A few posts back, Kelly mentioned that she wondered whether book bloggers just love all books that they read, because she rarely comes across a negative review. Normally, I choose to spotlight the books I think are particularly well-done and would recommend to others, but I think it’s also important to discuss books that others have liked, but that I didn’t find especially engaging. M.E. Breen’s Darkwood is one of those books.
Annie lives in Howland with her aunt and uncle, who aren’t particularly nice people. Both her parents are dead, as well as her older sister. When she overhears her aunt and uncle planning something very unpleasant for her, she decides to flee into the forest, despite the fact that she is sure to come across dark creatures called Kinderstalk who are notorious for gobbling up children.
I was initially excited about Darkwood. It garnered a starred review from Kirkus and a favorable review from Booklist. I also love the cover – the illustration of the protagonist, Annie, reminds me a little bit of the covers of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, which I love. The book also seemed to have the dark fairy-tale feeling that permeated Nix’s excellent books. When I read the first chapter of Darkwood, my excitement grew. Annie’s horrid aunt and uncle were immediately fleshed out, and I loved the creepy sense of foreboding I got from the setting, a world where night falls immediately on the heels of day with no evening in between. Breen also set up some nice mysteries that I looked forward to solving.
Unfortunately, my excitement didn’t last. Annie’s travels into the forest are derailed by a trip to the Drop, where children are kept as slaves to mine precious ringstone, and then a trek to see the King of the land where various events occur without any apparent connection to other side plots. Even after I had finished the book, I had a hard time understanding how all the pieces fit together, or if they were meant to at all. Moreover, I felt no real connection to the characters, and Breen’s writing didn’t strike me as particularly beautiful or deep. (A good counter-example, in my opinion, is Shannon Hale, who could write about paint drying and still impress you with the beauty and depth of her words.)
Middle grade and young adult literature can and should be deep. Just because the book is written for young people does not mean it can sacrifice good characterization and eloquent writing for a fast-paced plot. In Darkwood, there’s too much going on and not enough development to make it engaging. It feels like Breen tried to force a half dozen different ideas into one novel without sufficient development of any of these ideas. Because of this, the novel feels jumpy and disjointed. Additionally, it seems that Annie was meant to be a strong, smarter-than-she-appears female protagonist, but she seems to mostly react to events that happen to her instead of choose to be proactive. When she does make a decision, it’s inexplicable. For example, Annie chooses to leave her traveling companion who has taken her on a much-needed visit to the King – why? Annie’s reasons are inscrutable, and my cynical answer is “plot development.” Annie’s leave-taking places her once again in danger, and danger seems to be Breen’s currency. The hallmark of a good adventure tale is that the adventure happens for a reason.
That being said, I can see middle-graders enjoying Darkwood due to its exciting plot. It is filled with action: chases and wolf attacks and daring escapes. It’s got a fair number of twists and some parts certainly are exhilarating. At some points Breen is able to bring back that ominous mood I felt at the beginning. Then again, I can also see readers being confused about the jumpy nature of the story and the inability to really identify with Annie, who seems to not have much personality. I think Breen’s ideas are more intriguing than a lot of what I’ve read in middle grade fantasy lately, which is why I felt so disappointed that the book fell short of its potential.