We got this book as an audiobook for a car trip, reasoning that YA was one of the few things we would both enjoy. My kid had started reading it, saying that it was one of those “kid from our world goes to fantasy world” tropes, but quite a bit darker. Since a bunch of kids are kidnapped and sold into slavery, I’d agree that yes, this is quite a bit darker.
Cole and his friends Dalton and Jenna are from Mesa, Arizona (which I don’t believe for a bit, because anyone from Arizona would be more amazed by the fact that a house had a basement than they would by a guy in a costume) and decide to go to a “haunted house” in the neighborhood. The book felt retro in that none of the 11-year-olds had phones and that they were allowed to wander by themselves in the neighborhood and even into someone’s house. Inside, scary strangers, including a witch, chide them for being soft people from an easy world who don’t know what real fear is.
Pretty soon the kids learn, as the kids are manacled and caged in wagons for sale. Cole is dead set on rescuing his friends from slavery, and completely undaunted by the danger of doing so, even when he gets smacked around quite a bit. He’s not completely successful, and I cynically expect it will take the whole series to achieve this goal. Cole’s adventure lies in a different direction, with the Sky Raiders.
This is the kind of fantasy novel where you can’t expect things to make sense. How do castles fly in the sky? Floatstones. How do float stones work? We don’t know, stop asking questions, kid. Eventually you have to just kind of nod and run with it. Giant cheesecake mesa? Nod, okay. Bow that never runs out of arrows? Sure, why not? Magic that stops working over the border? If that’s how you do things here. Dusk in all directions at once? Just stop thinking about it.
The real fun of this is in the adventuring. Pretty soon Cole meets other young friends and band together to help a princess. It takes them a while to figure out who the princess is, but the rest of us were swifter on the uptake. I mean really, there aren’t that many girls in the story. The characters are not particularly deep. Cole is brave, Jase is cocky, Twitch is nervous, Mira is female. It’s a boy’s romp, with lots of action and danger, but not a lot of thinking. Characters help or hinder, but don’t really have much of an arc. Even Cole, arguably the most complicated character, has only one conflict: help the princess or save his friends?
I especially loved all the magic items. A bag filled with fog? A painting that tells you the weather tomorrow? The kids are in a magic world, but they don’t have much in the way of skills, so they have to use their ingenuity and the items to flee danger.
Could it be better? Yes. There really aren’t a lot of female characters, and “save the princess” seems kind of trite. Like, wouldn’t she be worthy of saving if she weren’t royal? If they value human life so cheaply, wouldn’t they also have female scouts? Also, the cardboard characters don’t really entice you to get wrapped up in their story. But the worldbuilding is fun. One never knows what wonder the heroes will encounter next.