This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.I wavered on this book from liking parts to disliking other parts, and back and forth, and in the end, it was the end which decided me, because it was there that the novel hit the sourest note, because there is no ending! In the final analysis, all this book is, is the prologue for a series. I can't abide that and I cannot support it. "Dreadful Tale" is an appropriate title for this, it turns out.
I know that series are lucrative for publishers and writers if they can lure a reading public into becoming OCD over one, but I do not play that game. It's one of the reasons I detest series as a general rule, and for an author to cynically say "Here's an entire book," and then to end it on a cliffhanger so you "have" to buy the next to find out what happens is inexcusable. Do not read this in the belief that you will get a complete and full story here. You will not.
This is book one of a "The Dreadful Tale of Prosper Redding" series, and if I'd known that, I would never have requested to review this one, but there was no hint whatsoever on net Galley that it was not a self-contained story. Shame on you Net Galley and on Disney Hyperion for not being honest and up front with readers and for demanding nigh on eleven dollars for an incomplete story. And what's with the ebook costing exactly the same as the print version?! What trees are worth nothing these days? That's a truly sad and sorry way to look at Earth.
For me series are too easy, unimaginative, derivative, and abusive of the reader. I'd rather follow a road less traveled than feel like I'm covering the same ground I already visited.
The other thing this author got away with is first person. I'm even less of a fan of first person than I am of series, if for no other reasons than that it's such a selfish, self-absorbed, self-obsessed voice, and it's so limiting in that nothing can happen in the story unless the narrator is present, which often results in absurdly artificial, unlikely, and clunky events occurring in order to get the narrator on the scene.
I don't know why authors are so obsessed with limiting themselves in this fashion. It was not such a nauseating voice here, so I appreciated the author for that, but even she admits she made the wrong choice of voice because she has to devote several chapters to third person voice to detail activities where Prosper is not the main actor, and they clunked down jarringly. They were so bad that I skimmed and skipped those. They contributed nothing to an overly long story and would have made for a more intelligent read had they been omitted altogether.
The story is of Prosperity Redding, your usual trope boy raised in ignorance of his true value to the story, and without parents (he has parents, they're just not on the scene), and raised by apparently cruel relatives, although I have to grant that those clichéd cruel relatives don't usually want to stab the main character with an iron knife as they do here!
"Uncle" Barnabas comes to the rescue, spiriting Prosper, as he prefers to be called, away just before that iron knife strikes, to hide out in a haunted house. Yes, it's haunted both for real, and as a funhouse - a scary one, for tourists - and it's here that Prosper learns the truth - or part of it at least.
It turns out that Prosper has a demon inside him and if it cannot be got out before his thirteenth birthday, two weeks hence, it will ruin his entire family. This demon is the price his family paid for the prosperity (yes!) it has enjoyed over the years - centuries even, and all would have been well had some great grandpa not reneged on the deal. Now Prosper's relatives (all except Barnabas, and "cousin" Nell who predictably happens to be Prosper's age and equally predictably doesn't like him), believe the only way to fix - or at least defer - the disaster, is to kill Prosper before he turns thirteen, so he believes. Meanwhile, Alastor the demon (not his real name, hint hint) is inside Prosper and growing stronger by the day.
There were one or two writing issues (other than cliffhangers and first person!) which took away some of the little joy of this I did have. These are very possibly things the intended age range might not notice (unless they're my kids, of course! I think they would notice these things, but then they grew up with me, and they're also edging out of middle-grade at this point).
"Told whom?" was the first clunker I read. Writers seem to think they have to inject correct English into their stories and 'whom' is such a big offender that it's become a pet peeve of mine. This is what Prosper says to correct Nell when she says, "For who?" Quite frankly I think this word is antiquated and pretentious, and needs to be dropped from the language altogether, but that's just me.
The truth is though, that no one actually uses it in conversation, especially not kids, so in the context of this story, this bit clanged like the liberty bell. It's highly unlikely any middle-grade kid, even one from a rich family, would correct someone on the use of 'whom', especially when that kid has not been set up a priori as an English language fanatic, so this was a fail: an example of an author lecturing her readers through her character instead of letting the character be themselves.
Here's another: "Her skin was a warm bronze, a shade or two lighter than her black hair." This made for an odd read. I think I see what the author is trying to say here, but strictly speaking, a shade or two lighter than black would mean that she has gray skin! Shade relates to how much black in is a color I think this could have been worded better - maybe describing the skin as a dark bronze or something like that, but I don't think you can describe hair in terms of skin color or vice-versa when one is black and the other is bronze, which is a distinctly brown color. If she'd had brown hair that would be a different thing.
Another one was: "Uncle Barnabas's face with pink around the edges at that." This sounds like it should read "...went pink around the edges." The last one I can recall noting was: "The spines were all shades of leather, brown, black, blue, and soft from being handled so much" this felt like it needed a colon after 'shades of leather'.
The demon is introduced as being evil and bent upon revenge, yet he behaves like a naughty friend to Prosper, chiding him on one hand and then rather benignly helping him to do something on the other. This was a complete contradiction given that the demon feeds on Prosper's discomfort and sadness. Why would he help prosper to do something that would make him feel better? It made no sense to me! It seemed obvious that eventually Alastor and Prosper would become friends, or at least partners, although given that this is merely a prologue, I can't say for sure if that's what will happen.
Neither did it make any sense as to why none of this family knew that to control a demon, you need its real name! That's so out there in folklore that everyone knows it, even in the real world where demons are pure fiction, so people who have been dealing with a demonic threat all their lives, and who have libraries of books about demons, had no excuse for not knowing it.
But Alastor was a fail. He was such a pompous and prolix punk that that he was far more of a joke than ever he was a demonic presence. To me, Alastor never came across as being anywhere near as evil and vengeful as he was supposed to be. This was a problem with the plotting. Maybe middle graders won't concern themselves with it, but I know my kids would find him as much of a joke as I did.
There was also the issue in any magic story which is: why are there any restrictions and rules? We're told that in order to get the demon out, certain materials need to be gathered, yet despite Nell being a quite accomplished witch she isn't able to magic up the ingredients?
Admittedly, one requirement is a bit out of the ordinary. She needs toes; real human toes, but it's never clear until the end if it's the actual toe, or just the toe bone. This apparently needed to be ordered abroad? That made no sense. Why not just magic them out of a grave - or go dig them up?
I've encountered this problem repeatedly in books where magic is part of the world: there's either no explanation offered as to why something can't be 'magicked', or there's some arbitrary rule "explaining" why the magic won't work. At least in this story we got a cute explanation as to why the spells always rhymed: they were easier to remember that way! That was a bit of a cheat since they were so simple that you'd have to be a moron not to remember them, but it was a cute idea, and I liked the cheekiness of it even though it evoked the schlockiness of the Charmed TV series which I actually couldn't stand.
I really liked Nell as a character. I find I often do this: prefer the side-kick or the friend to the main character. Nell would be worth reading about, but I wasn't keen at all on Prosper or Alastor. maybe middle-graders will like this, but I can't rate it positively when there were so many problems with it.
Note that there were some formatting issues with the ebook, with the text not filling the whole screen in some parts - like there were hard carriage returns in it, but this was an ARC, co perhaps those issues have been resolved in the actual published version