Jul 14, 2011

A Wonderful Story Found in Nightshade City by Hilary Wagner

It took me a long time to get my hands on Hilary Wagner's Nightshade City, which bust onto the middle grade scene last fall. It's a shame, really, because so much of my own writing has improved since finishing the book last month. And my imagination has started spitting out so many ideas!

The novel, which starts out with a cryptic prologue, is full of nontraditional plot twists and schemes. Wagner is proficient in many areas of writing that make Nightshade City a joy to read. She has a flowery, yet purposeful way with words - never did I feel she spent too much or too little time on the details. Each character was well-developed and vivid. Likewise, the settings are magnificently described. 

The eponymously named setting is one of the three places the novel takes place and is home to the rebel rats with whom the reader is sure to empathize. Nightshade City is created in response to the oppressive government of The Catacombs. The third setting is called Trillium or Topside, and this is where the humans live. Wagner gives the rats a believable point of view regarding our world. From the way she describes the lower layers of the human world, The Catacombs and Nightshade City could easily take place beneath the streets of London, Washington D.C., or Chicago.

Despite the dynamic settings, the best of the Nightshade City can be found in the characters. From the sinister military leader named Billycan, to the artfully adroit Mother Gallo, the non-child characters of this middle grade novel are exquisitely drawn in both word and pen. Between those two plot pillars, many characters stand for and against the old ways of the rats including several "teens" who play a vital role in the outcome of the plot.

We meet many rats who are caught in the middle and several more who are proponents for one way of life or the other. Wagner creatively taps the shoulder of each character as she moves along the story. This allows us to meet a large number of characters without ever getting confused. Also, the descriptions of the rats' coat colors, fur patterns, and body stench provide another way to keep track of each rat as well as getting a feel for how the they interact. Even earthworms make an appearance in the novel! The annelid species play an imperative role in the plot and the success of Wagner's endearing story.

The ending surprised me, not because of the outcome, but because of the sequence of events it took to get there. And I don't mean to say Nightshade City is anti-climactic, it's quite the opposite. I cannot describe it without giving anything away and if I have done my job correctly, you're already sold on Nightshade City. And the reassuring news is that a sequel, titled The White Assassin, comes out this fall. I am excited to see new stories begin and old ones wrap up.

Next week, I will be sharing an excerpt from Nightshade City to highlight Wagner's skills and to show the type of writing that connects with me most.

As always, I get nervous about posting reviews. Please give me feedback on what does and does not work.


  1. I really love this book. It's the first MG novel I read in a long time. And Hilary is the the first author I "knew" who had a published book.

    She's so cool.

  2. Jon, you have seriously made my day. What a nice review. When someone truly likes your work, it means more than anything. Thanks so much for posting such a fantastic review. You are just a doll!

    xoxo -- Hilary

  3. I am so looking forward to checking this book out. I will happily read the book and then let me know how your review works for me. You have certainly have made me excited about the book with your review.

  4. Excellent review, Jon. I loved this book as well. Hilary is so eloquent in her words and descriptions!
    Kelly P

  5. I think your review is great, because anyone reading it can tell whether Nightshade is their thing or not. At the Miller house, we surprise ourselves by liking so many books written from a mouse and/or rat point of view. What's up with that? As soon as I'm all caught up with life, I'll read this book. Thanks!

  6. Excellent review. I agree that the characters are the best. And this is the first book with animals as main characters that I really liked.

  7. Jon, you give the most amazing and thorough reviews. I'm amazed! And thanks for this! I'm always excited to learn about MG's!

  8. That's a wonderful review. The book is on my tbr pile next to my computer. I'm looking forward to reading it!