Sticking to the path won’t always take you where you need to go. So Jinx left it, and pushed his way through an elderberry thicket. He crept silently toward the edge of Bone Canyon. He hid in the shadow of a hemlock and looked across the steep cliffs of Bonesocket Island, and the high walls of the castle, and the spindly bridge of bones that climbed to the Bonemaster’s domain.
I’m a bit late to this party, because Jinx’s Fire came out last March. I picked it up when it came out, but put off actually opening it because I knew I wanted to go back and start again from the beginning. I was waiting for the proper intersection of time and mood, in other words, which finally happened over this past Christmas break. And I’m glad, because it’s such a delight to re-visit this world and everyone in it.
I don’t read all that much Middle Grade; a lot of it reads too young for me. But sometimes great charm in worldbuilding (those butter churns!) meets complex, interesting, unusual characterization and also beautiful style and then it can be magic. For me, Blackwood’s trilogy is right up there with the Middle Grade stories of Diana Wynne Jones, and I don’t say that very often.
Okay, so, I’m sure lots of you have already read the first two books, but let me see if I can do this without significant spoilers.
The first book of this MG trilogy, Jinx, is self-contained, but you may be aware that the second, Jinx’s Magic, is not. It feeds directly into the third book of the trilogy, Jinx’s Fire.
Because the third book is continuing the story established earlier, Jinx and the whole Urwald already face a clear threat, a complicated problem that needs to be solved before they have much chance of dealing with the threat, and a ton of relationships that need to be worked out among the various characters.
Well, there are three different threats, actually. At least three. And several different complicated problems. And, yes, a ton of complicated relationships.
Although the Bonemaster is one Seriously Creepy Villain – he’ll suck out your soul with a straw, you know, and stack up your bones criss-cross – in some ways the threat he poses is not as great as the more fundamental threat posed by possible invasion from outside the Urwald. I mean, the Bonemaster belongs to the Urwald. He’d hardly want to see the forest completely destroyed. That isn’t the case for outside invaders who see the forest as a great source of lumber, and valuable land once it’s cleared. So Jinx and Elfwyn and everyone sure have their job cut out for them.
Similarly, although the problem of getting Simon’s soul back is a big deal, the more serious problem is the gradual disappearance of the Urwald’s intrinsic magic, and in order to deal with either problem, Jinx, or someone, really needs to figure out how the Urwald’s magic actually works.
And all the way through, the characters have to grow up and/or work out their relationships; such a pleasure to spend time with them all.
Elfwyn really grew up in this story. She started out with such a typical fairy-tale problem: how to get rid of this annoying curse. Then Blackwood takes Elfwyn and her curse in such an unexpected direction. I love Elfwyn’s determination and her willingness to take responsibility for things and put herself in peril. Honestly, she seems like perhaps the most clear-sighted character in the whole trilogy. The relationship between Jinx and Elfwyn is really well done, though personally I don’t feel the trace of potential romance was actually necessary. The key relationship for me is the one between Jinx and Simon.
I think maybe I have a particular fondness for really well-drawn father figures, and Simon is possibly my favorite character in the trilogy. He is such a total jerk in some ways, especially at first, and then eventually does the right thing almost despite himself. He’s complicated – a little bit evil, but not really. He’s irascible and snappish and touchy and has a horrible relationship with his own father and keeps a zillion cats and oh yes is married to a sensible scholarly woman from another world. The relationship between Jinx and Simon is what hooked me in the first place and I loved seeing them together again in this book.
Jinx is grumpy and impatient in this book, and one does wonder how much of that attitude he learned from Simon and how much is just him. In some ways he’s been growing into himself over the course of this trilogy, becoming more confident. In other ways, he is resisting his own gifts as hard as he can. I will say, his persistent hesitation to use his particular brand of magic to deal with the invasion practically drove me mad. It’s not that I don’t get his hesitation, but I’d have been right there with everyone else shouting at him to go on and get it done. I do think Blackwood kind of elided the carnage we’d really see in that kind of situation, thus allowing Jinx to drag his feet a bit longer than I think was reasonable. On the other hand, this is a MG story, not a bloody tour through war and the brutality attendant on conquest, so probably it was a good idea to pass lightly over the less fairy-tale aspects of the invasion.
In the end, the resolution of the story solidly shuts the door on all the various threats facing the Urwald – or at least the urgent threats. Not quite the traditional happily-ever-after, the ending nevertheless brings the trilogy to a satisfying conclusion. Overall, an engrossing story involving characters who virtually step off the page, set in a beautifully drawn fairy-tale world. An excellent choice for an advanced MG reader or for an adult who enjoys really well-written MG stories, I think this trilogy is going to be collecting new fans of all ages for a long time to come.