4- for very original characters & settings, gripping plot, valuable lessons on cultural prejudices, and straight-forward (though lacking in elegance) writing.
Beginning as the first book (The Fall) ends, Tal and Milla have been given a mission by the Crones-- to sneak into the Castle through the long-forgotten heatways and steal two sunstones: one for Tal's family, and one for Milla's Clan. Tal is relieved to be going home AND to have avoided death ("being given to the Ice" as the Crones put it). So the unlikely, often-grudging pair's adventure continues, not on the cold darkness of the Ice, where Milla was confident and at home, but in Tal's territory; the warm and light-filled Castle. However, they face more enemies here than ever they did on the Ice. The brutality underlying the "civilized" Chosen culture is revealed, as Tal and Milla are caught and punished by the increasingly-frightening-and-powerful Sushin. Milla's Icecarl training allows her to escape unscathed from the Hall of Nightmares, and Tal's ingenuity and Uncle Ebbit help him escape from the Pit. As before, each fresh escape creates yet more questions and reveals even more obstacles. Their only hope is to Ascend to the Spirit World of Aenir and find the Codex- a magical intelligence that knows the answers to all questions. Tal is becoming ever more proficient with Light Magic, learning just how much the Lectorium didn't teach in the process. Milla too is learning to use her Sunstone- somewhat grudgingly, because it is not the Icecarl way. However, both know that they need every skill they can muster to try and unravel the mysterious forces set against them.
Cautions? the brutality of Sushin takes one aback at first; likewise the violent Icecarls are a bit unexpected at first (they are very Viking-like). However, this could become a great talking point (see below).
Themes: The fallacy of belief in the superiority of one's culture; Tal is shocked at every turn, finding that his life as a Chosen has been built on many lies and half-truths (the Chosen system is neither fair nor flawless, having a natural shadow is not something to look down on, the Chosen are not alone in their world, Light Magic is not the only type of power). The ability of very different people to become dependent on each other, perhaps even friends.
Bottom line? When everything around us crumbles, we must simply do what is before us, trusting that the next step will become apparent when we have taken this step.
- Tal & Milla thought their cultures were completely separate. Now they know that at least one Chosen escaped the Castle and lived with the Crones in the Ruin Ship, at least for a while. Who do you think the mysterious "Longface" was? What could he have tried to escape?
- List some of the things Tal believed to be true and found to be false.
- Tal has to keep going ahead, though he doesn't understand what really is going on. As Christians, what do we have that Tal never did? (A better guide; God's Word. Trust in a good, all-knowing, all-powerful God)
- Why do Tal & Milla need each other?
- List the mysteries and questions Tal still needs to answer at book's end.
- Is Uncle Ebbit crazy or wise? Or both?
Appropriate audience: Fourth- ninth grade (ages 9-14). Children ages 7 and up would likely enjoy this as a read-aloud. A quick read.
Characters & Setting-the setting is fascinating; Who hasn't wanted to live in a Castle? Even within this castle lie vastly different settings; the stifling heatways, the busy Underfolk corridors, the Chosen living spaces, crystal forests, abandoned halls, and terrifying punishment chambers. Full star.
Plot-- Original material in a familiar format: get from point A to point B; don't let the bad guys get you. However, I felt like the pace of this book was a bit more rushed-- so much action when what I really wanted to do was explore the Castle. Full star. *Warning: the book has NO resolution. You will want quick access to the sequels.
Writing-- Garth Nix doesn't waste words, yet he isn't sparse, either. We understand Tal's feelings, we see his world, we interact with new characters simply yet engagingly. Good vocabulary. However, it's never poetic; we absorb lessons on perspective and empathy by feeling through Tal, not in being told so in so many words. Half a star.
Character-building/Eternal perspective -- Tal is likeable. Milla is becoming less strange to us as she becomes familiar to Tal. Both are virtuous by their culture's standards. However, the value of this story is only moral-- there is no Eternal perspective, no (intentional) shadows of Christ or the Great Story. You will have to teach your child to bridge that gap. Full star.
Wow factor --creative, engaging world. Half a star.