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Published by: Firefly Press, 10th Sep 2020
In my humble opinion, Firefly Press have turned out some of the best middle-grade books of 2020. So, when I got the opportunity to review The Ten Riddles of Eartha Quicksmith via Netgalley, I jumped at the chance.
How glad I am that I did. This is everything that I would have wanted in a book as a young reader; mystery, adventure and...puzzles!
When squirl-drawing Pip Bramley is sent a cryptic invitation by a beetle drone, he doesn't realise that he'll soon be embarking on a new life at Quicksmiths School of Strange Energies. Soon, he and his new friends are embroiled in a race against time to solve the ten riddles of the legendary Eartha Quicksmith in order to locate the long hidden 'Ark of Ideas'. Pip desperately hopes that it may be the key to healing his mum. But there are others determined to beat him too it.
Riddles may be hard to solve but they must be even harder to write and set-up. Loris Owen does an amazing job of keeping the characters and the readers on their toes with brilliantly seeded puzzles that are challenging, clever and unbelievably imaginative. The plot is pacey and completely immersive and I love how this book takes so many middle-grade classics -boarding school, friendship, long-hidden secrets- and turns them on their head to give a fresh, original feel. The boarding school teaches pupils about 'Strange Energies' - science not magic (although there is a definite magical quality to the story), the four friends are all gifted and talented, and their clever inventions places the historical aspect of the story hand in hand with the future.
Pip is a great protagonist; likeable, easy-going but with a strong motivation to soak up everything he learns at Quicksmiths. His partnership with the amusing Albert works brilliantly and Leela and Timmi, along with Mowl and Pinky, complete the group nicely. Pip's past is sad, but in a slightly different way to those we have encountered in other MG stories, and his family history evokes a lot of emotion and investment in the story. Thag is the typical school bully, targeting Pip's group at every turn, but there's a good twist at the end.
For me though, Eartha Quicksmith and her riddles are the star of the show here. The unravelling of the riddles is spectacular. With giant globes and secret studies, ominous clockwork knights and pirate ships shaped out of dust, it did remind me of the first Harry Potter book where the three main characters race to find the philosophers stone.
There are a lot of awesome extras in this novel too, too numerous to mentions. Scaleface, the mysterious Prowler, doesn't feature much in the story but enough to create just the right amount of fear. Then there are the Skimmis, the curious teachers, the wormholes...it's just packed with excitement and imagination. I would have liked to read far more descriptions of the food, cooked by Chef Garibaldi, as what was mentioned sounded deliciously unusual.
The set-up implies that there is probably more to come from this very talented author and welcome that with open arms. The standard of middle-grade this year has been astounding and this is right up there with the best.
The Ten Riddles of Eartha Quicksmith is released on Spetember 10th 2020 and is available for pre-order. A big thanks to Firefly Press and Netgalley for giving me the chance to review.