The Spindlers

By Lauren Oliver [LibraryThingGoodreads]

Liza and her little brother Patrick know all about the Spindlers – evil spider-creatures who live underground and steal souls. And when Patrick starts acting cold and distant, Liza knows right away that the Spindlers have gotten to him. To save her brother’s soul, she must descend to the world Below – a world of giant talking rats, fairy balls, treacherous trees, and lethal rivers – and face the Queen of the Spindlers in the heart of the Web of Souls.

I’ve read a lot of middle grade fantasy. And the thing about reading a lot of any genre is that after a while, you start to feel like there’s nothing new – or at least, very little new – under the sun. That makes it hard to review a book like The Spindlers, which…well. It begins with its pre-teen hero, Liza, descending to a vast and terrifying world beneath her house in order to rescue her younger sibling, and immediately encountering an enormous talking rat with whom she forms an uneasy alliance. And, well, I would avoid using such similar plot elements to Suzanne Collins’ Gregor books unless you’re really really sure you can tackle them better than she did. (Spoiler: You can’t. The Gregor books are perfect.) The rest of Liza’s adventures are not particularly Gregorian, but her journey through a land of metaphorical wonders and perils and strange, fae creatures kept reminding me of The Phantom Tollbooth, as seen through a Spiderwick filter.

And yet I don’t want to fault the book for any of that. I don’t know Oliver’s life. I have no way of knowing if she’s even read any of the books hers reminded me of. And I wouldn’t hesitate to hand this to a fantasy-loving kid, who doesn’t necessarily have the same mental back catalog of books that I do and just wants a magical adventure. But I want to give my honest impression as well, and that impression is that The Spindlers feels derivative, even if it may be unintentionally so.

I also would’ve liked to have felt more of a connection between Liza and the other people in her life. She spends much of her time thinking about her missing brother Patrick and her beloved babysitter Anna, who recently went off to college – but since the book opens with Patrick already gone, we don’t ever get to see her interacting with these people she adores, which makes it hard to feel for those relationships. We do see her interact with her parents, but it’s a disappointingly one-note interaction of the “parents just don’t understand” variety – her mother in particular is to my mind unrealistically callous in her dismissal of Liza’s concerns (though I did think Oliver handled the family’s financial concerns, filtered down through a child protagonist who doesn’t quite understand them, very well). And Liza and Mirabella’s relationship, which should be the core of the book, doesn’t have a consistent arc – Mirabella’s just annoying, and Liza’s just an ass to her, with occasional moments of kindness.

Yet there are really charming aspects to the mythology (Liza brings a broom underground with her, because spiders hate brooms! Adorable!) and truly beautiful moments, such as when Liza meets the nocturna, who sound like sexy vampire ladies but are actually shadowy, bat-like creatures who carry dreams to the living. Liza’s trial in the Court of Stones is fun, and her final triumph over the spindler queen’s succession of riddles and traps is satisfyingly clever.

If the relationships had been stronger, I don’t think I would be comparing this book unfavorably to others. As it is, I think it just needed that extra push to dazzle. So The Spindlers gets three and a half cupcakes, a perfectly respectable grade, and I’ll take a look at Oliver’s YA books the next time I’m in the bookstore.

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