The Thief Knot, Kate Milford (Clarion 978-1-328-46689-1, $17.99, 464pp, hc) January 2020.
Attention all mystery fans! Kate Milford is back with another conundrum set in her Greenglass House world that brings together all the elements fans of the genre could want. Set in the fantastical city of Nagspeake (New England-adjacent but not part of the US) and featuring a group of five smart teens that includes a ghost, a magician, a code-breaker, and master of subterfuge (plus their determined leader), The Thief Knot is a delightful standalone adventure that younger teens will find hard to resist. Light on the romance (only a brief kiss on the cheek) while heavy on the mystery-solving, Milford proves yet again why her books are increasingly popular. This is a smart author who clearly respects her equally smart readers, and the result is thoroughly satisfying.
The Thief Knot begins with friends Marzana and Nialla whiling away a dull afternoon by tailing a robbery suspect who actually, to their great disappointment, turns out to be a very normal guy doing very normal things. The two girls live in Liberty of Gammerbund, an “enclosed city-within-the-city” sanctuary of Nagspeake. They are slightly obsessed with a series of complex “choose your own adventure” type clue-based books and 100% certain that nothing interesting will ever happen to them. Then Marzana’s parents are enlisted to help solve a kidnapping in Nagspeake, and Marzana finds herself drawn into the crime. Soon enough she and Nialla are building a team of classmates and friends who together break open dozens of secrets within Liberty. Between the ever-growing iron that wreaks havoc with the local architecture, the clandestine Belowground subway system, and the apparently haunted “Boneash and Sodalime’s Glass Museum and Radioactive Teashop,” there is a lot going on around them that Marzana and Nialla have failed to notice. As they crisscross the city in search of the missing girl, the teens find themselves skirting trouble while putting together elements of what might be a huge conspiracy to… well, no one quite knows why this kidnapping has happened. There are maps and ciphers, secret tunnels and stairways, and cakes that appear from invisible bakers. And no one does anything stupid! And the adults aren’t condescending! And there are no love triangles! And Marzana’s mother was a pirate! And there are so many possibilities for future adventures!
It’s all quite fabulous, really. Enchanting and puzzling and utterly and completely entertaining. Simply put, Milford hits it out of the ballpark yet again.
So, where to begin with the Greenglass House world? There is some mention of previous adventures in The Thief Knot, and while Milford has done a good job of making this a standalone, reading both Greenglass House and Ghosts of Greenglass House would help while navigating the streets of Liberty. The characters are easy to embrace on their own (and most are new to this novel) but the worldbuilding extends far beyond The Thief Knot. So, while not a series, these books can and should be enjoyed as a group with The Thief Knot the latest, and twistiest, entry in this charmingly original collection.
Reverie, Ryan La Sala (Sourcebooks 978-1-49268266-0, $17.99, 416pp, hc) December 2019. Debut author Ryan La Sala’s Reverie has one of the best openings I’ve seen in YA fiction, which immediately draws readers into a narrative that is wholly dependent upon a monumentally unreliable narrator. Kane Montgomery knows he has been in the hospital with a coma, and that he was found by the police in a local river while a nearby historic monument burned from a fire apparently started by him in his father’s stolen car. In the days since he woke up, it has become clear that there are large gaps in his memory stretching back over months, and although he can’t imagine why he would do it, Kane knows that he might very well be a criminal. Hounded by the police and hovered over by his worried family, he is desperate for answers. Sucked into his predicament from the first intense pages, readers will also want to know just what in the world is happening in this intricate book.
From the start, La Sala does an excellent job of portraying Kane as a sympathetic but problematic protagonist. He doesn’t seem like a villain, and yet the evidence of his involvement in the fire, and possibly also a murder, is irrefutable. Kane was there; everyone knows he was there. What he must discover is why and, as he finds clues that lead him to some of his classmates, who else might have been involved.
When Reverie dwells on Kane’s mystery, the plot is strong and tight. Kane discovers photos which lead him to one classmate, has odd interactions with two others, and then overhears a conversation revealing that he has been part of something bizarre and terrifying which includes people he now barely remembers. All of this is fascinating and believable and Kane’s suspicions about everyone around him, including the very creepy psychologist engaged by the authorities to determine if he is being honest about his memory loss, make perfect sense. But then the plot surges into the realm of the fantastic, and that is when it gets tricky for readers who will not only have to suspend some disbelief, but also accept the abrupt loss of supporting characters and previously significant plot points.
The police are a heavy threat as the book opens, for they have credible reasons to believe Kane is guilty. But then Kane learns that reality is under threat from active dreams (the “reveries” of the title) and suddenly the police are no longer a concern. (In a single line the villain explains they have been taken care of.) Kane’s caring parents become one dimensional versions of their previous selves, and his smart capable sister becomes rash and foolish, allowing the plot to conveniently lurch ahead and Kane to be the hero. A complex, intriguing mystery is thus mired down in a convoluted dark fantasy with an all-powerful villain whose motives are never fully explored. While Kane’s romance with brooding bad guy/good guy Dean is extremely appealing, they can’t bring all the dangling plot threads together on their own. Reverie is thus an interesting effort with a lot of promise that doesn’t quite succeed as it should. Ryan La Sala is clearly a writer to watch, and I have no doubt that adventurous teens eager for dark original stories with a diverse cast will happily work their way through the novel, embracing Kane Montgomery (and Dean Flores) all the way.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the February 2020 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.