The Monster in the Hollows

Star summary: 

5-- for rich Gospel imagery woven throughout a powerful story, which is in itself part of a larger story.

There are two ways I know I've read a particularly wonderful book: the first is my "sigh as I close the book" (George MacDonald), a realization that despite my mad dash to finish the book, I'm sad the treat of the story itself is over. The second sign that a book is extra-special is that I dread to review it. Yep. Books of a certain caliber seem to call for equally well-done reviews; they deserve a review that will plumb their depths, applaud their strengths, and put on display the author's carefully-wrought themes... all in succinct, thoughtful prose with perfect syntax. That's just a tall order, especially when you are feeling a bit sad that the book is over.

At the end of May I got an eagerly-awaited package from the Rabbit Room, my very own copy of the third installment in The Wingfeather Sagao,signed by Andrew Peterson himself. I immediately inhaled it, and had the above reactions. So I've read the book a second time, and gone over it countless times in my mind. I've set aside time to write, and I'm hoping inspiration will come as I type.

This book is superb. I read a lot of children's books. This past month I've gone through a dozen, easy. Many of the books I read contain engaging stories. But if you've read any of my other reviews, you know that that isn't enough for me. I also want artfully crafted sentences and eternal perspective. I want the books I read my kids to matter. Fewer children's books contain clear themes and weighty, worthy "bottom lines." Even fewer children's books have all these benefits and are delicious to read, humorous enough to make me laugh aloud, with passages so beautifully written I dog-ear them for later perusals. This third Peterson book contains all of the above. I commented to my husband that it's been especially fun to watch AP grow as an author through this series-- from the at-times slapstick opening novel to the deeper, sadder sequel, to this. The Monster in the Hollows is even sadder, even deeper. The kid-silly humor peeks through (in the discussion of Podo's toots, the eerie librarian, or the dim-witted farmer trying to count his chickens), adding hints of lightness and reality.

All right, on with the reviewing.

Brief Plot Summary
The Wingfeather (formerly known as Igiby) children are sailing across the sea, leaving behind their Fang-infested home and hoping to find refuge in the Green Hollows, home of their grandparents and Aerwiar's last Fang-free nation. Janner's wounds still need daily attending, wounds received at the hands- claws, rather- of his own brother. Kalmar, the king-apparent of Anniera, is now a snouted, furred, clawed, and hungry Grey Fang. Leeli is sweeter, braver, and kinder than ever. Sailing past their former home on their way to the Green Hollows, they find that The Shining Isle is still burning. Nine years later, Gnag the Nameless is still intent on utterly destroying it. (Why, you ask? READ THE BOOK!) Nia & Podo are welcomed as long-lost children toThe Green Hollows, however, as soon as Kalmar is seen, he is taken prisoner as a Grey Fang. Only through invoking the ancient law of turalay,, that is, vouching unto death, does his mother secure his freedom. Under Hollish law, once turalay has been invoked, all consequences of the actions of the vouched-for one are equally bestowed on the one vouching (i.e. were Kal to merit imprisonment, his mother would be imprisoned with him, no matter her innocence). Despite this, in many ways Ban Rona seems like the home Janner has longed for; Fang-free, full of dogs, good food and "bibes" (drinks), with a library, their father's dearest friend, and even their very own ancestral house. The children are enrolled in the local school (the ugly head-mistress being their mother's childhood best friend) where they are trained in Hollish specialties of Sneakery, Dogspeak, and Pummelry Training. For the first time, Nia seems truly happy, even beginning a courtship with a childhood friend, now the Keeper of the Hollows. However, Kal is still a Fang, with deadly claws, a ferocious appetite, and a darkness to fight. Janner struggles to continually sacrifice his own desires to try and keep his brother safe, knowing that his mother's fate is also at stake. The family is still without their father, and his loss is ever more keenly felt. Dangers lurk in the Blackwoods, mysterious misshapen horrors called "the cloven," and one makes its way into Ban Rona, making a strange connection with the Wingfeather children. Janner worries that Gnag the Nameless is at work. And there is something stealing livestock, stirring up the fear and distrust of outsiders that has wormed its way deep into the Hollish folk. There is a monster in the Hollows.

