Candlewick/Walker. Apr. 2020. 336p. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781536207125.
Gr 4-8–Eleven-year-old Lina lives with her mother Katya in a Siberian work prison in Stalin’s Russia. Her mother arranges her escape with other prisoners, including her friend Bogdan, an amateur cartographer. Lina’s goal is to reunite with her grandmother in Moscow and return to help her mother, but trouble ensues. Lina runs afoul of a spirit hunter named Svetlana who uses ghost wolves to trap souls. Lina and Bogdan attempt to continue their journey, escaping from Svetlana while picking up a ghost girl who says only, “Nevertell.” Lina’s necklace, gifted by Katya, acts as a magical talisman that helps the children and bolsters Lina’s burgeoning plant magic. A few surprise twists bring Lina’s quest to an unexpected conclusion. Orton’s debut novel utilizes an unusual setting for its fantasy adventure. Details of prison life, while age appropriate, seem grimly realistic, as does the frigid Siberian weather Lina encounters. Orton’s straightforward style is readable with detailed world-building. Lina and Bogdan’s skirmishes with guards, the weather, and Svetlana create an everpresent feeling of danger that gives the plot urgency, despite a journey that leads Lina and Bogdan in loops. There are a few places where the story struggles to explain itself—a few of the action scenes seem inserted rather than organic, and readers may wonder about the characters’ complacency when things take a sharp U-turn near the conclusion.
VERDICT An intriguing first novel with equal parts adventure and magic; an additional purchase.

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