Have you ever read a YA novel, like… Daughter of Smoke and Bone, for instance, that promised to be super dark and angsty with a badass, proactive protagonist, and then suddenly broke that promise like Link smashing an urn in somebody’s house? Well, I had that experience with the aforementioned novel and many others. Astonishingly enough, The Thickety, a children’s book series published by Harper Collins and written by J.A. White, is angstier than most YA authors could dream of writing. And here, I’ll detail why.
In the series’ opener, The Thickety: A Path Begins, Kara Westfall’s mother gets burnt alive for allegedly being a witch. Good ol’ Disney formula. However, village chief Fen’de Stone made a good call, for Kara’s mom actually WAS a witch. And one day, Kara finds her mom’s old grimoire, and it enables her to manipulate creatures from the forbidden forest known as the Thickety, which is the home of Sordyr, who is some tree demon man. The catch is that not only does she have to keep it a secret from everyone, but it also eats away at her soul for every spell she uses. Lovely.
While this sounds like a generic YA power fantasy, The Thickety is executed exceptionally well. The big thing is how the premise of the grimoire system is handled. Throughout the first book, you see firsthand what happens when you cast a grimoire’s Last Spell (which, spoilers, is something you don’t want to do). To compare The Thickety to Amulet, a similarly angsty book series which I didn’t like, that graphic novel- at least the portion that I read- never showed any visible consequences of Emily’s using the Amulet besides one other guy turning into a big monster thing. However, the scene was very unceremonious and the Amulet itself was never contextualized well enough to define any prerequisites for when it “takes you over” or whatever. Furthermore, Emily- like the Mary Sue that she was- seemed able to fend off the temptations ridiculously easily. Even if Emily might get taken over by the Amulet further down the road, Kara really struggles against the grimoire right out of the gate, and White’s writing talent shows that in full force.
The start of A Path Begins is rather slow, as is with most book series. Fortunately, once things escalate with the grimoire, it gets really intense and really scary. I was impressed by how disturbing some of the imagery is given the target demographic. And it only gets crazier in book two, The Whispering Trees, which is spent inside the titular Thickety itself.
The cast of The Thickety is its weakest aspect, but it’s by no means bad. Kara is a pretty generic YA protagonist, but fortunately, she’s not quite a Mary Sue. She actually has to deal with the consequences of the grimoire and her decisions. She’s an intentionally flawed heroine, but done right. And unlike most YA protags, she is actually able to kill in cold blood (gore warning, kids).
Taff, her younger brother, is my least favorite character by far. He’s the generic, rash and reckless adolescent male who goes through an underdog phase throughout the story. However, the aspect of him that I love- and probably the most important writing decision in the entire series- is simply him being Kara’s brother. With the male and female leads as siblings, there’s no romance! Her sisterly love for him feels more real than what most YA protagonists feel for their significant others, and without the cringey dialogues of those protagonists. There is Lucas, the designated childhood friend, but White seems to have gone out of his way so that he and Kara never get to spend much time together. Depending on your tastes, that’s either a godlike breath of fresh air or the worst news ever.
The biggest problem with The Thickety is that it kind of falls apart at the end. No… that’s too harsh. It really kind of fractures a bit. As much as I praised Kara’s struggle with the grimoire, that issue ends up being resolved rather conveniently at the halfway point. And after that point, Kara ends up devolving into a more YA-like, Mary Sue brat, while Taff- of all people- ends up becoming the voice of reason (wow, after saying how much better than Amulet this is, it suddenly BECOMES Amulet). Also, due to the pacing of the books, a lot of the setpieces in the latter half of the story kind of get glossed over. It also falls for the typical modern fantasy trap of “Yeah, I can put in this thing that hadn’t been contextualized before because magic!” in the fourth and final book (including a decently inventive but nonetheless existent use of time travel).
Final Verdict: 9/10
The Thickety, overall, is freaking incredible. Horrifying scenarios, tight pacing, and powerful prose bring an otherwise cardboard cutout fantasy series to life in full throttle. Although the author arguably cops out at the end, it’s nowhere near long enough for that portion to feel like a drag. At the very least, all plot threads get resolved in some way, which is something. I highly recommend it for someone who’s looking for fun, suspenseful, gritty fantasies.