The winners of the Cybil awards were announced on Saturday! I was a judge in the Middle and Elementary Grade Speculative Fiction category and our deserved winner is The Luck Uglies. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting reviews of all the shortlisted books, starting today with the victor.
First off, I approached this book with a warm feeling, which I realized came from the cover looking a lot like that of Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes (Abrams, 2011) – a book I’m very fond of. And actually, it’s not a bad comparison – both have a sort of magical Dickensian feel to them.
The sad sack village of Drowning is once again threatened by the monstrous Bog Noblins, and their ruler, the despotic Earl Morningwig Longchance doesn’t seem inclined to do much about it – should the villagers turn to the legendary outlaws, the Luck Uglies, to protect them? 11 year-old Rye O’Chanter is caught up in the middle of this, when she is attacked by Leatherleaf, the first of the Bog Noblins, and is rescued. Meanwhile, her mother and a mysterious friend seem to know something that could save Drowning.
The village of Drowning is wonderfully created – from a detailed map at the beginning (and I love a good map) to the first description: “Drowning was more of a sprawling town than a village, one built on a foundation of secrets, rules and lies, but mostly just mud.” (p. 3). And the later description of the Black Moon party at the Dead Fish Inn (p. 66 onwards) is a masterpiece of visualization – I could perfectly picture the inn and its denizens.
Rye’s family is another gem of sharply written description – her fiercely protective mother, her irritating yet endearing younger sister and even the family cat, Nightshade Fur Bottom O’Chanter. Rye’s father was a soldier who disappeared many years ago in pursuit of the Luck Uglies, and now Rye is literally and figuratively walking in her father’s boots, which (literally and figuratively) are too big for her but she comes to fill them over the course of the story.
The whole book is full of little nuggets of fine writing: Rye’s mother glares at someone with “all the sweetness of an overripe lemon” and ghosts are described as the lonely dead who “don’t have any hearts to go home to.” Tam’s Pocket Glossary of Drowning Mouth Speak is both entertaining and also adds a little to the lore of the world. And just check out those names!
The plot takes a little time to build up steam – Rye’s encounter with the Bog Noblin happens about a quarter of the way through the book, but is soundly constructed with a good balance of exposition and action that builds to an exciting finish.
A shout out too for Petur Antonsson’s illustrations at the beginning of the chapters, which are spot on as well – like the one’s in the Harry Potter books, I felt they added to the atmosphere and voice of the novel.
I do have a couple of quibbles – for example, Rye’s friend Folly’s family is just too big to have any memorable characters and the Bog Noblins speaking came as a surprise to me but apparently not to anyone in the book (and how convenient that the Constable speaks Noblin – where did he learn that?) – and I felt there were a couple of minor holes in the plot, though honestly nothing to get in a stew about.
Overall, this is a terrific winner for the Cybils, which I’m sure middle grade readers will thoroughly enjoy before clamoring for the sequel – due out in March.