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I am amazed. In the middle of writing his Fablehaven series, one book per year (now coming up on the third book), Brandon Mull somehow squeezed out this completely unrelated, and yet absolutely marvelous book.
Where shall I begin? All right, the front cover. I am a huge fan of top-drawer cover art. This book has it, with an image of four middle-school kids running, skipping, dancing up into the air, trailing glittering pieces of candy. Magical candy, of the sort the Honeydukes people only dream of selling.
Nate is new in the small town of Colson, California. He is not eager to start over at a new school and to try making new friends. But before he even realizes what he is doing, he has joined a gang that includes Trevor, a girl named Summer, and the class nerd, who goes by the nickname Pigeon. Together these kids face a nasty new teacher, try to avoid a trio of bullying sixth-graders, and make friends with the nice old lady who runs the new candy shop downtown.
The lady is so nice, in fact, that she invites the Blue Falcons (that’s their club) to do a little work at her shop after school. In return, she offers them scrumptious candy. But then she reveals some “secret candy” that has magical powers. To earn it, the children must run some special errands for her. Errands that must be done at night. Errands that may, or may not, be the wrong thing to do.
Right away, this book surprises you by being darker and deeper than what the cover illustration leads you to expect. The magical world of which Mrs. White is a member – and Mr. Stott, the old man who drives the local ice cream truck, is another – is full of secrets and dangers the children hardly suspect. Maybe that’s why a bounty hunter is prowling the streets, armed with serious weapons like guns and crossbows. Maybe that’s why neither Mrs. White nor Mr. Stott tells the kids the nature of the treasure they are helping them look for, or how they plan to use it, or why they need kids to look for it and can’t just search on their own. And maybe that’s also why increasingly weird and disturbing things are going on at home, at school, and in the streets of Colson.
By the time the children do know what is going on, they are in it over their heads – torn between conflicting loyalties, pursued by vicious thugs, and armed with candies that give them terrible magical powers – and the responsibility that goes with them. Nothing less than the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of four scared fifth-graders, armed with sweets that enable them to defy gravity, resist physical injury, travel through mirrors, administer electric shocks, blow fireballs, drop suggestions into unsuspecting minds – to name only some of the thrilling powers they carry in their pockets. They’ll need every one of them, too, as they meet bizarre and dangerous beings, ranging from a “flatman” that came straight out of someone’s nightmare (be careful he doesn’t go into yours!) to people with the ability to hurl sticky orange slime, change the size and behavior of living things, move at terrific speed, and grow extra limbs at will. Everything finally comes down to one boy and one truly amazing piece of candy that gives him one slender chance to set things right.
What, you don’t believe me when I say this is an extraordinary book? You’re not ready to accept the existence of a book that leaves Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tasting like cotton candy – soft, sweet, and insubstantial? That’s all right. I don’t expect you take my word for it. Put your hands on the book and see if the front cover doesn’t draw you in. And when you come up for air, 400 pages later, you’ll agree that The Candy Shop War has a lot more going for it than a pretty wrapper!