J. A. White
Andrea Offerman (illustrator)
Katherine Tegen Books
The Thickety is set on an island where an isolated religious cult is barely surviving, largely due to insistence on ultra restrictive rules. Anything outside the rules is “magic” and must be expunged. Hence our 12-year-old heroine, Kara, has witnessed her mother’s brutal execution at an early age. Kara is viewed as tainted, her father is mad with grief, her beloved little brother Taff is sickly, and things are going downhill fast. A further cause of community struggle is the wilderness area known as the Thickety, which encroaches daily upon the arable land, held back only by a lower caste, the Clearers, who slash and burn like mad in a losing battle against overgrowth. The Thickety’s overlord is Sordyr, the Forest Demon, who comes across as less human and more forceful than Voldemort. Sordyr mirrors the community elders, who make Cotton Mather look as laid back as Jeff Lebowski by comparison.
A mysterious message prompts Kara to venture into the Thickety, where she retrieves a buried package: her mother’s book of spells, a grimoire. It is enormously powerful and therefore addictive, not only to Kara, but also to her arch-rival, blonde Grace Stone. Their struggle for possession is a big chunk of the action. Power shifts this way and that at dizzying speed, alliances and betrayals pile up faster than in Divergent, and the ending is clearly a gateway into Volume 2. The element that feels inappropriate for ages 8-11 is Kara’s brushes with grimoire-induced mental illness. These bouts of cruel, vengeful rage are visitations in the land of mass murder, however briefly, and they are truly unsettling.
The thing that’s superb is the applied imagination: the creatures, the curses, the dangers, celebrations, foods, the chants and rules and agricultural produce are created so fully in language so right that the reader can climb inside it and then, with racing heart, escape with Kara and Lucas at the last possible moment – from terrible risk into grave danger. Presumably film producers are clawing at the gates to get at this juicily cinematic plum.
Note: While we know that neither boys nor girls are put off by violent content in fiction, hopeless betrayal may be another matter, and the politics of demagoguery won’t click below, I’m guessing, about age 12. So I will posit the core audience for The Thickety at ages 12-14, despite the format, which has the look and feel of being aimed at ages 8-12.