Monday, September 25, 2023

Today's read... Vivian Van Tassel and the Secret of Midnight Lake by Michael Witwer

Today's read is the beginning of a brand new series for the middle grade audience. It slides in the Dungeons and Dragons direction and promises tons of action as well as mystery. I'm all for an exciting, middle grade read and hope this one offers more than just a hint of adventure.

by Michael Witwer
Middle Grade Fantasy
366 pages
ages 8 to 12

A debut epic middle grade fantasy from the New York Times bestselling Dungeons & Dragons expert Michael Witwer!

Twelve-year-old Vivian Van Tassel is angry about her mom’s mysterious and sudden death; at her dad for uprooting their lives in Chicago to move to the sleepy, creepy town of Midnight Lake; at the bullies who seem to be drawn to her no matter how much she tries to keep her head down…but mostly angry at herself for causing bad things to happen wherever she goes.

When a class assignment at her new school prompts Vivian to research the history of Midnight Lake, she quickly discovers her new home is even more peculiar than it seems. Not only was the infamous Beasts & Battlements (B&B) roleplaying game invented in Midnight Lake, but there are also some hard to explain coincidences about the town and its history that seem to tie back to the game in a way that’s as puzzling as it is disturbing.

When the biggest oddballs at school attempt to befriend Vivian and introduce her to their game of B&B, she’s torn between wanting to follow the path that has always worked for her—keeping everyone at arm's length—and giving these strange kids and their even stranger fantasy game a chance.

Maybe that’s what it will take to get to the bottom of the mystery of Midnight Lake…and why Vivian was really brought there in the first place.

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Dangerous moments, strange secrets, quirky characters and even heart make this into a fun read.

Vivian has been acting out ever since the death of her mother, but she's pretty sure the move to her mother's family house in a small town isn't going to make things any better. Vivian's fears seem confirmed as she immediately butts heads with the school's mean girl and giggles follow everywhere she goes. But her problems are about to change as farm animals are dying under mass attacks from an unknown creature, and her own teacher disappears. Although a few acquaintances she plays with claim to be new friends, she refuses to open up and decides to take on the growing weirdness and mystery alone...but she's taking on something deadlier than she could have ever dreamed.

This is a tale loosely spun around Dungeons & Dragons (aka Beasts & Battlements, in this tale) and launches nicely into its own, rich world. Vivian and her friends play B&B, but it's the mystery surrounding the school and people, which really dig in. Of course, it helps that the school was once an asylum (great way to build up the spooks and tension) and that the founder of B&B just happened to have lived in that town and had an odd history himself. While it's not too hard to guess where some of this is going, the author weaves wonderful tension with interesting details to make a grabbing tale. 

While the monsters and secrets keep Vivian and her 'acquaintances' on their toes, the emotional end doesn't dissipate. The usual bulling theme comes in with the cliche mean-girls, there's guilt after the death of a parent, and the inability to open up and receive support from others rings loud and true. These themes, while not rare in kidlit, mold nicely into the plot and do add needed depth without bogging down on the action and mystery end.

While this tale clearly spins around D&D, there are also references to other cultural points. These work here even if I'm not a huge fan, since they will tend to age the book quickly in the long run Plus, I wonder if some of these will connect with the average middle grader as its hoped they will. There are many references to Harry Potter, which held an odd edge against the D&D's main lead. But this will hit every reader differently and by no means diminishes the fun of this read.

It's an exciting tale with so many aspects to make it fun from the first page until the very last. I am excited to see where this series heads next.

And here he is...

Michael Witwer is a New York Times bestselling author known for his work on the Hugo Award–nominated Dungeons & Dragons: Art & Arcana, the critically acclaimed Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, and the bestselling Heroes’ Feast: The Official Dungeons & Dragons Cookbook. His most recent works include Dungeons & Dragons: The Legend of Drizzt Visual Dictionary, and when he’s not writing books about games, he loves playing them. Michael lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife, two daughters, and two sons. Vivian Van Tassel and the Secret of Midnight Lake is his debut middle grade fiction novel.

1 comment:

Natalie Aguirre said...

This sounds like a fun new series. I like the mysteries to be solved, the contemporary setting, and the middle grade issues that are dealt with too. I'm adding this to my TBR list. Thanks.