Review of "Heartseeker" by Melinda Beatty

Heartseeker by Melinda Beatty

Hardcover | $16.99
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Jun 05, 2018| 336 Pages| Middle Grade (8-12)| ISBN9781524740009

By Britt Kaufmann

Full Disclaimer/Disclosure: I am biased and will be inserting myself into this review entirely too much for it to be a proper academic essay, but I'm no academic. I am foremost a reader, though I am also a poet, teacher, and a mom who read chapter books out loud to her kids when they were little.

I am biased, first of all, because I remember Melinda Spohn (Beatty) from the creaky hardwood floor days of Kulp Dorm at Goshen College and though we weren't the closest of pals, we are Facebook friends. That's how I knew her first book, Heartseeker had been accepted, that galleys had arrived, and then, the book was published. Finally, I could get my hands on it. Heartseeker turned out to be one of my favorite sub-genres: fantasy with strong female characters in which clever people out-smart other smart people.

Normally I dislike reading an author's first novel, mostly because I'm jealous and too often I find myself thinking How, on God's green earth, did this get picked up? Not so in this case. Yes, I was jealous, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have been recommending it to girls carrying around Harry Potter, fourth grade teacher-friends, and complete strangers at the donut truck. I know why this book got published: it has a fascinating premise, a captivating protagonist, and a compelling plot line in a world I'd like to live in.

First, the premise of the story is utterly fascinating: a little girl (Only Fallow) can see lies –as different colors blossoming out from behind their speakers, depending on what motivates the lie. (Yes, it may take a bit to get past Only being a name rather than an adverb, but soon enough it seems natural.) Only not only has this 'cunning,' she is surrounded by people who are primarily without magical ability. Even more intriguing is that when a person truly believes a lie, it is undetectable to her. Only, also, cannot lie herself without physical pain, escalating to unconsciousness. Such a person, in any situation, in any world, makes for a great story. Beyond her 'cunning,' though, the protagonist is a winning character: full of child-like impulses and a keen sense of justice at an age in which she is just becoming aware of the injustices in larger society. For example, Only was largely ignorant of the cultural bias against the Ordish people whom her father employed in his orchards. She hadn't realized how they were used to harvest crops but looked down upon and shunned from town. So, when she learns the King is abducting their children for ransom and political clout, we begin, like Only, to sense the undercurrents in Orstral. Readers share her curiosity and quickly turn the pages trying to understand.

Beatty faces the same challenge that all speculative fiction writers do: how to bring readers into a convincing new world without being too heavy handed. Further complicating her task, Beatty's target audience is 'middle grade,' meaning she must appeal to a younger reader's savvy, all while recognizing that a book's success will depend on adult readers (agents, editors, parents, teachers, librarians, book sellers). Having an 11-year-old protagonist does help acclimate readers to the new world: as Only discovers new people, places, information--so does the reader.

Books with a child narrator and a discovery/quest convention can feel superficial, plot-heavy, or like the author is being manipulative, withholding necessary information until it is most convenient for the plot to reveal it. Beatty combats this genre problem quite cleverly with poems, songs, fables, and nursery rhymes that introduce many of the chapters. Here is the depth of the world. It is like the moment I learned the true meaning of "Ring Around the Rosey." I had been singing those words for years, never understanding I was dancing about the Plague and death. Likewise, both Only and the readers know things through these rhymes and stories they don't know they know. The songs and poems reveal culture, values, history, traditions, myths, beliefs and religion that further shape the country of Orstral. Chapter 10 begins with a verse from A Child's First Book of Humors and is as good advice as any:

Anger is the vinegar that makes a bitter batter
And curdles kindness in its vat
The doves of peace it does scatter.
Rule thy temper, clear thy breast
And surely hold thy tongue
Bring to heel thy inner beast
Ere speaking, or become one.

Beatty is able to remain true to a first-person child narrator and still create depth and history in the narrative in an authentic way. As a poet, I further appreciated the crafting of the various songs and poems and their contribution to world-building.

Overwhelmingly, what shapes this world, in stark contrast to our own, is the recognition of women's strength in all arenas. Only's mother is a horse expert, her grandmother is an augur, the princess of the realm is a fierce warrior, and the stateswomen are kind and clever as well as conniving. Further, the god everyone swears by and the rectors preach about in the sanctuaries is the Mother. Yet the inclusion of such strong female characters in no way diminishes the men in the story. They are caring fathers, hardworking businessmen, skilled craftsmen, talented problem-solvers, and keen teachers. Men as much as women are agents of action, both altruistic and self-serving. Antagonists and troublemakers are not assigned only to one gender either. (This book goes into my file of "I Told You So" texts to be used as exhibitions in my frequent argument with others about how fantasy novels, just because they are set in medieval-esque worlds, do not need to hang on to medieval gender stereotypes from European history. Further, my boychild liked the book just as much as my girlchild.)

As a teacher and mother who frequently read aloud to her children when they were younger, I most appreciate the conversations this book could generate with a child or classroom of students. The book could well become a vehicle for talking about lies and what motivates them and the difference between exaggeration and malicious intent. Additionally, the book poses the question: What happens when we believe someone else's lies? Heartseeker reiterates the importance of critical thinking, empathy, and action, regardless of age. In an eerily timely twist, the book includes a king who separates children from their families as a political maneuver. I feel the parallels there in the pit of my stomach. Not that anyone wants to initiate a conversation with children about detention centers, refugee or internment camps, and indentured servitude; but Heartseeker could soften those kinds of questions and bring greater understanding on behalf of "the other." Only's experiences in the book further prompt reflection about the difference between noticing an injustice perpetuated by others and what choices each person, regardless of age, makes when faced with it in real life.

Should readers not care to contemplate the above, the book is just as enjoyable for the storyline and characters alone. Like me, readers are likely to be eager for the second novel, Riverbound, due out June 4, 2019 and want to debate with other fans the implications of Only's missives at the end of Heartseeker.

About the Author

Britt Kaufmann

Britt Kaufmann lives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina with her three teenage children, her husband, dog, cat, and forty some chickens. She has published poetry in various literary journals, has had two plays produced, and helped found the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival.