Fantastic Friday: Nightshade City by Hilary Wagner

Nightshade City
by Hilary Wagner, illustrated by Omar Rayyan
Holiday House, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8234-2285-2
Grades 5-8
Reviewed from copy borrowed from library.

Deep beneath Trillium City, a modern metropolis, lies the Catacombs, a kingdom of rats of extraordinary intelligence and ability. The once peaceful and democratic colony has become a harsh dictatorship ruled by the High Minister Kildeer and his henchman, Billycan, who runs the Kill Army and collects weekly Stipend from the terrified subjects. The two of them rule with iron fists. With most of the adult rats wiped out in Killdeer's Bloody Coup and the subsequent great flood, orphaned young male rats are forced into the army and the females into servitude or worse. But change is coming. . . .
Two orphan brothers, Vincent and Victor Nightshade, sons of a hero killed in the Bloody Coup, manage to escape from the Kill Army and meet up with Juniper Belancourt, leader of a rebel group seeking to overthrow their oppressors and restore peace and democracy in a new city. The brothers are quickly caught up in Juniper's cause: "We survive by cover of night. We live in the shadows, waiting for our redemption! Our name must symbolize our burning spirit. . . . Tonight and forever, we are Nightshade City!"
Juniper's plans are complicated by many factors. His lovely young niece Clover has been picked by Killdeer to be his next Chosen One, so the rebels and their allies the Earthworms must work fast to save her. Can the rebels locate their enemies' War Room? Can Juniper's former love, now holding a position in Killdeer's Ministry, be trusted? Will the rebels be able to execute their plans without the aid of a young Topsider (human)? And how will Vincent and Victor fare in battle will they honor their father's legacy of courage?
This book reminds me a great deal of Brian Jacque's Redwall series or Erin Hunter's Warriors series and especially Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O'Brien.  The detail allows the reader to almost be in the story, which is not necessarily a comfortable thing (I don't particularly relish the idea of living underground).  The setting is beautifully realized, there is just enough detail, but not so much that it bogs the story down.  The plot keeps moving with holes being filled in smoothly enough not to pull the reader out of the story.

 This is a story with clear cut right and wrong, good versus evil. The book is plot-heavy with not so much character development.  The characters grow, but there is no real change in character, they stay on the path they started on at the beginning.  With so many characters there just isn't room for a lot of character development. The plot is the focus here and it is an entertaining one of a society of rats trying to regain their freedom, certainly an appropriate plot considering current world events.

The illustrations add a nice touch, although the eyes of the rat on the cover are kind of strange and creepy looking, but that might just be me. I appreciated the authors choice of animals for her characters, rats and  are not usually the first choice for 'good' characters, they are more often the villains in this type of book (this is the first time that I can recall reading about earthworms as real characters).

There are a couple of things I want to mention that take away from the story somewhat.  First, the book does have scenes of graphic violence, involving the loss of eyes, torture, and severe scarring, there is also an attempted rape.  Second, the ending is too pat.  As can be seen today, revolutions of this kind don't happen overnight and usually end with a lot more bloodshed and continued bad feelings and conflict, at least in the human world.  I'm not sure though that children and young adults will think much about this, most likely they will simply take the story for what it is, a rousing fantasy.

This book is for readers who like animal fantasy and straightforward stories of good versus evil.  See here for some other recommendations in this genre.


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