Author: Melinda Beatty
Publication Date: June 5, 2018
Only Fallow was just six harvests old when she realized that not everyone sees lies. For Only, seeing lies is as beautiful as looking through a kaleidoscope, but telling them is as painful as gnawing on cut glass. Only’s family warns her to keep her cunning hidden, but secrets are seldom content to stay secret.
When word of Only’s ability makes its way to the King, she’s plucked from her home at the orchard and brought to the castle at Bellskeep. There she learns that the kingdom is plagued by traitors, and that her task is to help the King distinguish between friend and foe. But being able to see lies doesn’t necessarily mean that others aren’t able to disguise their dishonesty with cunnings of their own.
Heartseeker, with its eleven-year-old protagonist and sprawling fantasy world, is solidly a middle grade book. And normally, I don’t read middle grade; the age appropriate villains, easily solved issues, and the overcompensation of authors attempting to make their protagonists sound like middle schoolers, turning them into naive idiots that even middle school me couldn’t stand, tend to be major deterrents.
This sounds like a haughty generalization, but its not. Many authors when writing middle grade are told to “dumb down” their characters, and to make their villains “less scary” in order to not alienate the parents from buying the books. The kids, if I remember anything about being a kid (arguably I still am) love a rich story but, ultimately, the decision is not up to them. It is up to whether or not the author chooses to take that risk. And I have to give credit where credit is due, Melinda Beatty takes that leap.
In Heartseeker, Beatty creates a kingdom in which the common folk live alongside the Ordish; a people that live on boats, much like Golden Compass’s Gyptians. The Ordish are rumored to have small powers, called Cunnings, that only add to the fear and distain the people of the kingdom have for them. Inexplicably, the main character, Only Fallow, also has a gift. She can see lies, but cannot lie herself. When the King’s horrible decree to steal away Ordish children in order to force the Ordish to pay taxes reaches her friends, Only accidentally reveals her power and is spirited away to the palace to become used in the political machinations of the royal family.
And there we have three things that really put this middle grade above others I have read.
- The evil is real. It isn’t simply a bad fairy that wants to rule the world, or a strangely incompetent Greek god. It’s prejudice, and what it allows a government to get away with. This is a very important topic, historically and in today’s world, and I like how it is incorporated into Heartseeker in a truthful, yet age appropriate way.
- Only’s power to see lies. There is so much potential in this gift. It is so unique. I can’t wait to see how it develops in the sequels.
- It’s not condescending. Only is not stupid, and she’s not a genius. She sees things the way they are; more so because of her gift. And while the world that she’s in isn’t outrageously gory and horrific, it isn’t like my middle school’s production of 101 Arabian Nights, where, surprise, no one actually got their head cut off because the grand vizier had been lying to the king the entire time. Hooray! No, it had grit, and realism because, guess what, so does the world. Why should books be any different?
If there was any critique I would give Heartseeker, it would be this: be more creative, more immersive. Only has such a unique gift, and the author has a whole world to play in. As I seem to be using a lot of Golden Compass similes today, I’ll use some more (it’s such an interesting book). One of the reasons fans love Golden Compass so much is that its world building is phenomenal. Everything is similar to our world, yet with a wholly unique twist that gives that book such a peculiar feel that sets it apart from so many others. In that book, the protagonist visits everyone from the scholars of London to the sentient bears of Svalbard, and each group has such a unique, vibrant culture that it is easy to see a whole world within the pages of that book. In addition, the people in Golden Compass were never truly alone, they were always accompanied by an animal representing part of their soul, which gave them a wholly unique mindset towards everything from loneliness to relationships.
Heartseaker has that potential, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. Only’s ability to see and comprehend people’s motives behind their lies could potentially evolve into a wholly unique character. Only’s kingdom in which a diverse group of people live and small magical gifts hide just below the surface has so much world building potential. It just needs that extra push of imagination. I cannot wait to read the sequel and see that potential come to life.