Middle grade fantasy has had a lot to live up to since the amazing (and well-deserved) success of the Harry Potter books. Nothing, it seems, comes close to the mark set by J. K. Rowling.
Well, hello, S. E. Grove! Her debut novel, The Glass Sentence--a middle grade (with easy cross-over to adults) high fantasy--introduces us to a world like no other you've seen before. There is very little that's derivative in this story about thirteen-year-old Sophia Tims and her uncle Shadrack Elli. The time is 1891; the place is Boston. Earth, however, is unrecognizable, thanks to the Great Disruption of 1799.
Here are my thoughts in a Bullet Review:
- What's Sophia's world like? All in an instant on a normal July day, time became twisty and unmoored, mixing up past, present, and future all on the same planet. While the eastern half of the United States (now called New Occident) seemed steady in history, Canada was returned to the Ice Age, Africa reverted to the time of the pharaohs, and still other lands were thrown into the future. Explorers and cartologers were on the forefront of understanding the implications of the new reality. By 1891, Shadrack Elli was one of the most respected mapmakers in the known world. Sophia lives with him because her explorer parents set off on an expedition and haven't been heard from in eight years. Are they alive? Or are they lost in time or physical space?
- What happens? Just as the reactionary government of New Occident decides to close its borders against people from other times, Shadrack is kidnapped, and his precious maps are destroyed. Sophia's only clue to his whereabouts is a hastily written note from her uncle telling her to "go to Veressa." So Sophia, accompanied by an older boy and with help from her housekeeper, sets off for the city of Nochtland in what was once central Mexico and is now in a different time period.
- Things to know about maps. Maps are not what you think. They can be made of glass, clay, cloth, water, metal, and vegetable matter as well as paper. Some maps contain memories, others show the topography, and some show only human-made structures. Reading maps is a skill, and many people can't even even recognize a map when they see one. Sophia is exceptionally talented at reading maps, though she doesn't yet know how to make one.
- Creatures and characters. Young Sophia is a wonderful mix of vulnerable and tough, of smart and naive. One of her distinguishing characteristics is having no sense of time: for her, a moment may last five seconds or five hours. She, like her world, seems to be unanchored to clocks. Her new friend, Theo, is guarded, complex, a few years older, and from a different era. Although Sophia agrees to travel with him, she is not at all sure how much she can trust him. Shadrack is a loving guardian and an ethical man who refuses to give the kidnappers what they want, until they threaten to destroy his niece. The cast of peripheral characters includes terrifying thugs who wield grappling hooks, faceless beings who mourn all that has been lost, and people who seem to be only partially human.
- General thoughts. I love Sophia, Shadrack, and Theo, and I was equally taken with the world Grove created. The maps and how they work are unique in my reading experience, and I was fascinated. I also liked the idea of different time periods existing on the same planet. The novel makes us think about how the Great Disruption affected not only daily life but also art, literature, politics, and travel. The story itself was well paced, varying between intense action scenes and quieter moments. The Glass Sentence is the first in a planned trilogy, and I can't wait to see what happens next.
- Recommendations. I recommend this debut novel for readers of all ages who like high fantasy, alternative history, excellent world building, and great storytelling. This first in the Mapmakers trilogy stands on its own and introduces us to an appealing new hero in Sophia and a complex, well-developed new world.
- Audiobook. I listened to the unabridged audiobook edition (Listening Library; 15 hr, 48 min) read by Cassandra Campbell, whose approach to the novel is near perfect. Her expressive performance and keen sense of pacing bring the story alive. She creates distinctive and consistent voices for all the characters (no matter how minor), and each seems perfectly suited for the personality, age, and gender of the individual. I sure hope Campbell is available for the rest of the series.
Published by Penguin USA / Viking Juvenile, 2014
Source: Audio: review; print: bought (see review policy)
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