The Fires of Calderon (Balance Keepers, book one)
By Lindsay Cummings
Expected publication September 23, 2014 by Katherine Tegen Books
Albert is not exactly looking forward to spending another summer with his dad - his dad isn't actually around that much and he makes Albert work in the dead letter office. But this summer turns out to be very different when Albert follows a strange dog and a strange letter to the Path Hider. He sends Albert to the Core, where Albert learns of his destiny as a Balance Keeper. Has Albert finally found somewhere he can belong?
I requested the e-galley of this because I love me some middle-grade fantasy. Also, the author is a local Texas author, so that piqued my interest just a little bit more.
If you're a fantasy reader, much of this story will be familiar to you. In fact, most of the book feels pretty predictable - Albert discovers his secret destiny and unlocks mysterious powers, makes new friends, and embarks on a dangerous quest to save the world. It's pretty standard fantasy stuff. However, just because it's familiar and a bit predictable doesn't mean it's not fun. Though it's quite easy to figure out how the whole thing is going to turn out in the end, Cummings makes it an enjoyable ride for readers to take.
This is a really small detail but Albert moans about having to work in the dead letter office for his father at the start of the book. I thought this was a really interesting little detail, though, and I wonder how kids will react to it. Really, most of them probably haven't written or received a letter, so to imagine an office full of letters that were never delivered might be a bit beyond them. To me, though, the dead letter office sounds awesome - a bit like being a detective without much danger. I really liked this small detail.
If the structure of the book feels very familiar, the actual fantasy world Cummings has created is decidedly not. It's a very unique world with the Core and the various Realms, only one of which is explored in this volume. The creatures are interesting and the system of the Tiles and their powers quite unique as well. While I am impressed by Cummings' ability to create such a unique world, at times it was almost too strange for me. I had a really hard time visualizing a lot of what she was describing. I'm almost positive that young readers won't have this same problem, but I figured it was worth mentioning. It's not even really a criticism, more just a flaw of my own poor imagination.
One thing that I think Cummings really excelled at were her cliffhangers. Much like Rick Riordan, Cummings really knows how to end the chapter on the perfect note to keep kids turning the pages at a furious pace. The book flies by because these cliffhangers entice you to read just one more chapter, then one more, and so on. For me, the only time this pacing faltered was once Albert and his friends actually entered Calderon. It seemed to have taken them a long time to get to that point, but then the action in Calderon was over relatively quickly. Cummings also did a great job ending the book on a big cliffhanger, sure to leave readers eager for book two.
Overall, an enjoyable middle-grade fantasy that will likely be popular with readers who've enjoyed the Percy Jackson and Gregor series. I'll be interested to see what's in store in book two.
Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.