Two years ago I enthusiastically, excitedly reviewed The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson, saying that it was the best fantasy novel I had read in quite a while. I also speculated about a sequel, hoping to learn more about the curious artifacts that arrive in the world of Solace by way of dangerous meteor storms. With The Secrets of Solace, Johnson delivers a novel that, while not a sequel to The Mark of the Dragonfly, is set in the same world and, if possible, even better than the first. And, best of all, The Secrets of Solace is takes place in the Archivists' Strongholds, where the artifacts are taken to be studied and experimented with. In the eight years since I began my blog, and in the fifteen years before that while working as a children's bookseller, I read a lot of middle grade fantasy novels, especially when the genre exploded after the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 1997. However, I hit a saturation point where, while the books were good and satisfied my love of traveling to other, magical worlds, they did not necessarily stand out or leave a mark on my memory. Johnson's novels stand out and are very memorable. She is a masterful world builder and her stories are seamless. Her characters are compelling, and her main characters are strong, curious, intelligent girls who are good with machines. If you are feeling a little burned out on middle grade fantasy novels, Johnson's books are the perfect palette cleansers.
The main character in The Secrets of Solace is Lina Winterbock, an orphan living in Ortana. Ortana is one of the three archivists' strongholds that abut the Hiterian Mountains, beyond which are uncharted lands. Lina is a junior apprentice to Zara, a teacher and member of the archivists' ruling council. The ruling council has been especially busy lately with the flood of refugees escaping the escalating war between the Merrow Kingdom and the Dragonfly Territories, giving Lina lots of time on her own. Lina thinks of herself as a new breed of archivist, an "explorer archivist." She has spent so much time crawling through the air ducts and tunnels that thread throughout the mountain that she has been able to map them all as well as discover long lost workshops, overhear secrets and more. As Lina says of herself, she has been "hiding and listening for a long time."
In fact, Lina has discovered a long lost workroom that was partially obscured by one of the frequent cave ins that happen on the mountain. Inside is an aircraft, something that the king of the Dragonfly Territories has been working on creating, something that would allow the inhabitants of Solace to explore uncharted lands. After twisting through the museum-like rooms and moss covered corridors of Ortana, Johnson's story takes off like a rocket when Lina encounters young Prince Ozben, the "spare heir" to the throne of the Merrow Kingdom. Ozben has been secreted away to Ortana and is in hiding from assassins. Together the two work to stay a step ahead of the assassins and the archivists who are growing weary of Lina's mishaps and suspicious of her behavior. Johnson includes an especially magical twist in the form of the aircraft, while also ramping up the dangers and complexities of impending war.
The Secrets of Solace was hard for me to put down, something that happens less frequently than I would like these days. Johnson does something that I especially appreciated in this novel, something that almost never happens in a middle grade fantasy: the hero of the story confesses to an adult who can help. I realize that it makes for good tension, but I often find myself feeling frustrated with characters in fantasy and adventure books who find themselves in deep and, for whatever fabricated (or real-ish) situation, do not turn to an adult for help. I think it is the mark of a truly good writer to be able to craft a plot that allows the main character to turn to an adult for help and continue on with a suspenseful climax to the story, which is exactly what Johnson does in The Secrets of Solace.
Source: Review Copy