Sarah's weird grandmother has died and now she and her family have to spend the summer fixing up her strange house to sell. Sarah actually kind of liked her grandmother, at least what she knew of her through their letters back and forth, but it's obvious that Mom has some unresolved issues.
Then Sarah discovers a secret world behind the bookcase in her room. Some parts of it are mysterious and beautiful, but more of it is terrifying and creepy, like the blemmyes or the sentinels who carry their heads in their hands. Luckily, she meets of the King of the Cats, Balthazat, who offers to help guide her through the mysterious land of Scotopia if she will just let him visit her own world.
There are plenty of hints in the text as to what happens next of course - Balthazat is lying and Sarah finds that her grandmother's house is actually a kind of Limbo for the dead. There's also another parallel world to Scotopia, in her brother Billy's room, but the angel-like creatures there aren't able to help her defeat Balthazat, after he gains an entrance into her world. It will take all of Sarah's courage and help from some friends to escape Scotopia and take her rightful place as her grandmother's heir and guide the dead on to their next resting place.
There is a lot of symbolism and contextual hints in this book. The blemmyes are creatures from medieval myth, whose heads are in the center of their chests. Scotopia, "the land where shadows come from" is actually a Greek word that means to see the in the dark. Balthazat is a thinly disguised version of Satan - he "falls" from Ormaz (which is full of light, clouds, and winged creatures) to rule his own realm of shadows. He's definitely a great deceiver and takes in everyone who visits his land, trying to get them to allow him to visit their own world and taking them prisoner when they don't help him. Penumbra, a sort of Limbo for the dead, is another shadow-related word. It basically means "the place between full light and full shadow" i.e. the place between Ormaz and Scotopia.
The thing is, I'm not sure what the point of all this is. Yes, Sarah has an adventure, one that's creepy, weird, sad, and frightening at various points and at the end realizes its her duty to take over her grandmother's place and guard the house which is a sort of portal for the dead, but it all seems rather....pointless. The big climactic finish is when Sarah uses the "undoer" (which is basically a pen) and sends everyone back where they should be...which basically means they are back at the beginning, only the prisoners Balthazar took have returned home. Sarah seems much more casual than you'd expect about becoming tied for life to a strange house and being though crazy by, well, everyone except maybe her younger brother. At the very end, she's going down to show her parents Penumbra and the ghosts, but there's no guarantee they'll actually see them, especially since her mother lived with her grandmother for years and just thought she was crazy (and had a miserable childhood as a result). Of course, a lot of these objections are from the viewpoint of an adult reader. But I think even kids are not going to be wowed by this rather meandering series of creepy adventures.
Verdict: The problem is, the story isn't creepy-scary or creepy-silly - it's just...creepy. The kind of thing that makes you feel nervous and depressed for hours after you finish it. I noticed that most of the reviews are from teen or adult authors and I really don't think this is a book that will really appeal to its middle grade audience. Some kids might enjoy the strange creatures and a lot of the adventure part is pretty well done, but overall I would recommend getting Jacqueline West's series for all your creepy fantasy needs and leave it at that.
ISBN: 9780385740715; Published by Delacorte/Random House; Review copy provided by the publisher