“Creepy kids’ book delivery!” my co-worker announced when she dropped The Thickety in front of me at the bookshop. The intricate, foreboding cover of the advanced reader’s copy was enough to move it to the top of my reading list. I seem to have developed a reputation as She Who Reads All The Weird Children’s Books. It’s a fitting title, I suppose, and I do enjoy the perks which go with it. The Thickety is set to come out in May, 2014.
Characters: *** (3 stars)
Character development: **** (4 stars)
Plot: *** (3 stars)
Writing: *** (3 stars)
Overall: *** (3 stars)
Age range recommendation: 8 and up
(It is hereby stated that I read the advanced reader’s copy of The Thickety and a few details might change before publication.)
The Thickety is a Middle Grade novel set on the fictional island of De’Noran, where people are still terrified of magic and follow The Path of Timoth Clen: destroyer of witches. Unfortunately, Kara’s known around the island as “the witch’s daughter.” Her mother was put to death for committing some gruesome murders with magic, and Kara’s family has been largely ostracized by their superstitiously devout community ever since. Kara just wants to be left in peace with her beloved little brother, to bring her father back from the brink of despair, and to get through a day without Grace – the religious leader’s manipulative daughter – making her life unbearable.
This fearful village exists in the shadow of the Thickety, a deep dark forest which is home to the mysterious and ominous Sordyr. There are monsters in the Thickety, and old powers which can not be understood. Kara can sometimes hear the forest demon calling her name, but she knows magic is the cause of all evil in De’Noran and tries her hardest to follow The Path; to “work hard, want nothing, stay vigilant.” No one has ventured into the Thickety and escaped unharmed. But then, one evening, Kara crosses the border and goes into the woods. She finds a magical book – a grimoire – and quickly uses it to learn magic and finally exert some control over her surroundings. That is, unless the seductive promises coming from the grimoire are controlling her, instead…
I really wanted to love The Thickety, as the premise and setting really excited me, but I ended up only liking it. Still, there’s a lot to like. The religious mythology and superstitions which rule De’Noran seem underdeveloped at times, but are creative and appealing nonetheless. If there’s a sequel, I hope that the legends behind Sordyr will be discussed in more detail, because while I love the idea of an evil nature king dwelling in accursed forests, his influence in the story tends to be told rather than shown. The village traditions of reenacting parts of their mythology filled in some of the gaps – almost in morse dancer-style pageantry – but I just felt that such a cool character ended up being wasted. The forest itself also gets less page-time than I would have liked. There are all these great descriptions of really unusual creatures which come from beyond the trees, and the small amount of time Kara does spend within the boundaries is filled with uncanny wonders befitting the likes of Mirkwood Forest. But, disappointingly, the Thickety spends most of the book looming ominously around the town rather than acting as a stage for what could have been some really atmospheric scenes. However, the novel’s subtitle is “The Path Begins,” so I’m hoping that a sequel might take us headfirst into the world of glowing webs, frightening tree-men, and many-mouthed monsters.
I did study European witch trials a bit in University, and spend a great many summer weekends in Salem Massachusetts, so I found J.A. White’s take on the witch-hunt mentality pretty interesting. While reading, I couldn’t help but pity Kara’s closed-minded neighbors, since most of them genuinely do act out of terror rather than malice. Pity and fear are the two forces forever at odds in this novel, creating much more complicated dilemmas than the popular Middle Grade conundrum of good vs. evil.
Kara herself isn’t a perfect heroine, but her motivations are clear and realistic. I always appreciate sibling friendship in children’s fiction, and you can’t help but love Kara’s brother Taff almost as much as she does. Any otherwise selfish decisions she makes are easily forgiven, because everything she does is to protect him. If that’s not enough, her father often needs to be taken care of, too, so Kara has to act like the grown up all the while navigating a very hostile little world. It’s not hard, then, to understand the appeal of dangerous magic. When the grimoire’s pages offer a chance to take back some power, I think anyone reading the book would have trouble refusing the temptation.
While some cowardly characters redeem themselves by setting aside their ingrained cruelty in the face of hardship, the meanest meanie in The Thickety is a perfectly despicable antagonist. She adds a relentless layer of unfairness to the story. Sometimes, I wondered if J.A. White has a personal crusade to remind his young readers that there’s no justice in life. It’s not a hopeful story, that’s for sure. And even when things seem like they might work out for the best, something happens to destroy that dream. I’ve got a rather bleak world-view myself, but I’m not sure this is the sort of message I would have appreciated as a youngster well on her way to becoming eternally disheartened. Yes, magic is complicated and sacrifices are often hard to understand. But with one misfortune after another, without any real breaks for humor, it got difficult to remain optimistic that Kara’s inspiring perseverance would ever pay off.
The Thickety comes out in May, and I look forward to seeing it on our shelves. It won’t be book I recommend to every young reader, because the story is so grim and the story’s conclusion does nothing to alleviate the novel’s generally distressing tone. But there are certain readers who will probably love this book. It reminded me quite a lot of Terry Pratchett’s book Wintersmith, but was lacking the humor and levity which lightened that tale. The weird community vibes brought to mind images from that M. Night Shyamalan film The Villiage. And, of course, there are the obvious parallels to the true witch-hysteria stories from our own world, explored in books and plays like The Daylight Gate and The Crucible. Fans of smart adventures and thought-provoking magic will enjoy The Thickety, as will anyone eight and older who is itching to understand how beliefs can shape the world. This book raises important questions and compelled me to read late into the night, hoping foolishly that things might work out for the best. Even though I turned the last page in fit of despair, I did enjoy reading The Thickety and will be excited to hear what our Middle School readers think of it in the Spring.