Book Review: A Quill Ladder by Jennifer Ellis (with an Interview)

12 May

For my May contribution to this year’s focus on female writers, I wanted to feature two young adult SciFi/Fantasy titles written by women authors whose work I enjoy and initially discovered by happenstance:  Jennifer Ellis and Frances Hardinge. Even if you don’t typically read YA, you certainly know some children or young adults who are looking for good reads in the genre, and both of these writers deserve plenty of appreciation. First up for this post is Jennifer Ellis.

Ellis is an indie author from Canada who writes both middle-grade science fiction/fantasy novels and adult dystopic novels featuring elements of adventure, romance, and environmental themes. I discovered her work through a Goodreads giveaway listing for her adult novel In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation. It looked potentially interesting to me, but looking at her website and blog really sold me on taking the time to check out the novel. Though I didn’t win the giveaway, I was able to get an electronic version directly from her; immediately upon starting it, I was drawn in and impressed through the end.

So I eagerly picked up A Pair of Docks, the first book in her middle-grade Derivatives of Displacement series, and got an advanced reading copy of its recently published sequel A Quill Ladder. Though I personally prefer most adult fiction to middle-grade or YA, I found a lot to enjoy in Ellis’ series, particularly in the focus and direction taken in the recent A Quill Ladder. More importantly, I think the series has the exact elements that a middle-grade reader looking for science fiction/fantasy will appreciate.A Quill Ladder by Jennifer Ellis

The Derivatives of Displacement begins primarily through the point of view of fourteen-year-old Abbey Sinclair, a budding scientist with a love of physics and puzzles. Practical and analytic, Abbey tries to view the world with a calm reason, but she remains filled with a childlike wonder and imagination that compels her to consider a world beyond her previous understanding. Her boundaries between openness, scepticism, and disbelief become blurred when her older brother discovers a strange collection of stones that allow them, along with Abbey’s twin brother, to travel into another world that appears to be a part of their future.

As the siblings struggle to understand the nature of these stones and the rules that govern their potential to travel elsewhere, they soon realize that others know about the stones’ power, including a malevolent man known as Mantis — an eccentric professor — their neighbour, Mrs. Forrester, and the Sinclair siblings’ own parents. With the help of Mrs. Forrester’s autistic son Mark (the second point-of-view character), the children try to solve the mystery of the stones while avoiding the dangers of the present and the disastrous futures foreseen.

A combination therefore of portal fantasy with science fiction involving time travel, alternate worlds, and quantum physics, A Pair of Docks and A Quill Ladder are rich playgrounds for young genre enthusiasts. Abbey is a refreshingly fabulous character, a realistically portrayed young teenage girl who is a mixture of confidence and uncertainty, a nerd who adores science, but who also appreciates — and can talk about — other things. Likewise, Mark is fascinating as a point of view character due to his autism and how that does and does not limit him. How other characters relate to Mark is just as intriguing, and I really enjoyed the increasing contributions of Mark to the plot of the sequel. I look forward to the books to come.

This is a case where readers need to start with A Pair of Docks before getting into the second book — or the books to come. Some things in that first book frustrated me, many of which are just inherent to series and are factors that other readers would adore. I appreciate Abbey’s enjoyment of puzzles and wanting to work things out (a trait that Mark shares as well). I had wanted to see more of this in the first book, but the second really delivered in these aspects — or the style of the series as a whole finally began to click with me. I also feel as though Ellis’ writing improved in the second book as she juggled multiple plot threads and characters with a consistent pacing.  Despite A Quill Ladder having many more characters, Ellis wrote a relatively solid wrap-up (for a volume of a series),

For younger readers, such critiques may not matter much at all; there is plenty of fun and adventure to enjoy in these, with bits of physics and puzzles/clues to stimulate the curious and observant. If middle-grade and YA holds no interest to you or to others in your life, I’d encourage you to look up Ellis’ In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation and give a talented indie author’s work a try.In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation by Jennifer Ellis

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Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of A Quill Ladder from the author in exchange for an honest review.

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