3.5 Stars rounded down due to uneven pacing and a sadly anti-climatic ending. For 90% of the book I was going for 3.5 stars rounded up but upon finishing the book I just couldn’t do it. There was too much that pulled me out of the story to leave it a 4 stars.
Haley and Oliver are two friends at an exclusive boarding school called Hamilton. Everyone is pretentious as indicated by the fact all the buildings had names: the dining hall is King, the library Lovecraft, gym Poe, girls dorm Shelley, boys dorm Koontz, etc. On a dare Haley sneaks into one of the buildings said to be haunted and takes the wrong door into a world she can only imagine. Life and death decisions are up to her creator mind as she and Oliver help Mr. Jack Dawes the shape-changing principal and Tom the King of the Cats deal with a terrifying wizard named the Gryphon.
My first problem is this is short enough to be a middle grade book but read like a limp young adult story. In fact, I didn’t know this was anything but a YA until I re-read the verbiage and found it said: “Genre: Middle Grade / Young Adult adventure.”
A middle grade book should have a protagonist that feels distinctly like a child on the cusp of adulthood. Haley felt too life worn to be anything but a teenager who has already experienced life like an adult. She spoke about relationships like an adult too yet her narrative didn’t read like a 15-16 year old. On the other hand she went around breaking into buildings and camping overnight alone. And that was a big problem in the story. Haley also was very inconsistent. Her morals seemed to sway with what the author felt was best in the situation. For example, we should accept when good, loved characters die in the course of their story yet when the villain dies during the course of his own story we must use our special powers to save him ASAP because we are creators. Hum. Yeah it doesn’t make sense. Keep it simple, kids don’t overthink things. Part of the problem was Haley was supposed to be 15 and that is such a hard age to write. 14 years old or 16 years old is much easier because 15 is a time of transition, the boarderlands between distinctly child and distinctly adult. While that is a good age of a middle grade crossover to YA it isn’t if you aren’t bringing that age expertly to the page. In fact, in the beginning I thought the POV character was a boy, having forgotten the main character was called Haley. It read like a boy until she talked about her curves.
The setup went really, really fast. The story started with her moving into Hamilton but she quickly was amongst a group of friends who dared her to prove to them there were no ghosts. The setup went so fast that you assume the boarding school wasn’t going to be a big story aspect of the story except as a setting. Then in the end we linger and linger and linger in the school setting all the while I’m shouting for Haley to just shut up already and stop creating more stories that will only add to their troubles! This is the nature of the uneven pacing that plagues the book. Once in the story worlds the plot picked up and it was very exciting with its brisk pace. Any time spent in the boarding school world was pretty boring and there was just too much telling and info dumping during this time.
Mr. Dawes, the principal was interesting from the moment you met him with the odd little poem and with the crow shapeshifting. Tom, King of Cats, was also a character that worked well in the multiple genre melding of stories that is part of the plot of this story. My favorite was perhaps Dorian, the elf with the sad story. Though I also loved the windriders. Really even Oliver was a rather brilliant character too, I was way more interested in his internal narrative than I ever was Haley. So really stellar secondary characters. The clockwork was a great twist put into effect by the Gryphon. I thought the rest of the villain aspect of him was a little off. I got it that his power corrupted him into the demon like character he became but I didn’t see the point of the Star Wars like reversion at the end.
Another strong aspect of the book was the writing. Yes there was some inappropriate telling and a bit too much info dumping in dialogue but it was obvious the writer thought out the elements he put into the story. They were simple yet had depth and explained some of the world building. The pixies were the best aspect of the story, and my favorite but I also liked when he explained the Wind Riders (faerie people):
“Wind Riders had learned to catch the wind and use it, channel it, make things from its essence, and tame various birds. “We sing and dance every night,” she said.
I think every reader can agree that the premise had such promise. I don’t think the Gryphon as the first and weakest villain was a bad choice. Though I wish his end had been more clear cut, I liked the twists and turns with how Haley got them the allies they needed to succeed. The love interest was nice and soft as it should be in a middle grade story. And I think Oliver is a good one. I kind of wish this had been written from his POV instead of Haley or a shared 1/2 and 1/2 POV. It’s good for middle grade readers to see both the female and male POVs for they would and should be different.
The cover gives you one impression of the story, the verbiage another impression and the story doesn’t equal your expectations. A few changes and a little better marketing and this would find a great group of middle grade horror lovers.