Henry Holt and Co.
MG Fantasy, 208 pages
Sarah has always been on the move. Her mother hates the cold, so every few months her parents pack their bags and drag her off after the sun. She’s grown up lonely and longing for magic. She doesn’t know that it’s magic her parents are running from.
When Sarah’s mother walks out on their family, all the strange old magic they have tried to hide from comes rising into their mundane world. Her father begins to change into something wild and beastly, but before his transformation is complete, he takes Sarah to her grandparents—people she has never met, didn’t even know were still alive.
Deep in the forest, in a crumbling ruin of a castle, Sarah begins to untangle the layers of curses affecting her family bloodlines, until she discovers that the curse has carried over to her, too. The day she falls in love for the first time, Sarah will transform into a beast . . . unless she can figure out a way to break the curse forever.
The other day, a good friend and I were talking about the middle grades we were raised on.
To properly describe it, I'd have to draw forward the example of that scene from The Lightning Thief, where Percy sips ambrosia for the first time and finds that it tastes like his mother's brownies - warm, fresh, soothing.
If I ever had the chance to taste test ambrosia for myself, I'm quite sure it'd taste like the books I chose carefully when I was younger: wild, deep-rooted in old folklore and enchantments, ancient and yet robust and timeless.
Not to say that I'd willingly drink down the taste of musty, pulpy paper and withering ink, as much as I love the real thing. I think it'd be more of a revitalizing tea or maybe a bracing lemonade laced with its fair share of sweet, earthy herbs that are wick to the very center, a few lumps of sugar to keep your spirits up as you run with wolves and hide in old hollows and maybe even find a new world where your winter coats should hang.
Lloyd Alexander, C.S. Lewis, Diana Wynne Jones (always, always Diana Wynne Jones) - they make up the core of my lifelong love story with children's fantasy.
And so, now, Beastkeeper.
The story drew me in as all those other books did: a young, empathetic heroine, an ancient family curse, stumbling through new circumstances and figuring out the set rules of magic with not much else than suspicious, talking animals, a questionable wild boy ally and previously untapped courage and love.
I am always won over by the promise of family devotion and love.
And lovely prose. The prose, more than anything else, made me settle down and make a nest for myself within the story.
To quote one of my own GoodReads status updates from last night (at only 30% into my e-ARC!): "I am starting to realize what a covetous creature I am. And why authors often compare themselves to ravens. I am highlighting words and perfect phrases to attempt to feather my own nest of impossible ideas. Cat Hellisen is pulling out all the stops of her mastery of words thus far, and I must enviously bow to the fact that I'm so very enchanted and my seven-year-old self is giddily spooning it all into her mouth."
(Another note I might add: I am quite picky about what goes into my nest.
I do not settle for any shade of yarn, any particular antique fork or old pocket watch or shining turn of phrase.
It has to be Just Right, like a tuning fork hitting the right frequency and jolting the rest of my heart into catching up and feeling like, "Yes, that word was meant to be right there."
Hearing from the author herself that she was very much inspired by classic fantasy, particularly Diana Wynne Jones - her favorite, Dogsbody, was also the very first I read! - and Susan Cooper also made me quite sure that she is very much my sort of people.)
Sarah tiptoed along the landing towards her parents' room and wondered what flavor silence was, and if it grew hard and brittle if you threw it away, or if people sometimes stepped on wads of discarded silence and it stuck to the soles of their shoes and made their footfalls softer.
Sarah tiptoed faster, the shadows clinging to her shoulders like shed ghost-skins.
Exactly like that.
It also helps that Sarah is such a sympathetic wildwoods child. At times, I just wanted to hug her, to grasp her by her shoulders and tell her how I could see that she was trying, that she was giving it her all - in her body's strength and in her emotions - to figure out the tangled web around her family and the circumstances she was forced to shoulder merely for being born into a cursed family.
And that is something I feel children's literature can address so well: the prices paid for jealousy and hatred, how it really feels to struggle under a parent's sin and bear on as your normal world crumbles around you.
The particular details of the curse - how it devours her father and threatens her as well, even with her thinned blood and desperation not to succumb - are wrought in particularly deep and dark tones, and makes it all the more pressing for you to turn the page and find out how Sarah fares.
And now, a brief word on the ending. I am well aware that it will not be everyone's cup of tea. Approaching Beastkeeper as I did, with the understanding that fairy tales have evolved as they have, particularly with the knowledge that not every ending is happy (though, as you well know, many of these tales do and I myself am not at all averse to perfect conclusions), one twist in particular was very much expected.
Though it was still not that easy or less bitter to swallow.
To me, the entire denouement fit well with the story and the horrific curse as it stood. I won't say more and spoil it for you, but I am well satisfied with it and the hope that (to me) it offered for the characters when the curtains closed.
And, in a post-script of sorts: I just took a peek back at another middle grade fairy tale I read fairly recently, Ophelia and the Mysterious Boy. Within that review, I noted that young Kaye often had nightmares when reading particularly vicious and heart-wrenching fairy tales.
That fact and stage of my reading history still stands, and I think it's well noted that Beastkeeper will probably appeal in particular to the late middle grade and young adult set. There's a time for every story.
(As evidenced by the fact that I am positively licking my fingers post-Beastkeeper and not in a fit of torment.)
Of note: As I said before, the ending will not sit well with some. There is violence, some heart-breaking scenarios and death. There is also grizzly moments involving uncooked meat, brutal transformations (not the charming beast-to-man sequence found in Disney, mind) and a rather maddened witch or two.
I leave it up to the reader's discretion.