“With a shaky hand, I laid the brass key on the paper, flat side down, and slid it over the top of the sketch. It fit the shape exactly. Then the line circling the key uncurled and reformed itself into two words: Find it.”
Simon is a fourteen-year-old Orphan with No Options: an O.W.N.O. “Oh no” pretty much sums up his life. He’s stuck in Grimstown with his prank-pulling grampa and a housekeeper-slash-nanny from you-know-where. Worse, Simon can’t remember a thing about his childhood. Then one night a bizarre dream unlocks some of those forgotten memories, leaving Simon with half a key in his pyjama pocket and a growing awareness that he’s in the middle of a dangerous plot that threatens to destroy Emogen, a hidden realm connected to Earth. In order to save Emogen – and his best friend – from a deadly curse, Simon needs to find out who he really is. But can he discover his true identity before it’s too late?
Smudge’s Mark was a book that I brought on holiday with me to keep me entertained in the car. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by it.
The first half of the book meandered, but I must say it was used to very good effect. In terms of strict plot relevance, not much in the first half is actually important, though several things that initially seemed irrelevant turn out to be setting things up for later. The first half serves to set up the characters and the setting quite well, though it’s not clear until later on. The book is quite good about showing us things that will become important later on, which makes the second half and the final chapters in particular move very well.
That said, a couple of the characters, once they got developed, were a bit disappointing. Simon came off more as an eleven-year-old in everything he did and said, making his occasional romantic references seem slightly odd in context. Nevertheless, he was a fairly relateable character.
The villain was a card-carrying villain, which irked me. I’ve always been annoyed with the card-carrying villain: I rolled my eyes at it in Care Bears when I was four and sigh in exasperation at it now. Surely we’ve moved past the days when a villain had to say they were bad and had evil motivations for the readers to realise they’re supposed to be the bad guy? Sometimes he was almost funny in his evilness, though, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Perhaps the best friend mentioned in the description, Gilbert, is the most disappointing of all characters, however. He has a significant part to play in the plot, and part of it is that he’s got a stutter that he would do anything to get rid of. Fine, that’s not bad in itself; lots of people stutter and it’s not to be counted against someone. The problem is that despite this, Dilbert is written as the stereotypical dweeb. Even if we haven’t yet gotten over card-carrying villains, we should at least have moved past this. He’s not given a physical description, but he is very fond of his food, never passing up a chance to eat and never leaving food behind; make of that what you will. He wears glasses; nothing bad in itself, plenty of non-dweebs (like myself) wear glasses, but this is so typical of the pop-culture dweeb that I wasn’t really surprised. He sweats buckets, even without physical exertion, perhaps because he lives in an almost perpetual state of worry and would always prefer to run away than encounter danger. There’s a reason I wasn’t surprised when it turned out he had asthma.
Nevertheless, all this characterisation, especially of Gilbert, serves the story later on. Gilbert’s fearful nature makes it obvious when something about him is out of place, cuing the reader in to the fact that something is amiss and that things are getting serious; similarly, when they get better, it’s pretty clear to the reader as well. Gilbert’s situation also sets him up for potential character development in later books. Many of the other characters we met were developed pretty well in the rest of the book, turning them into well-rounded characters. I can see their character arcs continuing in the sequels, which makes the characters more interesting.
The main strength of this book is the ending, where everything brought up in the first three-quarters comes together. There’s a fair bit of exposition, but I must admit it’s not as bad as it is in a lot of books. It’s got some nice twists, and gives a resolution to just about everyone. The action sequences were nice, and I must credit the author for avoiding redundancy: once she’s described in detail what a character does, she’ll just say they did the same thing every other time they had to do it. The things the characters must do are detailed and fairly well-thought-out. The ending includes a clear sequel hook, but it’s one of the better-done ones and Osmond didn’t sacrifice a good ending for the sake of the sequel.
Overall, the book is one of those that certainly gets better as it goes along. When read for the first time, the first half seems a little odd in relation to the second half, but is vindicated later on. The story sets itself up well and ends nicely. It’s quite a pleasant read, especially for long car rides or if you want to read a few chapters before bed. It’s certainly worth checking out for anyone interested in fantasy.
Overall rating: 4/5