I can identify the plot elements, but I have no idea what’s going on with this cover.
I reviewed the first two books in this series last fall (almost exactly a year ago, as a matter of fact), and somehow failed to review the third. But Wood Sprites, fourth in the series, has just come out, and there was no way that I’d leave it untouched after how much I enjoyed the first few.
To be perfectly honest, while the first few books were fun they were also frequently uncomfortable; Wen Spencer includes toxic interpersonal relationships, abuse, and worse trigger-warning worthy things, though from my limited perspective she treats it more honestly than many other fantasy authors do. While Wood Sprites is a far safer read, it still doesn’t shy away from putting its protagonists through a series of terrible circumstances. This feels appropriate, given that the protagonists are 9 year-olds in the center of a multi-generational secret war.
One thing that I should note, however, is that this book is full of spoilers. While its events take place far from the events of the first three books, its story weaves intricately into the story told in the other books and fills in gaps that I barely even knew existed. I would almost recommend this book as a standalone introduction to the series, but…
If you read this one first, you’d already know all the plot beats of the other books. That isn’t to say you wouldn’t be able to guess them already. These books aren’t exactly surprising from a narrative perspective (the semi-deus-ex-machina moments I mentioned in my review of Wolf Who Rules notwithstanding). In fact, I was able to call nearly every plot twist in this book before it happened, sometimes long before it happened. I’m not saying that like its a bad thing: I still enjoyed reading the book, and I actually admire Spencer’s ability to foreshadow all of the major events without it feeling unnatural.
It’s odd, now that I think of it, how I have such unspecific criteria for how a story should go about foreshadowing its events (or not). Deus ex machina is in many ways the ultimate form of the unforeseen event and often feels unsatisfying from a narrative perspective, but leaving everything obviously foreordained is no better. Without that moment of frisson that accompanies an unknown development, there’s little that is novel (an appropriate pun, I think) to draw the reader further into the story. It’s not impossible to enjoy a story in which you already know everything that will happen (otherwise why reread a book), but the source and possibly even type of enjoyment changes with such knowledge. I wish I had a better way to specify what a story should do in order to reach the Goldilocks balance of novelty and foreshadowing. I’ll have to work on that.
Back to why you probably shouldn’t read this book first; I’ve mentioned in my other reviews that Spencer doesn’t bother to explain background information until it’s absolutely necessary, but in Wood Sprites she barely bothers to explain anything at all. I think she assumes (correctly, in my case) that the reader is already familiar with the world, and as such she skips large quantities of exposition which had previously been spread out over the course of several books. Without my memories of the setting, I think I would have spent much of the book very confused. However, since I do remember the setting I found the level of exposition to be perfectly minimal. So while it may not work as a standalone piece, it succeeds wonderfully as the sequel that it is.
I should note, for those of you out there who dislike the largely nonsensical phrase “almond-shaped eyes” (you know who you are, and yes, I agree that that describes basically all eyes), that Spencer makes use of it to describe a number of the elven characters in the story. I can’t remember whether she also uses it (in its ‘classical’ form) to describe the eyes of any non-elf-related characters. For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s anything else race-wise that would offend you (you still know who you are), but I might be wrong. I was quite charmed by the characterizations of the various children that the protagonists had to deal with, and they seemed like interesting, non-stereotypical individuals regardless of racial background.
So, if you want a quick adventure with super-genius 9 year-olds who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, have a go at this book. It’s entertaining, it’s good, and it’s only the fourth book in the series, so there isn’t that much you’ll have to read in order avoid being confused. That last bit was perhaps a tad tongue in cheek, but I do think that you stand a good chance of enjoying it.