The Changelings by Christina Soontornvat – Review by Nathaniel Hardman
Witches, goblins, fairies, elves – these are fairy-tale creatures that have endured and become a staple in our fiction centuries. Partly that’s due to Disney, who kept dipping into the Grimm well (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Pocahontas (jk!)), but it’s also Christmas traditions and bedtime stories and old books and any number of things. Whatever the reason, if I say, “That flower looks like a fairy,” to my six-year-old daughter, she knows what I’m talking about, never mind that fairies aren’t real and shouldn’t be a valid frame of reference. These fantasy beings have become real to us.
Changelings, on the other hand, are in a different, less-familiar class, and I wonder if it’s because their mythos is so inherently CREEPY. This idea that you put your baby to sleep at night, and when you get her in the morning, she’s different. She may look the same, but she’s NOT the same. Your baby is gone, replaced by this THING masquerading as a human child. That is the stuff of real nightmares, the kind of thing parents wake up from in a cold sweat, and not the sort of story I tell my kids at bedtime.
I give that as preface to my review because one of the things I enjoyed most about Christina Soontornvat’s The Changelings was the tone – fun and exciting as you would expect for a middle-grade, but also at times dark and truly creepy. The tone fit the subject, and I appreciated that.
Take this scene from early in the book: a girl hears a haunting tune playing in the forest and walks out to investigate. She gets turned around, lost, and then falls and hits her head. When she wakes up, she’s in a strange house. She sits up and looks around, and she finds…
Are you ready for it?
Pictures of her, all over the house.
Isn’t that just the creepiest possible payoff for that setup? I love that.
Consider also the villain – a witch who’s constantly picking at the skin of her thumb, so it’s often oozing blood. Just gives you goosebumps, it’s so icky.
Or how about the scene where two characters are in a dusty, abandoned manor, and they keep getting snagged in cobwebs. Then the cobwebs start wrapping tighter and tighter around them, tripping their legs, pin down their arms and seize them forever. Great sinister stuff there.
The story, by the way, is standard middle-grade fare: eleven-year-old Izzy’s little sister is abducted (by the Pied Piper!) and taken to Faerie, and Izzy needs to get her back. She is joined on her quest by a trio of changelings who for one reason or other didn’t fit in on Earth and so have returned to their homeland.
I won’t spoil it beyond that, but I will say that it’s a quest story, and our heroine must face down goblins, monsters, an evil queen, and her own personal demons in order to reclaim her sister. Her traveling companions go from unwilling associations to reluctant allies to fast friends. Basically, it’s a fun adventure, and while it feels a little familiar, I was genuinely wrapped up in wanting to see how it all turned out.
I am also happy to report that the prose is clean and uncluttered, and the editing/polish is very good. At the sentence level, it’s a well-written book, and that goes a long way for my enjoyment.
So all in all, it’s a solid, engaging middle-grade fantasy. With its slightly darker tone, it stands out among other MG’s this year and gives fair treatment to its subject. I’m recommending it to my nine-to-fourteen-year-old nieces and nephews.
Nathaniel Hardman reviews books on his website freebetareader.com, where he also does beta reading and editing. He has three kids and hopes to have his own middle-grade fantasy published by the time those kids are old enough to read it. You can find him on twitter @ngeorgehardman.