This YA fantasy shares many characteristics with other YA fantasies, but the thing that sets it apart are the unusual photographs that illustrate the novel, such as the one on the cover.
You can’t really talk about this novel without talking about the photographs. The black and white photographs seem to date from the early twentieth century. Some are reminiscent of family snapshots, showing young children and men in fedoras. Others are like souvenirs from excursions into spiritualism. Besides the levitating girl, there are invisible children, a shaved head with a mouth on the back, old women dressed like children, and other oddities. Sometimes these photos seemed shoe-horned in to the plot, such as the boy dressed like a dandy. Other times, they really fit, like the man sleeping with a pistol.
I have developed a theory that almost everyone cares more about pictures and photographs of faces than I do. I don’t carry photos of my kids in my wallet. I don’t even have many photos on the wall. I rarely photograph people, and don’t enjoy flipping through photo albums. When I do look at old photos, I find myself more interested in the backgrounds than in the people. It’s always struck me as ludicrous when “psychics” ask to look at a photograph of the missing child they’re trying to find. I always felt I could learn a lot more about a person by seeing their car or their apartment or their pets than I could about a mere photograph. I’m not a “face” person.
So I found this a perfectly good adventure story about a teenage boy searching for the secrets about his grandfather, but nothing extraordinary. It’s got time travel (sort of) and fairyland (sort of) and creepy old houses. It’s got monsters and heroes, and it’s set for the most part on a small British isle, for the most part in the modern day. (But not entirely, see sort-of-time travel, above) Jacob, the main character is heroic enough to be a good protagonist and flawed enough to be a good protagonist. Most of the secondary characters are compelling. Its ending is not quite a cliffhanger but certainly sets up a sequel. I found it not as unforgettable as Holly Black or Suzanne Collins, but a pretty good story. I liked it, hence my default rating of three stars.
You however, presuming you are a normal person with a normal person’s obsession with photographs, will probably adore this book and give it five stars. If you are the sort of person who actually prefers novels with pictures of actors on the cover (so as to better visualize the main characters) you will probably find the photographs make what would otherwise be merely a good novel into an outstanding, unforgettable novel.
The kids are definitely creepy. They are ugly, and even when they’re not ugly, there’s something odd about their faces that disturbs. They look like children born before vaccines and anti-parasitic medicine. They look like children doomed to die of coughs and crushing milkwagons and rabid dogs, doomed to lie under stones whose dates span less than two decades. They fit in really well with the creepy haunted-house mood of the desolate village on the island, and the destroyed home for children, and the shipwrecks, and the Cairnhorn bog boy (a human sacrificed carefully preserved in the anaerobic brackish bogwater.) Kids who want a creepy YA adventure story will like this. Adults who want a creepy YA adventure story will probably like it too, presuming they adore photographs.