Everything comes to a head one night when Janner follows Kalmar's tracks and finds him stealing chickens. Horrified, Janner realizes that the citizens of Ban Rona were right; his brother is the livestock-eating-monster, just like his claws and fur and superhuman sense of smell suggest. Or is he? Is the fur merely a mask over the High King-and-little-brother Janner loves? Could it even be an asset? Kalmar begs Janner to follow him, so that he can explain. With nothing left to lose, Janner agrees, and finds that Kal has been stealing the animals to satisfy the hunger of another; the wounded cloven he's been sheltering. Kal alone took pity on the monster, because he saw himself in it. Determined to set things right, the boys head for home, only to be rounded up by a fearful, revenge-thirsty mob. Within hours, Kalmar and his mother are sentenced to death by hanging with the others powerless to stop them. In a whirlwind of events, friends and enemies are reversed, a father is both found and lost, deep magic is unleashed, a bit more of Gnag the Nameless' plot is understood, and the monster in the Hollows is at last revealed. I won't give away any more (though it pains me, because those last few chapters are an analyst's dream), because I want to entice you to READ THE BOOK! (I haven't even mentioned the side-story taking place at the Fork! Factory, with Sara Cobbler's memories of Janner motivating her to unite the children to free themselves, nor Artham's ongoing struggle to remain himself instead of sliding back into Peet-the-Sock-man-madness!)

(Hah! How was that for brief?)

Cautions? Death, monsters, grief-- all are here and are wonderfully dealt with. However, you know your child, so read with their particular needs in mind. Particularly delicate is the subject of Nia being courted by Rudric, as the children must now process the certainty of their father's death, and the idea of someone else taking his place in their mother's life. Could be a great talking point (especially in light of the final few chapters).

Themes: Corruption comes from within, not without- wow, this is powerful. It's also quite counter-cultural. Children hear daily that "it isn't your fault," it's your genetic makeup, your upbringing, your blood sugar level, your ADHD, your anger problem... This tale throbs with the dual beat of responsibility and redemption. We all choose evil, as Kal, who "had not just given up on the possibility of rescue, he had chosen to open a deep part of his heart to a powerful blackness." (p. 204) The Hollish folk were corrupted from within, by their own fear, despite their safety behind their walls. Given the choice, most of us would choose to become Fangs-- even the mightiest, like Artham and Esben. The evil worked upon us by another always begins and ends with sin already in us. This would be crushing were it not for the other main theme: our weaknesses can be redeemed as strengths. The very Fang-ness that now is Kalmar's deepest wound is what enables him to have compassion on other monsters; it's what will make him a better king than any other. "It's weakness that the Maker turns to strength. Your fur is why you alone loved a dying cloven. You alone in all the world knew my need and ministered to my wounds." (p.334) Appearance v. Intent--all throughout the book, we are taught not to judge by appearances. As in previous books, names- becoming and acting like who we are- is emphasized, especially in Kalmar's case.

Bottom line? We all have the potential for monstrosity deep within us (it's called depravity); though circumstances may bring it forth, our own desires are ultimately to blame. However, God can redeem even these worst faults of ours, making them our greatest assets.

Talking points:
- How is turalay in some ways a picture of the Gospel? (see p. 74 for a description of the law)
- Much of this book is about Janner's struggle to love and trust Kal as he now is. Would you be able to trust a brother with fangs and fur? What if he actually did have wolf-like tendencies (as Kal does)? How is this actually like all of us? (we all have deep sins and harmful habits)
- Discuss the title "The Monster in the Hollows"-- how is it a literary device? (at various points, we believe this is referring to different monsters-- the cloven, the mysterious chicken-thief, Kalmar, and finally Bonifer)
- Why was it so important that Sara learn the children at the Fork! Factory's names? Compare this to Kalmar & Janner's conversation on pages 184-185.
- "It felt good. And it felt like dying. Like my heart had shriveled up in my chest. But I wanted it. She said the song wouldn't work unless my heart was in it. And it was." Kalmar's voice cracked as he looked away. "I'm so sorry." (p. 184)-- have you ever felt this way, perhaps at a time when you knowingly chose to do something wrong (to sin)?
- Why does Artham struggle between crazy Peet & mighty Throne Warden?
- Knowing that the Fangs all chose in some way to become Fangs, do you feel more or less sorry for them? Why would otherwise normal people choose to become something so horrible? (they lost hope, they wanted power, they were tired of being afraid, they were terrified)

Appropriate audience: Fourth grade and up. Adults will find much to enjoy. Children ages 5 and up would likely enjoy this as a read-aloud.

Stars: 4.5
Characters & Setting-- I enjoyed the new setting of the Green Hollows, and while the minor characters are more flat, the main characters are ever more vibrant. Full star.
Plot-- I love the twists and turns and the way the larger plot is being revealed. Full star
Writing-- As this series progresses, the writing becomes more elegant; nuggets of Truth ever more apparent. Full star.
Character-building/Eternal perspective --Wow. Gospel illustrations abound.
Wow factor --This book has something the previous two didn't quite contain. Full star.

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