Fablehaven, written by Brandon Mull, illustrated by Brandon Dorman,351 pp, RL 4
Since Brandon Mull's first Fablehaven book hit the shelves in 2006, the series has been a steady seller. Paired with the busiest illustrator on the block, Brandom Dorman, the books are hard to take your eyes off of - if fantasy is your thing. And it is my thing. I have been meaning to read this book since it first came out and had the pleasure of giving it my full attention over the course of a four hour plane ride.
Fablehaven falls squarely, and nicely, into the realm of the fairy story and Brandon Mull definitely brings some new ideas to this mythical world that are both entertaining and intriguing. Sent to stay with reclusive grandparents they barely know, fourteen year old Kendra and her eleven year old brother Seth are understandably apprehensive. Things only seem to get worse when they reach the estate and find a long list of rules and an absent Grandmother Ruth on top of it all. Even so, the beauty of the grounds and the gorgeous butterflies that flock to it, the multitude of toys, games, crafts and the gentle chicken, Goldilocks, in their attic room as well as the presence of the gentle, talented caretaker Lena (who was once a naiad who gave up her magical status to marry Patton Burgess, a caretaker who fell in love with her in the 1800s) make things a bit easier to tolerate for Seth and Kendra. But, every adventure story needs a rule breaker and Seth is the one to take up the role. Along with his cereal-box-emergency-kit, Seth takes off into the woods and strays from the path where he meets a grizzled witch gnawing on a knot in a rope with an almost toothless maw. Although he is too astute to be taken in by her tricks, Seth angers her and is pelted by invisible foes as he flees her shack. The children later learn that the witch was once the wife of a former caretaker of Fablehaven who was so entranced by the dark magic on the grounds that she became a witch. For her crimes, she is imprisoned on the grounds, bound by thirteen magical knots that can only be undone by a human's breath. Her rope now only holds two knots.
At the same time Seth is getting into trouble, Kendra is sleuthing out the mystery of the keys that Grandpa has left her with. As she searches the attic room for keyholes to fit the tiny keys, her discoveries lead to more tiny keys and more hunting for keyholes. Finally, she uncovers a secret journal that is entirely blank except for one small entry, written sideways near the binding on one of the last pages of the book. "Drink the milk" is all it says. For those of you with sharp eyes, you will find this very phrase near the end of the Fablehaven book itself! It turns out that the milk on the estate has magical properties that allow the drinker to see things for what they really are. This means that, after stealing a bit of milk and testing it on Seth, Seth and Kendra can now see the the butterflies, dragonflies and other bugs buzzing in the garden for the fairies that they really are. Their discoveries grant them entry into the secret world that Grandpa Stan, Lena and Dale, the other caretaker, inhabit. Fablehaven, it seems, is a sanctuary for magical creatures of all sorts with human caretakers assuring their peace and safety. The children learn that there are magical sanctuaries all over the world, some more secret than others, Fablehaven being one of them. And, one of the biggest days of celebration and mayhem for the magical creatures (and danger for humans) is approaching - the summer equinox or midsummer eve. The longest night of the year.
Seth, unable to keep from breaking the rules and inspired by a visit from Maddox Fisk, a fairy broker, decides to trap a fairy and keep her in a jar. Unfortunately, he does not know that keeping a fairy indoors from sunset to sunrise turns it into an imp. Fairies, being the vain, mirror loving creatures that they are, become enraged at being turned into ugly little creatures and exact vengeance on the person responsible. The law of retribution, or reaping what you sow, is one of the most important facets of the treaty between magical creatures and humans that allows them to coexist peacefully, so of course Seth is in for it. What the fairies do to him and how it is undone are brilliant and Mull's writing is vivid and suspenseful. But, this is only the beginning of the action and adventure in the book. The fairies aren't done with Seth and they are back to tempt him into danger - a temptation they make hard to resist - that results in the abduction of Grandpa Stan and Lena. Dale, never of interest to the magical creatures, is turned into a bronze statue. It is up to Kendra and Seth, with surprise help from Goldilocks, to make a dangerous rescue while at the same time thwarting the efforts of the Society of the Evening Star, a rogue group bent on freeing all the magical creatures, dark and light, from the confines (and protection) of the preserves. Headed by Muriel Taggert, the Society of the Evening Star is on the verge of freeing Bahumat, an ancient demon who once ruled the land that Fablehaven in now situated on.
Brandon Mull's first book in this five book series (all books now in print, books 1 - 4 are available in paperback) sets the stage wonderfully for the battle between the evil Society of the Evening Star and the Knights of Dawn that will take place over the next four books. Seth and Kendra clearly have their flaws and strengths that they will have to work with over the next four books. Mull employs magical creatures, such as golems, satyrs, ogres, naiads, demons, milch cows, and many, many others (there is an impressively long list of them on Wikipedia) in traditional and innovative ways. One of my favorite scenes from the book comes at the climactic battle when the fairies, transformed to human sized warriors, confront the army of imps that Muriel has assembled - including the fairy that Seth accidentally turned - and rush at them. Instead of battling them, the fairies kiss the imps, instantly returning them to their former fairy status. Brilliant imagery and brilliant writing. Mull's series falls nicely between Angie Sage's Septimus Heap Series with it's medieval setting and raft of magical creatures, witches and wizards and Cornelia Funke's more mature, complex Inkworld Trilogy where the magical creatures take more of a back seat to the dark hearts of the humans who inhabit her story. Mull's choice to begin his story in contemporary America is also a nice twist to the typical fairy fantasy, although, once you enter the grounds of Fablehaven, you are sucked into the magical world and forget what continent you are on.
Other books in the series are as follows:
Rise of the Evening Star, Grip of the Shadow Plague, Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary and Keys to the Demon Prison.