What feels like a million years ago, I read Darwen Arwright and the Peregrine Pact by AJ Hartley. I’d attended ConCarolinas, heard him speak about it and was intrigued by the premise, and charmed by what sounded a little bit like a Harry Potter-ish type story. After reading it, I made an exception of sorts and wrote Something Like a Review about it. I’ll wait while you click that link and go read what I had to say.
Impatient? Ok, fine. The “tl;dr” was that I enjoyed it enough to eagerly anticipate the next installment on the story. The caveats were few and trivial enough that I attributed them to being a grown-up reading YA fiction. I’ve had this book in my TBR pile for a LONG time, and thought that reading this would be a great way to kick off my 2016 Recover from College initiative. I expected it to be light and fluffy reading.
When I read the first book in the Peregrine Pact series, I got exactly what I expected: a fun, spunky adventure with mishaps and hijinx and a premise that still makes me wish I’d thought of it. Mirroculism. How cool is that phrase, to begin with? And the ability to jump into another world through mirrors or other reflective surfaces? I don’t really have words for the reaction, just strange gestures and facial expressions. (Damnit, damnit, damnit. Why didn’t I come up with that?) Reading this new installment met my expectations in that I was reunited with three quirky characters, that I saw them develop over a new story arc (and yes, that means gaining a new affection for Alex), and I got a worthy story. What surprised me was the depth of development in these characters, in the writing, and in the handling of a dangerous adventure.
Mr. Peregrine returns, but as a teacher at Hillside, with an unusual plan. His methodology for teaching includes taking the students out of Atlanta…and all the way to Costa Rica. And, if carting a bunch of sixth-graders into the jungle (rainforest) wasn’t terrifying enough, the perilous mission before the Peregrine Pact and the dangers that await them in the dense flora should do the trick.
I pulled out the first book and skimmed through it again to see what was different between them, and to try to figure out why the two books were so different. They both had difficult and dangerous adventures, though the perils of Darwen’s Costa Rican adventures were much more extreme than the first novel. Yes, there was additional character development so I was more attached to them. The obvious answers were easy to list: there were conflicts between the characters where the stakes were higher, there were moral dilemmas even an adult would have struggled with, and taking the characters out of their “normal” lives and putting them in the unsafe and unfamiliar will bring out new qualities. These were all good explanations, but they weren’t… “it.” I thought about it for a few days, and I think the difference lies in the writing style and approach to the story. Both stories were well written, and there’s no dramatic change in authorial voice, however, the Insidious Bleck felt as though it was consciously written to kids and committed to treating them like adults. The story telling was not pedantic or didactic, but posed the same kinds of concerns you’d find in “adult” fiction without flinching, without pandering, and without coddling. In my opinion, there’s more “meat” here for a kid to think about, to have a visceral reaction to, but to do so in a way that respects their childhood at the same time.
To clarify, while there are some similarities to the Harry Potter series, Darwen and the Peregrine Pact aren’t those characters. They are their own people (in so much as they can be in a fictional work), and they have their own personalities, stories and experiences. Hartley’s series would likely be embraced by Potter fans, but will stand on its own merits even without the association and/or comparison. Kudos to AJ Hartley for stepping up his YA game and generally elevating the middle grades YA game.
Medium: Dead-tree version purchased from and autographed by the author at ConCarolinas.
Other: Available in various formats from Amazon.com
Overall rating: 5 stars
Potential re-read: Yes, even if just to introduce my kinda-nephew to the series.
Dead-tree worthy?: I haven’t decided. In this case, with an author-graph, I’ll be keeping it. Until, that is, the time comes to pass the gauntlet to the next generation. Right now, though, he’s a three-nager, and still a little young for chapter books. I’ll be purchasing the third in the series as a Kindle book, simply because I might die if my TBR/bookcase ever toppled over on me.
