In “The Glass Sentence,” a densely imaginative middle-grade fantasy novel by debut author S.E. Grove, the “Great Disruption’’ somehow cast various portions of the world into vastly different historic zones. The English, for example, live in the “Twelfth Age,” while in New Occident and Boston, the year is 1891.
A xenophobic movement to close the borders of New Occident and Boston to keep out foreigners from other times has gained traction — much to the dismay of the famous cartographer Shadrack Elli and his 13-year-old niece, Sophia Tims.
Ten years ago, Sophia’s explorer parents disappeared while on a far-flung rescue expedition. Once the “Patriot Plan’’ is implemented and the borders of New Occident are closed, they will not be able to return to her — if they’re still alive, that is.
If that weren’t tension enough, Sophia’s travails increase when Shadrack is kidnapped by a cruel, veiled woman who calls herself Blanca. The villain needs the mapmaker’s skills in order to find the carta mayor, a legendary map that just might be able to undo the Great Disruption. “The world can no longer hold such disparate Ages,” Blanca says to Shadrack. “Time is quite literally being torn apart before our eyes.”
After Sophia finds instructions from her uncle to “go to Veressa’’ she and a refugee called Theo, who had hoped Shadrack would be able to get him home, embark on a rescue mission, traveling by train, foot, pirate ship, cart, and arboldevela, a tree-like vessel that sails on land.
Grove’s protagonists are compelling, and she enriches her story by introducing fascinating secondary characters. A brother-sister pirate team and an eccentric royal botanist, in particular, deliver humor. In contrast, the Nihilismians, people who believe the current world isn’t real, and Lachrima, creatures who constantly weep because during the Great Disruption they “fell into a great chasm of time,” bring darkness and horror.
The world of “The Glass Sentence’’ is full of terror and mind-boggling imagination. In one scene, Blanca has Sandmen, her scarred Nihilismians henchmen, force Shadrack to wear a gag with wires that can cut a person’s cheek; she calls the gruesome device “the bonnet.” In another Blanca steals memories from a Nihilismian named Weeping, leaving him a soulless shell, through a sadistic method she has perfected.
Maps can be written on glass, water, paper, plants, and onions, and people with the Mark of the Vine might have grass for hair, while those unlucky enough to have the Mark of Iron might have metal teeth.
As for Sophia, she is not “bound to time” so her experience of it is unlike anyone else’s. “A minute could feel as long as an hour or a day. In the space of a second she might experience a whole month, and a whole month could pass in what felt to her like a second.” Because she has no internal clock Sophia’s “mind floats free,’' allowing her to “see things for what they are, regardless of when they are.”
“The Glass Sentence” is the first title in a planned trilogy and just the beginning of Sophia’s story. Readers don’t learn what caused the Great Disruption or whether it is possible to stop the fault lines between the Ages from destructively shifting.
Much about Theo’s past and Sophia’s parents’ disappearance is covered in shadows. The answers to these mysteries and many more have — hopefully — been saved for another book and another time.