Lilah (age 9) and I read this sequel to THE ACCIDENTAL KEYHAND out loud. For me, it took a while to get moving, but it held Lilah’s interest from the start. Here’s what happens when you buck middle-grade fantasy tradition, which prefers dead, absent, or oblivious parents: the observant and involved parents have to be convinced to allow the heroes to pursue their fantastical adventures. This takes the first two chapters, which dragged a bit for me but sums up the backstory and first book well. Then the third chapter is getting through the public library, and then we’re finally back in Petrarch’s Library. From this point, we were constantly disappointed when it was time to put the book away for the night, and we stayed up too late more than once.

Dorrie is poring over the available practicums, including “Swords, Daggers, and Coffee Can Tops: A General Survey of Sharp Edges and Their Uses,” “Codes, Invisible Inks, and Smoke Signals: Keeping Communication Maddeningly Secret,” and “Damp Dungeons, Desolate Moors, and Dreary Parties: How To Survive Inimical Environments With Style,” when she learns she won’t be apprenticed to Savi, her beloved sword fighting tutor. Instead, she’ll spend the term assisting the Archivist, a crazy old man who reads excessive quantities of oranges out of books. But she, Marcus, and Ebba are too busy for Dorrie to dwell too much on this: they have an Athenian musician whose fate they are sort of responsible for, a secret or two hidden away in a new library, and an anti-suffragette newspaper to save. Meanwhile, the Foundation is gaining power it plans to use to take control of the written word in all wherens (time-places).

The sibling relationship between Marcus and Dorrie is believable and often funny. Marcus’s crush on Egeria adds plenty of comic relief in the midst of serious adventures. There is a really interesting discussion of means and ends–in the context of whether to torture a prisoner to save other lives–that was quite well done and sophisticated for a middle-grade fiction book. There is also a discussion of the importance of defending all writing, even abhorrent writing, that runs through one of the main plotlines. And another theme involves the true meaning of courage in the face of fear, so the comic relief is very welcome. 

Downey balances the lighter “magical boarding school” elements nicely with the “fighting evil” plot. Dorrie, Matcus, and Ebba get away with really impressive amounts of rule breaking with few consequences, and I occasionally found myself thinking the library needed a McGonnagal or a Snape patrolling the corridors, but this is a minor quibble. We couldn’t wait to read the end, and then we were sad it was over. One last plot twist at the very end should wind up being very important in the third book, and Lilah and I actually gasped at the revelation and then sighed over having to wait another year or so for the third book.

Highly recommended, but it’ll be more fun if you read THE ACCIDENTAL KEYHAND first.

Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title via NetGalley.