When Cole and his sixth-grader friends troop down the basement steps to view a spooky, Halloween house of horrors, they’re more worried about whether they’re too old to go trick-or-treating than about being kidnapped. But the basement is already nearly full of caged kids waiting to be forced down a ladder in the floor. Cole manages to hide until everybody has gone down the hole, wondering how anyone could think of getting away with kidnapping so many kids at once. Then he follows them. His plan is just to find out where the kids are being taken, so he can report back to the police. But the hole in the basement floor proves to be a portal to another world—and it’s a one-way trip.
Cole arrives in the Outskirts. It’s a world where magic, or something like it, is possible. It’s a world where slavery is permitted. Cole’s friends have been captured by a team of slavers, and are being hauled to market. Some of them are to be delivered to the High King, who is interested in kids with Shaping potential; which is basically Outskirts lingo for magic. Before he can free them, Cole is betrayed, snatched, marked as a slave, and sold to the sky raiders. These folks literally live on the edge of the world, and plunder the castles that float by on clouds. It’s a dangerous job. Average life expectancy is measured in weeks. Cole will have the especially deadly job of scout, until he has flown fifty missions—if he lives that long. All he really wants to do, though, is escape so he can find his friends.
Raiding the castles is tough work, and not just because of the risk of falling into a bottomless pit. The brink is bounded by cloud walls, from which the castles emerge and into which they disappear every day. Nothing that goes into these cloud walls ever comes out again. The castles themselves are inhabited by semblances, more or less conscious temporary illusions of life. Some of them are people who can be reasoned with. Some of them are dangerous guardians. Tricks and traps await the unwary. For those who survive, the castles offer treasures, weapons, and enchanted objects to make the risk worthwhile. Cole doesn’t get much training. To make his fifty missions count, he has to bring back something to show for them—even if it means running from a giant cross between a scorpion and a centipede. His best chance is a sword that tugs him wherever he points it, a cloak that makes semblances do what he says.
Cole has just started to prove his courage when the slave girl Mira, toward whom he feels protective, finds herself in trouble. The High King wants her, and he considers her capture important enough to send four hundred legionnaires. Mira’s secret turns out to be even bigger than knowing that the High King murdered his five daughters. She actually is one of the daughters, secretly imprisoned for decades, and kept eleven years old all this time by the fact that her shaping powers have been stolen. As soon as Cole, Mira, and a couple other young sky raiders run away together, they have a whole army after them and a strange, deadly, unpredictable world of magic to hide in. Before they can get away, they must reunite Mira with her rampaging powers, entrust themselves to new allies, brave forests haunted by fiendish monsters, and learn not to drive each other crazy.
These kids argue a lot. Sometimes their arguments grow repetitive. The clash between their personalities is ripe for conflict, which could work in favor of an ongoing series, but in this case it doesn’t achieve much other than making the reader squirm in his seat. Some of the characters introduced in this book will be fun to watch for a while to come, such as Liam, the super-powerful shaper who can’t take anything seriously, and Lyris the semblance-knight, who wants above all to test his courage. I may be misspelling his name, since I enjoyed the audio version read by the kid-friendly voice of Keith Nobbs. I don’t think it was his fault, or my imagination, that this book seemed heavy on talk and light on action. Apart from some thrilling scenes, mostly early in the book, and swaths of amazing imagery and atmospheric suspense, my overall impression of the book was that it suffered from too much bickering between four kids sharing an automated transport. Also, Cole’s role in saving the day, while important, isn’t really central in the end.
The Outskirts is an interesting new world, full of dangers and wonderful, magical possibilities. But the Five Kingdoms series, starting in this book, has a way to go before it can match the energy and enchantment of the author’s other titles. These include the fabulous Fablehaven quintet, the Beyonders trilogy, and two Candy Shop War books, most of which I have enjoyed and admired. I’m only two books away from having read everything in these series, and I don’t plan to quit just because I found this book not quite up to their level. A lot will depend on Book 2, The Rogue Knight, to be released in November 2014.