fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsBreadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

Hazel and Jack have always been best friends, bonding over their shared love of science fiction and fantasy. They play make-believe “superhero baseball” and hang out in a derelict house they call the Shrieking Shack. But now that they’re eleven, Hazel’s mom is pushing her to make some female friends, and Jack is more interested in hanging out with his male friends than with Hazel. Then the impossible happens: Jack is taken away by a mysterious witch, and Hazel is the only one who can rescue him. Anne Ursu’s Breadcrumbs is a retelling of the fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” and it’s fantastic.

Ursu perfectly captures what it’s like to be a child of about eleven, just on the cusp of puberty but not there yet. You’re old enough to know that believing in magic is considered childish, but you don’t want to live in a world without it. Social cliques are shifting, sometimes for no discernible reason, and you feel the loss of friendships without ever knowing what went wrong. And maybe your parents get divorced (Hazel’s), or maybe they’re suffering from a mental illness (Jack’s), or even if none of that happens, you’re starting to realize they don’t have all the answers. Or they don’t have the answers you want to hear, or they seem to be answering a subtly different question from the one you’re asking. Ursu uses a delicate touch with the familial issues; the book never feels like a Very Special Episode About Divorce or anything like that. Instead, the issues are woven seamlessly into the kids’ lives along with their fantasy geekdom.

Later, when Hazel ventures into the realm of fairy tales, she learns that it contains many dangers that “would have been beautiful, as a story.” She encounters a variety of odd folk and situations, all drawn not just from fairy tales but from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales in particular. (This was when I finally processed the fact that the heroine’s name is “Hazel Anderson”!) She’s offered several different kinds of oblivion; the challenge is to press onward even when peaceful forgetfulness would be easier, and to help people along the way if she can. Even if Hazel can find Jack, he may not want to be rescued; maybe he wanted the Snow Queen’s brand of oblivion.

Always present, too, is the possibility that Hazel might save Jack from the immediate physical danger but still lose him emotionally. My favorite example of this theme has long been that penultimate transformation in Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose, but now Breadcrumbs is going right up there with it.

Erin McGuire’s illustrations are a treat, too. The ARC only has some of the drawings, but they are gorgeous and I can’t wait to see the rest. And I adore the cover: the woods, the wolves, and scrappy little Hazel looking just like she’s described in the text.

This is a beautifully written book — and intelligently written, too. Ursu never talks down to her audience in terms of vocabulary or metaphor. Kids will enjoy this, especially kids who are introspective and bookish like Hazel herself, but I think it may actually be even more enjoyable for adults. This isn’t so much a book for children as it is a book about childhood, meaningful for readers of all ages. I’m in my thirties and I loved Breadcrumbs. It took me right back to when I was Hazel’s age and dealing with some of the same heartaches she was going through. I recommend Breadcrumbs to anyone who is a geeky kid… and anyone who has ever been a geeky kid.

~Kelly Lasiter

YA fantasy book reviews Anne Ursu BreadcrumbsBreadcrumbs, by Anne Ursu, is a lovely yet sharply and at times painfully realistic coming-of-age tale, made all the more enjoyable for its many winks and nods to well-known works of children’s fantasy such as THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and most prevalently the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. It’s a fairy tale in the true old-fashioned sense rather than the more recent Disney versions — one full of wonder but also an equal amount, if not more, of danger and sorrow, and it ends not with “and they lived happily ever after” but “and they lived…”

Eleven-year-old Hazel is having a hard time adjusting to the recent changes in her life: her father left last year and is about to remarry and her new school is filled with kids who just don’t seem to get her. The sole point of solidity in her life is her best friend Jack, the two of them sharing a wildly fertile imagination as well as some parental issues (Jack’s mom suffers from depression). But even that is taken from her when Jack is corrupted by a shard of magic mirror glass and then stolen away by a magical Ice Queen. Hazel sets off to rescue him, heading into the magical woods thinking herself well-armed by all her fantasy reading. It turns out, however, that these fairy tale woods and this fairy tale quest is not at all like Narnia or Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. And even those moments that do seem similar on the surface to all those children’s fantasies turn out to be much darker and murkier than the stories portrayed.

Ursu does a great job in conveying this in-between age, when one’s inner world starts to conflict with the outer world, when the actions of both peers and adults begin to impinge more directly and strongly upon one’s personal world, when part of you wants to so badly to hang on to the magic and mystery of childhood while another part is so terrified of being left behind and labeled a “baby,” and when childhood friendships that seemed like they’d last forever become sadly ephemeral. Sure, Jack seemingly changes overnight and no longer wants to be her friend because of that shard of magical mirror, but underlying that is the chilling sense that it might not “only” be that shard causing this. And when the book ends, Jack and Hazel are friends again, but there is no sense of surety there; one can easily see the two of them going their own ways. It’s a vivid and truthful portrayal of this time period and for the most part handled smoothly and subtly. The same goes for the introduction of the parental issues. Yes, we have divorce and the looming stepmother and depression, but while integral to the story, they serve mostly as background.

Ursu is just as deft when she and Hazel enter the world of magic and fairy, using a nice mix of pastiche and originality. The situations and characters Hazel meets are mostly familiar — a woodsman, an Ice Queen, a kindly old couple in a cottage, etc. — but never feel like simple imitation. And her entire experience in the woods is disturbing, slightly askew, never feeling quite right. The woods are not the magically wonderful worlds of Narnia or Middle-Earth; they are filled not only with simple danger (after all, so were Narnia, Wonderland, and all the others) but also with grief and sorrow and populated by the lost and wounded. It’s the world of Faerie rather than Fairy. It’s a world one survives rather than becoming a king or queen of. And so when Jack and Hazel exit, they are not unscathed by their experiences there, or by what drove them there in the first place.

Breadcrumbs is a book for young readers, and I think it will appeal to a broad range of that age group, from the younger set of 9 or 10 to the upper teens. But it will as well appeal to those who have never forgotten the highs and lows of that in-between age and those of us who grew up on those great works of children’s fantasy will find lots of places were we’ll nod and smile as if at an old friend caught in passing. Highly recommended.

~Bill Capossere

Breadcrumbs — (2011-2013) Ages 8 and up. Publisher: Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. But that was before he stopped talking to her and disappeared into a forest with a mysterious woman made of ice. Now it’s up to Hazel to go in after him. Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” breadcrumbs is a stunningly original fairy tale of modern-day America, a dazzling ode to the power of fantasy, and a heartbreaking meditation on how growing up is as much a choice as it is something that happens to us.

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  • Kelly Lasiter

    KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.