Glassheart by Katharine Orton

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Glassheart by Katharine Orton

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Alex Mitchell
Reviewed by Alex Mitchell
Summary: Dealing with themes like grief, trauma and death saves what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill young readers' fantasy book.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 336 Date: November 2020
Publisher: Walker Books
ISBN: 978-1406385236

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Nona and her Uncle Antoni have lived together ever since the Blitz claimed the lives of her family. Now, in the aftermath of the war, they travel all over the country, replacing stained-glass windows in buildings destroyed by bombs. Their latest job takes them out to the wilds of Dartmoor, where Nona discovers that her world is full of ancient and powerful magic. She also discovers that a mysterious entity, known only as The Soldier, is hell-bent on using Nona's innate magic for his own ends, and will not stop until he has her…

The protagonist of our book is Nona, the sole survivor of a family killed by a German bomb during the Blitz. She carries a heart-shaped shard of glass that serves as a reminder of the incident and is also the source of her magical power. She lives with her Uncle Antoni, a former Polish volunteer fighter pilot with the RAF, who now works as a stained-glass window repairman. They are both united by their memories of the war and use their work on stained-glass windows as a form of healing. They were lured to the wilds of Dartmoor by a spirit known as Alasea, who has mesmerised Antoni into completing the stained-glass windows of a church. Once they arrive in Dartmoor, they are joined by Castor, a rather cowardly boy who takes the form of either an imp-like creature or a crow and is Nona's only friend in this weird place. Alasea has a sister named Serafin, and the two sisters have a strained relationship. The primary antagonist of the book is known only as The Soldier, a veteran of the First World War who has similar magical powers to Nona. He uses magical beings called Rattlesticks, skeleton creatures formed from earth and foliage, that can turn you into one of them if they touch you. Overall, while the characters do have some depth, particularly Nona, the rest of them seem to be a bit flat and I would've liked to have them developed a little more.

Grief, trauma and the loss of loved ones plays a major role in this book. The loss of her family has not only left her scarred physically, but also scarred mentally. Uncle Antoni also suffers from a debilitating spine injury from his days as a fighter pilot, which he doesn't really talk about much until the end of the book, and uses his work with stained glass as a form of therapy. The Soldier is driven to his course of action by the death of his son and wants to use Nona's magic to bring him back. Even his Rattlesticks play on the grief of their victims by mimicking deceased loved ones to lure them to their doom. Later in the book, we also have a spirit in the form of another First World War soldier, who has been sitting beside a lake desperately trying to recall the names of his comrades for so long that he has effectively turned to stone, and only Nona has the ability to get him to move on. Personally, I read this as a metaphor for the destructive of lingering on traumatic events, being effectively frozen and unable to move on with your life, and it is only by opening up to others that you can overcome this stagnation. Overall, I thought this theme was handled in a very mature way and added a lot to the book.

The magic in the book isn't really explained all that much, and I do think it kind of drags the story down a bit. That's not to say that there aren't interesting elements, for instance, glass can trap and contain magic, such as Nona's heart-shaped glass shard and the titular Glassheart of The Soldier, hence why the church is having its stained-glass windows repaired. The church in Dartmoor is an 'umbrafell', a place where the real world and magical world collide, and where Alasea hopes to shelter Nona from the Soldier. Some of the spirits, such as Alasea and Castor, possess an ability called second skin, which is the ability to change form into the forms of animals. Some spirits can effectively create wormholes through the natural world, enabling them to travel quickly and avoid detection by The Soldier. As magic systems go, there isn't much that makes it stand out from the crowd, and I do wish it had been expanded upon a bit more.

In conclusion, I feel like the themes of grief and the psychological effects of living through a traumatic event save what would otherwise be a rather generic young readers supernatural story.

Similar books by other authors:
The Longest Night of Charlie Noon by Christopher Edge – another magical adventure taking place in a forest.
Demelza and the Spectre Detectors by Holly Rivers – a much funnier supernatural adventure that also deals with grief and the loss of loved ones.

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