I'm a fan of Matthew Kirby and will read anything he writes, but when I discovered his new book was the beginning of a new series about kids with super-hero type powers I was even more excited than usual. While I've been able to encourage many of my students to read his other books, this is one whose very concept will sell it without me even having to say a word. Spell Robbers doesn't disappoint, delivering a story full of action, intrigue, and twists.
(This is a review of an ARC received in exchange for a fair review.)
After Ben Warner is recruited to join a “science camp” led by the eccentric quantum physicist Dr. Madeleine Hughes, he quickly realizes it’s no regular science camp. Along with his new friend, Peter, Ben discovers the secret, powerful art of Actuation—the ability to change reality by simply imagining it differently.
When a mysterious group of men invade Dr. Hughes’s laboratory, abducting her and stealing her precious equipment, Ben and Peter are suddenly caught up in a turf war between dangerous actuators desperate for Dr. Hughes’s innovative technology. And as Ben and Peter are pulled into a perilous, hidden world full of impossibilities now made possible, will their combined powers be enough to save Dr. Hughes and vanquish their enemies before it’s too late?
As the first in a series, Spell Robbers has quite a bit of set up and world-building at the beginning. Learning about the intricacies of Actuation and what it means, I felt a little of a disconnect from Ben in the beginning. But then the plot really takes off and I realized exactly how much I had learned about the sort of person he was in that first section. He is a fascinating character. Despite her penchant for uprooting him and moving him around, he really loves his mom and does what he can to help and take car of her. He is smart, stubborn, and independent. As someone who moves around a lot needs to be. I particularly enjoyed how once he discovered what Actuating truly was and what the world he had stumbled into was like, he wanted little to do with it. It is a refreshing change from the kid who discovers he's special and jumps on the chance to change his whole life. Ben actually liked his life and he just wants it back. Kirby has a real talent for creating nuanced characters and he uses it well in this book. Ben is driven by many different things, and I really came to appreciate exactly how true it was every time he insisted, "I am my own man." Another fascinating character is an adult rogue agent named Ronin. He is likable and savvy, but there are some dark aspects to his characters. He makes a great foil for Ben. (Or perhaps a projection of what Ben could become someday if he allows his bitterness to control him.) Because so much time was spent on Ben and his mission in this book, the other two characters depicted on the cover, Peter and Sasha, don't get as much page time. Both of intriguing back stories though and I'm looking forward to discovering more about them as the series continues.
The concept Kirby developed here is interesting. Actuation sounds a lot like magic (and they do mention that is what it once was thought to be), but there is some science behind it. Mechanical physics is mentioned and the person who discovers Ben uses some equipment to help the children work their Actuations. The Quantum League is a group of Actuators who use their powers for good and to protect others. There are Actuators out there who use their powers for criminal purposes, and The Quantum League's goal is to stop this. Or so they say. Not everything is perfect in the League either and Ben is wary of them from the start. I really liked how there were some very clear bad guys, but no real clear "good" organization. There are many characters it is easy to like and see the good in, even when they do some rather despicable things, but the shades of gray are many and leave Ben unable to truly trust anyone but himself. The plot is slow at first as Ben begins at his "science camp", but once the action starts it doesn't slow down at all. It takes off into hyperdrive and there are so many twists and turns.
I'm looking forward to the next installment, and can not wait to get this one into the hands of my students. (Who are aware I already got to read it and are more than a wee bit jealous.)
I received an ARC made available by the publisher, Scholastic, via NetGalley. Spell Robbers is available for purchase on January 28th.