I’ve become something of a sucker for young adult fiction, and I blame it all on JK Rowling and Harry Potter. She got me past my book snobbery (at least the part that sneered at picking up a “kid’s book”) and showed me that I don’t have to be the target audience to really enjoy the story. Granted, she was not my only insight into this phenomenon (The Lorax is still one of my favorite books, and I have a feeling it will always remain such), but she was the most recent memory which made a significant impression.
As much as I enjoy reading YA fiction, I feel something like a traitor or an imposter, or perhaps a bit of both when trying to talk about it. I read it like a fan, to indulge in the craftsmanship of the story, but I’m reading it with a jaded perspective and seeing things that the target audience may not gain perspective on for many years. To investigate too deeply ruins the magic (making me an imposter), yet to point out things that irk me when lacking in an adult novel seems traitorous because I’m reading from a different perspective than the story was written for. The latter is part of the reason why I’m hesitant to write Something Like a Review for YA fiction. I will, however, make an exception for Darwen Arkwright and the Peregrine Pact by AJ Hartley.
This is a great story of a young English boy who finds himself uprooted and transplanted in Atlanta to live with his aunt. The circumstances of his removal are something I won’t reveal here, but they are discussed in the story after some speculation and foreshadowing. He finds himself in the surreal environment of a wealthy private school, and as we all know, those little over-privileged microcosms breed our future 1%-ers and the members of the upper 99%. Darwen is given a mirror by a strange shopkeeper, Mr. Peregrine, and discovers that it becomes a portal to another world, called Silbrica, after the sun goes down. He also discovers that his ability to cross from modern Atlanta into Silbrica is not a common one, that he is, in fact, a mirroculist. This ability and his quirky friends, Alexandra (Alex) and Richard (Rich), help our hero realize his potential as their world is threatened by a dangerous contingent from Silbrica. There are poignant moments, like Darwen’s fear for his Silbrican friend Moth, moments where I just had to laugh at what happened (I’ll just say the confirmation of the true nature of a teacher in the book will cause speculation and critical evaluation of school faculty for many a young avid reader), and many enthralling moments where I couldn’t seem to read fast enough to find out what happened next (meeting the Jenkinses and then Alex and Darwen’s final return to Moth’s forest).
What I enjoyed most about this story was also the most frustrating aspect of it – it ended too damn fast. That’s not to say that the story was cut short; it was not. It was a great adventure that reminded me of a cross between the heroism of Harry Potter and the magical, otherworldly adventures described in the Chronicles of Narnia, with a measure of a dangerous Alice in Wonderland for good measure. What I mean to say is that when the story ended, I wanted more. The story resolved, but it resolved with the acknowledgement that this was but one battle in what is likely to become a war against the dark factions from Silbrica. I want to see more of Darwen in action. I liked his development from a reserved child in denial to one who seemed to begin to accept and open up to his circumstances. I wanted to see him grow further. I liked Rich and wanted to see how he’d develop as a character. Personally, I think these are some of the highest compliments a reader can give an author – a blatant demand for MORE.
And then there’s Alexandra. From the beginning, I was not a fan, and it seemed as though that was at least somewhat intentional. She’s the over-the-top character that’s in your face and annoying as hell. (Think Kimmy from Full House, for those of you who grew up with the show. For those of you who didn’t…well, you missed the Olsen twins when they were actually worth talking about.) Alex does grow through the story and has redeeming moments where her hyperbole is resolved into unflinching moments of heroism, but she and I just didn’t get along well. I tolerated her, and when I saw what she was willing to do for a friend, I gained a little respect for her, but not more affection. I think she’s got potential, but I’ll withhold my judgement until the next book.
There will be a next book…right? There’d better be, because this saga is so not done and I’m so ready for the next installment.
All in all, as a jaded adult, I’d give it a solid 4 stars (and did, on Goodreads). A kid who’s focus is simply on getting lost in a great story will undoubtedly rate it higher. These, after all, are just the words of a grown up whose feet still splash in puddles on a rainy day. I can pretend to be a big kid, but that doesn’t make me one.