressed might find this particular read a bit dour – there isn’t a lot of laughs in this adventure. The other comment I’d make is that this is clearly the first in the series and while plenty happens throughout the book, there are precious few real answers provided at the end of this volume. The good news is the second book, The Mad Apprentice is available.
I’ll be definitely tracking down the next book because I want to know what next befalls Alice – and besides, when I read The Forbidden Library to my granddaughter, she’ll probably want to go straight on with the story. I know I do.