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You probably didn’t know this, but Columbus wasn’t the first European explorer to discover America. And nor were Vikings such as Leif Ericson. According to this book, the first colony in the new world was planted by Saint Brendan, a sixth-century Irish monk whose followers started a community of hermits on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Now only one of several Estates that the Order of St. Brendan operates around the world, the community of Ashtown, Wisconsin, is a world apart from the world: not only a home for monks, but also headquarters for a worldwide society of explorers, an academy for a secret army of renaissance men and women trained to fight not only on the ground but in the air and by sea, a museum of magical artifacts, a zoo of freakishly deadly creatures, and (gulp) a prison in which the world’s most dangerous villains are held in a state of suspended immortality.
But for siblings Cyrus and Antigone Smith, the story does not begin there. They do not even learn that Ashtown exists until they have lost pretty much everything and everyone they care about. Since the accident two years ago that killed their father and left their mother in a coma, Cy and Tigs have been raised by their older brother Dan, not in the family’s oceanview home in California, but in a decaying wreck of a motel outside of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. (Take extra points for knowing how to pronounce that town.) And then the motel burns down, their mother and brother are kidnapped by a creep who alternately calls himself Dr. Phoenix and Mr. Ashes, and the godfather they never knew dies before their eyes and leaves them… well, among other things, a set of keys that can open any door, and a few other trinkets whose magical properties are the very thing Dr. Phoenix would kill for.
Suddenly Cyrus and Antigone are thrust into the world of Ashtown, the only place that can protect them from Phoenix and his semi-human goons. Only it can’t protect them, not really. It starts not protecting them the moment they show up. Their induction into the Order of St. Brendan is deferred until they can meet the criteria for journeymen in the orderand not just the ridiculously demanding modern-day standards, but the all-but impossible pre-1914 ones. They have until New Year’s to learn two foreign languages, master several forms of armed combat, learn to fly and sail like a pro, and more, while living in a dungeon infested with deadly Whip Spiders and being sabotaged at every turn by all the people who don’t believe the Smiths have a right to be there. Befriended only by misfits, and menaced by bad guys who somehow never seem fazed by Ashtown’s heavily armed defenses, they must finally rely on their own talent for trouble and a keychain loaded with magical goodies.
Here is the first book in a new series (titled “Ashtown Burials”) from the author of100 Cupboards and its sequels. Like that earlier trilogy, this new story presents an amazingly original new dimension of the “school of magic” concept. This book is anything but a cutesy romp in a world of sparkly hocus-pocus. It is an intense, scary, deadly-serious bullet train of danger, conflict, suffering, and loneliness. It shows a couple of good kids struggling not to be overwhelmed by an evil of terrifying proportions. It is a gallery of flawed characters, booby-trapped with betrayal and loss, and yet enlivened by the possibility of friendship, excitement, and awesome adventure.
There is actually an amazing “book trailer” for this book, featuring young Joel Courtney of Super 8. Mr. Wilson has also written the young adult novel Leepike Ridge, a couple of Christian-themed children’s picture books, and a nonfiction book about the Shroud of Turin. Visit his website for more information.