Book: The Scourge
Author: Jennifer Nielsen
Age Range: 9-12
The Scourge is an upcoming middle grade novel by Jennifer Nielsen, author of The Ascendance Trilogy (reviews here, here, and here) and the Mark of the Thief series (book 1 review here). Although Nielsen does a fair bit of world-building in The Scourge, she wraps up the story quite thoroughly, and this seems to be a standalone novel (which I find refreshing). To me, The Scourge seemed aimed at a slightly younger audience than the previous books, more elementary than middle school. The Scourge is a fast-paced, suspenseful read with an engaging main character, and is sure to be well-received by kids.
The Scourge is set in a country, Keldan, that is suffering from a dangerous pandemic called the Scourge. People found to be ill from or carriers of the Scourge are sent to an island called the Colony, housed in a former prison. No one ever returns. The Scourge is always fatal. Things start to change, however, when young Ani Mells is sent to the Colony. Ani and her best friend Weevil belong to the River People, an ostracized segment of the population also know as "grubs". Grubs have few rights compared to the townspeople (called "pinchworms"), but they do know how to fight, and take care of themselves. What follows is an exploration of friendship, government oppression, and manipulation, set against a variety of dangers and cruelties.
Ani is a delightful character, stubborn and belligerent, and pretty much incapable of following the rules. She blossoms into a leader over the course of the book, even as her antagonists attempt to break her. Her friendship with Weevil is strong enough to withstand various tests, too. [Slight spoiler: A turn from friendship to love interest later in the book didn't seem necessary to me, but is certainly G rated enough to keep the book elementary schooler-friendly.] And, in another refreshing change for any children's fantasy novel, Ani actually has two loving and living parents (though she's separated from them starting early in the book, of course).
Here are a couple of quotes, to give you a feel for Ani's voice:
"The River People knew every plant and its uses. Pinchworms thought we were less educated than them because we didn't have their expensive medicines or tests like the governor would probably try to administer on us. I figured we were just differently educated. They knew the world that came out of books, but we knew the world that went into them. I'd have loved to see a hungry pinchworm challenge a water cobra for its fish. Mostly because no River Person I knew would ever try such a foolish thing. In river country, we all learned early to respect things that could swallow us whole." (Chapter Three, ARC)
"Sometimes I hated the way my brain worked, like a magnet to thoughts I should not have and actions I should not take. My mother said I was born backward and that probably explained how I'd gotten this way. Maybe she was right--I didn't know." (Chapter Twenty-Five, ARC)
Fans of Nielsen's other fantasy books are going to love The Scourge. For those who haven't read her work, The Scourge is a great introduction, particularly given that it's a standalone novel. The Scourge is one that libraries serving elementary and middle school kids should have on their "must purchase" list. Highly recommended, for kids and adults.
Publisher: Scholastic (@Scholastic)
Publication Date: August 30, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
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