From School Library Journal
Grade 7 Up—Though slow to start, this fantasy quickly gains momentum and clarity. Hiding a bloodied packet of letters after their theft turned deadly for her partner-in-crime, a 16-year-old girl attempts to evade the king's soldiers and flee Gerse. When a quartet of "nobs," nobility-class young people, invites her aboard their river boat, she grabs the opportunity. An experienced liar and thief, Digger takes on the guise of Celyn, a girl escaping her brother's ploy to send her to convent school. She is soon drafted as companion to Merista Nemair and accompanies the group to the Nemairs' remote castle. Merista's parents are returning from diplomatic exile following their involvement with Sarists, the losing opposition in a recent war and worshippers of the outlawed goddess of magic. The family hunkers down in the winter-locked mountains to prepare for Meri's coming-out celebration. Trapped in her role as Celyn, Digger is blackmailed into spying for a villain named Daul, a supposed family friend who is actually seeking evidence of treachery and the illegal use of magic among the Nemair. A mysterious wounded man hidden beneath the stillroom, the dangerous glimmers of magic that Digger sees around Meri, and her own growing affection for the people who may be planning a rebellion complicate matters considerably. If readers forgive the difficulties the plot has in taking off, they will be rewarded with a complex and satisfying adventure story and will look forward to its sequel.—Suzanne Gordon, Lanier High School, Sugar Hill, GA
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Bunce’s William C. Morris YA Debut Award winner, A Curse Dark as Gold (2008), was a fictional retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, and in her second novel, she moves from fairy tales into classical, high-fantasy traditions. In the pulse-pounding start, Digger, a teenage orphaned thief, is on the run after a botched job ends in a violent ambush. Desperate lies help her escape with some young aristocrats, who take her to their remote mountain estate. While posing as Celyn, a ladies’ maid, Digger meets a visiting lord who blackmails her into uncovering dangerous political secrets that implicate everyone. A glossary of people and places is appended, but readers may still struggle to track the densely woven particulars of the story’s intricate world. Bunce combines irresistible elements, though: a snowbound castle outfitted with trapdoors and tunnels; herbal lore and rare, forbidden magic; crackling banter and poetic description; and memorably nuanced characters, especially lock-picking, bold Digger, whose search for clues leads to a larger understanding of history, politics, friends, and families that teens will connect to their own lives. Grades 8-11. --Gillian Engberg