Liza wakes up one morning to discover that her little brother has been stolen away and replaced by a sinister, dead-eyed clone. Naturally, her parents, preoccupied with matters financial, notice nothing. It's up to Liza to go Below and rescue Patrick from the Spindlers, a race of awesomely creepy spider-like beings, before they devour his soul. Along the way, she is helped and hindered by various bizarre beasties.
Sound familiar? Yeah, it's basically Coraline in the Labyrinth Wonderland. The "going into a scary place to retrieve a loved one" microgenre/myth has a long and proud history (hello, Orpheus!). It's a story arc that obviously resonates deeply with us humans, but when an author tries her hand at something that's been done so well by so many, she'd better bring something new and special to the table. I'm... not sure Lauren Oliver does.
I hate to say that, though! Because here's the thing: I loved this book. As soon as I finish writing this review, I'm putting it directly into the hand of the most voracious ten-year-old reader I know. Oliver fills her world Below with grotesqueries and wonders, from a huge, sympathetic rat to the scariest trees since Old Man Willow. It makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read.
But we're here to talk about the Newbery. "Distinguished" is the name of the game, and I'm not sure it applies in this case. Plot-wise, there are far too many convenient escapes from peril. In terms of character development, Liza spends a disappointing portion of the book just floating along, letting things happen to her. Settings are pretty magnificent, and I like Oliver's unpretentious descriptive style, but theme is addressed inconsistently. The overtly-stated lessons tacked onto the last two pages feel awkward, and I'm not sure they emerge naturally from the rest of the text.
Still, I will say again: this book is lovely. Buy it, read it, share it. And pick up Liesl and Po, if you missed that one last year.
Publication in October through HarperCollins.