"The Key & the Flame" by Claire Caterer
There was a time when “middle grade fantasy” – which was actually just called “children’s fantasy” back then – was more about a couple of 10- or 11-year-old kids having an adventure in a unfamiliar land. There were some talking animals, maybe; a witch or a wizard; or some strange new worlds. But most of all there was a quest for the children to accomplish. Think The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or The Dark is Rising or A Wrinkle in Time or Half Magic. Fantasy has changed with the times: stories need to be big and grand and complex and somewhat dangerous. Evil is more evil, good is more complex. That’s not a bad thing. But, after reading so many books that vaguely feel like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games, one does get tired of the same old story.
So reading Claire Caterer’s middle grade fantasy The Key & the Flame came as a breath of fresh air.
Eleven-year-old Holly Shepard isn’t really that extraordinary. She isn’t that bright, and is often chided for being off-task at school. She doesn’t really have huge aspirations, nor does she excel at anything; those labels are for her younger brother Ben. So when her family moves to a small village in England, she doesn’t expect anything different. That is until the landlord of their cottage gives Holly a old key that opens a door. In an oak tree. This is a portal to another world, Anglielle, where Holly is someone extraordinary: an Adept come back to save the country from the oppressive King. She’s also tasked with rescuing her brother Ben and friend Everett – both who came through the portal with her – from the grasp of Prince Avery, who is very much his father’s son.
Much of the charm of this book comes from Holly’s discovery of her powers: it isn’t an easy path for her and magic doesn’t come easily to her. There are fits and starts as she tries to figure out how to work this magic everyone says she has. There are fits and starts Ben and Everett as well: their attempts to escape are not successful, and as a result they fall in with a less-than-honest crowd. There are swordfights and jousting as well as magic and adventures in this one. Additionally, while there is conflict and danger, those who fill the role of “bad guys” aren’t terribly bad, and the book, in the end, doesn’t have an overly dark feel. Maybe the lack of tension will turn off some readers, but I do hope that there are those – like me – who find Caterer’s return to a more classic fantasy adventure refreshing.
Recommended for ages 9 and up.
Review by Melissa Fox