September 20, 2015

A Pocket Full of Murder

by R. J. Anderson
Atheneum Books For Young Readers
352 pp.
Ages 9-12
September 2015

R. J. Anderson, best known for her complex young adult fantasy novels involving faeries and magic   (e.g., Arrow, Nomad, etc.) and science fiction (e.g., Ultraviolet and Quicksilver) with romantic entanglements, delves into a very different fantasy with A Pocket Full of Murder.  But, R. J. Anderson is just as skilful in writing the middle-grade fiction immersed in magic and mystery that is A Pocket Full of Murder

Life for twelve-year-old Isaveth Breck and her sisters Annagail, Mimmi and Lilet is anything but easy since their Mama, a talented spell maker, has passed and Papa, a stonemason, has been without steady work.  Moreover, because of their Moshite ancestry and beliefs, the Brecks experience discrimination and limited opportunities.  But they keep on keeping on.  Though she had her schooling for becoming a healer interrupted, Annagail works at the shirt factory.  Papa looks for any small jobs, though resentful of a cancelled job for building the new charmery for Tarreton College.  And Isaveth is determined to learn to make Common Magic–different from Sagery, the magic of the Sages and the nobles–and sell her spell-tablets, for light, heat, etc.  just as her mother had once.

While poverty and discrimination may be their greatest concerns, the arrest of Papa for the murder of the governor of Tarreton College, Master Orien, the man who’d initially cancelled his commission for the charm house,  changes everything.  Luckily, Isaveth makes the acquaintance of an eye-patched street-boy named Quiz, who not only defends her from a local bully and also likes to listen to the talkie-play about justice seeker Auradia Champion but is convinced her father is innocent.  And Quiz is determined to help prove it.  Together, Isaveth and Quiz collaborate to infiltrate Tarreton College and the Workers’ Club to whom her father belonged to attempt to solve the of mystery of Master Orien’s death.  

But, R. J. Anderson makes the story more than just a murder mystery by infusing her tale with magic elements and embedding it in a society of unique hierarchy, beliefs, money and transportation.  Everything is fresh and thought-provoking, providing layers of newness to the concept of a whodunit for young readers.  And yet readers will recognize the issues of friendship, trust, independence, sadness, and family that will make it all so familiar and provoke empathy, allowing R. J. Anderson to share much wisdom to middle-grade readers.
You don’t have to be sad all the itime, you know.  It doesn’t make anything better. (pg. 138) 
…he believed things like friendship could be bought and sold so easily.  Everything was negotiable to him, even his principles.  But what was the point of being wealthy, or even comfortabley well off if you had to betray the people who cared about you  to get there?  What was the use of having everything if it cost you your soul? (pg. 335)
A Pocket Full of Murder has a superbly crafted murder mystery charmed with a world of new characters and a curious culture that will surely sustain a succession of plots featuring Isaveth and her compatriots.  And I look forward to revisiting Tarreton and its inhabitants in a new puzzle from R. J. Anderson, who continues to impress with the richness of her plots and the intricacy of her story-telling.  

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