If you’re looking for a good middle-school/YA fantasy novel for your kids, this is one I highly recommend. It felt really original to me, and at the same time I felt it was a really nice mix of influences, not just your traditional fantasy read. In fact, it’s barely fantasy in that it happens in a made up world, but there’s very little magic. I found myself thinking of stories like Oliver Twist and The Prince and the Pauper while I was reading.
Outcast starts out with a mystery – someone is killing boys who live on the streets of Endelas Ortanos. Skerth is one of these street kids and he’s terrified that his best friend Kiri will be next. Turns out the heir to the kingdom disappeared years ago and would be about fifteen years old today. The people want to find the heir, but the Caretakers who are running the country definitely do not.
Vandervort keeps this story fresh and interesting – it didn’t feel like a kid’s book to me (except in a good way) and I didn’t want to put it down. There are orphans and gangs and pirates. There’s a governing body full of spies and thugs. There’s a mystery about the heir but Vandervort takes it a step further: the heir had a group of decoys, and no one has any idea if any of them are still alive. Since there’s no way to know who’s a decoy and who’s the heir (which is kind of the point), any of them can take the throne. Basically, everyone’s out there looking for a fifteen year old boy they can dress up to look like a prince.
Full disclaimer: Vandervort is a good friend of my sister, and I asked her for a copy of her book. So I’m not unbiased – but I liked it more than I even expected to.
What really sets this book apart is the character of Skerth, who doesn’t just run around fighting people, he really wrestles with a lot of issues, like whether he should allow himself to get close to anyone. In one part he helps two younger children, and then berates himself because they need to learn to survive on the streets. He cares deeply about his friends and feels just as deeply when he’s betrayed by one of them. He recognizes that even though his life is hard, there’s a freedom to it he enjoys.
The character of Kiri is also really interesting, although she’s not as well developed. Kiri is a girl who lives on the streets as a boy. Skerth has always seen Kiri as just like the other boys, except that’s starting to change. There’s a scene where Skerth watches Kiri and realizes she’s starting to look like a woman. His first reaction is desire mixed with embarrassment, then he worries about what that means for his friendship. Then he starts thinking about how devastated she will be to know she won’t be able to live as a boy much longer. It’s that kind of thoughtfulness that made this book such a good read.
Vandervort’s other books are set in the same world, and the reviews on Goodreads for The Song and the Sorceress and The Northern Queen are really, really good.
This book just made me happy. Like I said, I don’t claim objectivity here, but I do claim honesty. This was a fun, clever read. I think it would be fantastic for kids, boys and girls both, but there’s no reason you can’t read it too.