by Morgan Keyes
Review by Sam Lubell
Margaret K. McElderry Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781442442054
Date: 28 August 2012 List Price $16.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Darkbeast is a fun low-magic fantasy for middle grade readers (4th grade through 7th grade). It is set in an alternate late medieval/early Renaissance world in which all children have a telepathic link to an animal who absorbs their faults and evil thoughts. The main character, Keara has such a link with a raven named Caw. More than a pet, Caw is friend and counselor, as the two share their thoughts. But, as the reader discovers at the end of the first chapter, when Keara turns 12, she must kill her darkbeast in order to become a recognized adult.
At the start of the Darkbeast, Keara is strong-willed, disobeying her mother by sneaking out repeatedly to view the plays of the Travelers, a band of wandering performers. Caw is a strong character in his own right, alternating between giving wise advice to Keara, which she frequently ignores, and asking for treats. Even though a child is not supposed to continue with a failing after it has been taken by a darkbeast, Caw himself admits that Keara continues to be rebellious.
A refusal to kill your darkbeast when the time come is an act that threatens to anger the gods, or at least their representatives on earth, the Inquisitors. What will Keara do?
There's a long history of telepathic connections in science fiction and fantasy, such as Anne McCaffrey's dragons of Pern and Mercedes Lackey's Companions of Valdemar. What's different here is the sacrifice as a rite of passage, killing off the faults of one's childhood. The bond between Keara and Caw is very strong and very believable, although the book notes that most children hate their darkbeasts.
Aside from the darkbeasts and the occasional references to the Travelers' magic and their ability to convince audiences they are larger than life, there is very little magic in the book. But the settings are beautifully developed, both Keara's village and the Travelers' camp.
Keara has her occasional faults--petty jealousy, a strong willfulness that leads her to act without listening to those with better judgment--but, these actually make her a more realistic character than the perfect princesses of too many stories for young readers.
Darkbeast is a perfect gift to give to a 10-13 year old girl reader who has become too old for children's books but not quite ready for YA. It is a fun read with a strong female role-model. The author, who has written other fantasy and romance books under her real name, is already working on a sequel.