Kate’s life was boring. It was nice enough; she had nice-enough parents who both worked and a nice-enough younger brother, and they all lived in a nice-enough house. When her parents were home, though, they talked to each other about work things or stared at their phones, and Tom was, after all, a little brother. She never had the kinds of adventures that she read about in her beloved books. In an effort to shake up her world a bit, she wrote a letter to her infamous Uncle Herbert, whom she had never met. Apparently, he did nothing but was incredibly wealthy. She let him know that it was her birthday, and the least he could do would be to buy her present. So, he did.
Kate and her family awoke the next morning to the delivery of a steam engine, the Silver Arrow, placed on brand-new tracks in the backyard. Uncle Herbert himself, in a banana yellow suit, presented her with this full-sized train engine and coal car, and while her parents argued with him, Kate and Tom climbed aboard—still in their pajamas—and the train rolled onto the long-abandoned tracks in the woods behind their house. At the next stop, they added passenger cars, dining cars, a library car for Kate, and a candy car for Tom, and the kids were off on a magical adventure, picking up animals at each stop and dropping them off at destinations around the world and beyond.
The Silver Arrow is Lev Grossman’s first foray into middle-grade fiction. He is the author of the very popular grown-up series that begins with The Magicians, a Potteresque story of a group of recent graduates from magic school who drag their powers into a dissolute adulthood. The Silver Arrow is more of a Willy Wonka goes to Narnia story with a smidgen of preaching.
The fantastical elements of this novel are charming, hitting that lovely sweet spot between cozy and chilling. It’s all very well to pick up talking animals at each stop, but there are wild creatures curled up in the library car, and this could end very badly indeed. The animals introduce themselves with a quick, Wikipedia-like summary, such as the fishing cat: “I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of us. There aren’t many of us, and we don’t get as much attention as the big cats. We are related to the rusty-spotted cats and the flat-headed cats—unfortunate name that, although it’s true, they have very flat heads. And they eat fruit, if you can believe it. A cat that eats fruit! Also the leopard cats.” (pp. 89-90) Although informative and sometimes amusing, this device wears thin after a while. Grossman’s main objective seems to be to recruit children to save endangered species, fight climate change, and stop staring at their phones. All noble causes, to be sure, especially ending device slavery, but the didactic passages feel awkward and uncomfortable at times.
On the other hand, this is an exciting adventure story, written in an appealing, somewhat British style. Grossman builds a world where anything could happen, and his characters grow in knowledge and confidence as they handle dangerous situations, from flying a train into the sky to confronting freeloading warthogs. Quiet, studious children will relate to Kate, who loves to eat breakfast alone with a book, and everyone will approve of Tom’s fabulous candy car, which contains every confection a child could imagine. Young people who love animals will devour this title and may move on to effect change in the real world.
A fun fantasy with teeth, this novel would make a great family read-aloud.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.