My first book of 2020! (Well, the first book I both started and finished in 2020, because I did finish one 2019 read after the first of the year.)
This book reminded me of a lot of things, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Labyrinth, with a hint of Coraline (which I didn’t italicize as a book because I’m not actually sure if I’m referring to the book or movie haha), and I’m here for it.
Genres/Descriptors: middle grade; fantasy>portal fantasy
Check it out on Goodreads
What’s it about?
One day, Liza wakes up to find that her brother, Patrick, might not really be her brother. He can answer her questions, things only Patrick would know, but something about him is just off. Her suspicion? In the night, his soul was whisked away by the Spindlers (spider-like creatures with human faces and hands) their old babysitter warned them about.
Of course her parents don’t believe her, so it’s up to Liza to venture into the world Below (armed with a broom) to find Patrick’s soul and save him. Below, Liza meets a lot of interesting characters and creatures, most notable, a rat named Mirabella who offers to act as Liza’s guide to the Spindlers. Along the way, she faces many challenges and plenty of dangers, but the biggest of all comes when she faces the queen of the Spindlers and finds that it isn’t only Patrick’s soul in danger, but also her own.
I’ve read a couple of Lauren Oliver’s YA books, and I liked them at the time, but it’s been a while. The Spindlers has been on my shelf for ages, but I kept putting it off because I wasn’t really reading middle grade very often, and honestly, I just kept kind of overlooking it. But, it was a shorter read for a reading challenge, so I finally picked it up, and I’m so glad!
Lauren Oliver can write very well, but I haven’t read enough of her books to say whether I prefer her middle grade or young adult books. I can say that I will definitely be looking out for more middle grade from her. The world Below really came to life for me as I read, and I almost finished this in one sitting because I was so engrossed. (I probably would have read it in one sitting if I hadn’t gotten hungry halfway through haha.)
I could really “see” the world and the characters, even the ones we didn’t spend as much time with. Mirabella was particularly clear in my mind, with her paper skirt, a wig, and lipstick. One of my favorite things about this was how there were creatures we know (like rats, but in this book they can talk) as well as ones I haven’t come across anything quite like before (like the spindlers, or the nocturni).
One thing I’m learning about middle grade, now that I’m reading more of it, is that there are much higher stakes than I used to think. I spent a fair portion of this book genuinely concerned for Liza and the things she was facing. The tension was definitely there, even as an adult reader.
The spindlers and other scarier creatures were sufficiently creepy, but there was also some humor sprinkled in, as well as nicer creatures, to balance things out. I really loved the concept of the nocturni, in particular, and I would love to learn more about them. They were probably my favorite creatures from this book.
Liza was brave, smart, and didn’t lose sight of her end goal, even when things were really hard. She kept pushing forward, in spite of her fear and the obstacles she faced. She was a bit naive, which is understandable because she is still quite young, but she was also a fairly quick thinker and used her brain more than anything else to navigate the challenges in the world Below. I just adored her, honestly.
My least favorite part of this book was almost certainly the parents. I don’t think Liza and Patrick’s parents were the absolute worst ever, but they weren’t great. That, I feel, is a trend in a lot of YA and middle grade books, and I’m not a fan. I know firsthand that not everyone has pleasant childhoods with loving, encouraging, understanding guardians/parents/etc., but I wish we had more books with parents who are like that. (Think Sally from the Percy Jackson books.) The way things ended, with the parents, was also not my favorite. I won’t go into more details on that so I don’t spoil anything, but I feel like there needed to be a step between when the parents were introduced, and how the book ended with them.
Overall, I really liked this book and gave it 4 out of 5 stars. If you like middle grade and portal fantasy (Narnia, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Coraline, Oz, Inkheart, etc.), and you haven’t read this one yet, I would definitely recommend it.
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Challenges this book counted for:
The Winter Magical Readathon– Read a book that starts with the letter S, for Slytherin
Beat the Backlist– published before 2020