Book Review: Hollo: The Gatecaster’s Apprentice

Hollo The Gatecaster's Apprentice full by Devon Michael

Description from Goodreads: Hollo always wanted to go out and explore the city, not that she dared… but still… staying inside all the time is bad for a body, even a wooden one. And what’s the good of being able to do magic if you can’t even enchant the statues next door to keep you company? Or make the best tea you ever had? Or accidentally turn people into stone… 

Hollo has always been different, but now that she’s twelve, she is about to find out that she isn’t just different, she’s one-of-a-kind. Once forced to brave the city streets alone, she finally sees magic for what it really is. The golden glow that brought her wooden body to life may be more dangerous than she could have ever imagined, and worst of all, her safe, secret house is losing its light. The clockwork men are coming for her, and soon she will have nowhere left to hide. 

Book Review: This book was much better than the description set me up to expect. The author’s earliest chapters reminded me strongly of Neil Gaiman’s The Grave Book, in the evocative writing style, the use of archetypes (Hollo’s creation made me think of a magical Pygmalion or female Pinocchio), and the way we got to see Hollo look at our old world with her new, inexperienced eyes.

So here’s a closer look, examining the Narration, Content, Characters, Artwork, World-building, and my Overall Reaction.

Narration: Four out of Five. The simple, clear narration didn’t always make me feel like I was there, in the story, seeing a real world around me, but I took that to be part of the style of a fanciful, folk-tale type novel. At it’s best, it was crisp and story-bookish, telling us what we need to know and leaving the rest to our imagination. There were moments of fresh, imaginative description, where the words were so apt as to leave you delighted, and it had it’s moments of rivaling Gaiman’s narrative style.

But there were times when it felt redundant or became too much an attempt to bring politics or a magical reality to the story, and then it felt like it was trying to morph from the folk tale/fairy tale into a more standard fantasy. (Even Gaiman can have his moments of this, but in these sorts of stories, the goal is to stick to a simple plot, where we know it can’t possibly be but just believe it anyways.)

Content: Three out of Five. This is where the book was at its weakest, I think, because there was a great deal that didn’t seem to flow naturally. Given her Pinocchio-like nature, it felt like we should see Hollo being led astray by normal, typical humans who feel she’d be a great addition to their sea-faring crew because she can float or who think they could use her as cheap labor because she doesn’t have to eat. Where she encounters those who aren’t evil, but are jaded with life, and we see how she affects them.

As it was, it felt like we encountered the villain far too soon, and his evil overshadowed the rest of the plot. Suddenly it was more about revenge (and not from Hollo, but from a friend of hers) than about her exploring our world, about the magic and wonder of a twelve-year-old puppet finding out what it was like to journey out her door.

Characters: Three out of Five. This was actually one of the novel’s strengths, but it came across unevenly. Some characters, like Hollo, her dad, and his merchant-friend were fairly well-developed, and I wished I could’ve spent more time with them. It felt like some scenes from her dad’s point of view, as he writes in his book and plans for the future would’ve helped naturally weave in the villain without changing Hollo’s point of view so drastically, preparing us for what was coming.

But in the last half of the book, we spend a great deal of page-time with characters who had very little to do with Hollo, other than the fact that they were fighting the villain of the story. They were strongly drawn to revenge, but we never got to understand them as people, beyond that. I wasn’t sure how old they were, what some of them had to be so angry about, and what they looked forward to in life, after revenge (if anything). And if felt like these characters belonged in a different sort of novel than the beginning of the book had set up.

Artwork: Subjective. I really like the colors (particularly the purple tones) that are woven into the color, yet the image seemed a bit confrontational. We are so close to Hollo’s face, and she’s looking right at us, and while she is pleasant, she also seems bolder from this than she was in the book. And the “Gatecaster’s Apprentice” felt misleading to me because she never learns much about magic from her father. She isn’t so much his student as his child, and this didn’t seem clear from the title or the cover.

World-Building: Four out of Five. This is a mixed bag, as it always is in a fanciful story like this. Most things are supposed to be taken at face value and not investigated or explained too much–felt rather than discussed–and the novel does this, most of the time.

But when it came to magic, it delved too deep (my same gripe with The Grave Book, by the way). It gets involved in trying to explain how magic works, and why, and where Hollo came from (to a degree), going too far for fanciful fantasy and not far enough for the epic sort. And some concepts that were introduced–like the fact that the clockwork men weren’t necessarily hateful towards her, but just did their job and left her to make her own choices–were never investigated further. It was never touched on again, even though the clockwork men died left and right. Did they get freed? Were they happy? Did they recognize a spark of life in Hollo that resembled their own? We never know–and we don’t need to, provided everything was kept at a superficial, “real because it exists” sort of level.

Overall Response: 14 out of 20, or 3.5 overall. Despite the lack of unity in the structure and style of the story, I did enjoy it. It was imaginative, unique, and fits well in the Young Adult, moving towards Children’s Fantasy genre, to be read by anyone who enjoys a story that is not-especially-violent (though there are fights) and not especially romantic, sexual, or explicit (there is no real romance, and aside from “damnit,” I don’t recall any swearing). Overall, it makes a great break from action-adventure fantasy, and I look forward to reading more from this author.

To read more book reviews like this one, click here.

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Image used by permission from author

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