John Barrowman’s Middle Grade Debute: Hollow Earth

Emily and Matt Calder have one heck of a pedigree.

Not just in the book but also when it comes to the creative team behind the characters and their story. John Barrowman is that John Barrowman. Yes, Captain Jack from Doctor Who and Torchwood fame. Carole Barrowman is his sister, a professor of English at a small liberal arts school up in Milwaukee. The two of them have collaborated before on John’s autobiographies and also on a Torchwood tie-in novel.  But this is their first attempt to break into the realm of young adult (well, probably more like middle grade) fiction.

And Hollow Earth is not a bad first go.

Though the first book has been out since February 2012 and the second since February 2013 over in the United Kingdom where they were first published, we’re seeing both of them released on the same day here in the United States. So, is the series worth checking out?

Read on…

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13547527Title: Hollow Earth
Author: John and Carole E. Barrowman
Release Date: July 9, 2013
Publisher: Aladdin
Source: Edelweiss DRC
Genre(s): Middle Grade Fiction, Middle Grade Fantasy, YA Fiction, YA Fantasy

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Review Spoilers: Low
GoodReads | Amazon

Hollow Earth is our first introduction to the world developed by John Barrowman and his sister, Carole. As they’ve mentioned time and time again in interviews, the twins Em and Matt are based a lot on themselves and their own relationship. Which is probably why the two characters’ relationship feels so authentic. That’s one of the good things about having siblings writing a book about siblings. They know the sort of things that siblings get up to and what not.

In the fantasy world the Barrowman siblings create, there are secret societies and fantastical powers. The twins are what are known as ‘animare’ and can animate things merely by thinking about them. From drawing themselves into paintings in the National Gallery to drawing rock a formation into living, lumbering Tyrannosaurs Rex, the twins’ powers are very real and very powerful. And also potentially dangerous when they cannot control them. Considering they are twelve years old there are plenty of times like that. Like any children with a particular gift t hey need training. But a secretive society might rather bind their powers entirely.

And so Matt, Em, and their mother seek refugee with the twins’ grandfather in Scotland where they join a group of animare and ‘Guardians’ living together. The twins begin to hone their talents and though they may have been far more familiar with the grandeur of London city life they take to the parochial Scottish life well enough. I liked the characters that were introduced – particularly Zach. A deaf teenager whose thrown into a world where he’s going to be a Guardian and be responsible for protecting someone else? And no one questions his ability to do that? That’s something I can appreciate as someone with a hearing disability.

Unfortunately for the story to move along life at their grandfather’s can’t remain that simple for long and eventually the twins are forced to take matters into their own hands to protect themselves, their mother, their grandfather, and their little Scottish island home. It’s really fun to see the challenges that the twins need to face and the way that they react to them – often as you would expect from twelve year olds.

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16102288Title: Hollow Earth: Bone Quill
Author: John and Carole E. Barrowman
Release Date: July 9, 2013
Publisher: Aladdin
Source: Edelweiss DRC
Genre(s): Middle Grade Fiction, Middle Grade Fantasy, YA Fiction, YA Fantasy

Rating: ★★★☆☆
Review Spoilers: Low
GoodReads | Amazon

So with the aftermath of the last book’s events fresh in everyone’s minds, the twins and Zach are on lock down until things settle down. Which means no more using powers without supervision and basically behaving themselves. Of course that in turn means they aren’t going to do that at all and in fact that draw themselves not just into a painting but also into the past. Through the painting. Thus we’re given our major plot point for the book and a really cool variation on the already familiar Animare powers.

At first they use their powers to hang out in Victorian England (which is a bit dangerous for Zach, Emily’s deaf Guardian and protector) but hey. What’s life without a little danger? That’s what Matt would say, anyway, it seems. For whatever reason he doesn’t really seem capable of listening to adults and not running off to nearly get himself killed. And he drags the others along with him. The group dynamics kind of go like that and sometimes it’s just annoying how Matt seems to lead the show when he really should be grounded or something. Of course if he were grounded it’s not like he’d actually hang around anyway. Matt! You fool!

Anyway, after hanging out and messing around for a bit they realize that they have to do something actually productive. They find that in order to stop the Hollow Earth from being opened and monsters from spilling out they need to go find ‘The Bone Quill’ which is a key that will open the gate. In order to do so their story starts to directly intersect with that of Solon in the Middle Ages – a character we saw in flashbacks that seemed a bit out of place in the first book but make much more sense now. With new time periods and new abilities come new characters – most interestingly Carik, a bad ass Viking girl.

This brings the series’ awesome quota up a bit more because now we have a strong female character (Em’s a bit of a push over at times) and we’ve got a strong (if under utilized) character with a disability. As someone with a hearing impairment, I can appreciate that.

I think I’m in the minority when I say I wasn’t quite as into this book as the first one. It’s still a good book but it ends with very little resolution and basically mandates you live in anticipation for the final book in the trilogy. (Which I suspect may get extended further depending on how sales do as the series moves overseas.) Time travel is rarely my favorite plot device but I do have to admit they did it fairly well and the idea of being able to travel in time through the paintings was really cool. But yeah. I enjoy the story and I’m looking forward to the conclusion.

dividerSo, do I recommend this series?

Yeah, of course. I’d recommend it more for families who are looking for a book to read at night with their kids as a chapter book or maybe for more patient, precocious middle grade readers. It’s kind of an odd duck because the books are fairly long and the stories drag a bit at times. But they are still well worth a read. Especially for Captain Jack fans!

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