‘Liesl and Po’
By: Lauren Oliver, with illustrations by Kei Acedera
Rating: Four out of five bookmarks
One part ghost story and one part fairy tale, Lauren Oliver's middle-grade novel "Liesl and Po" takes us into the dark, lonely attic where young Liesl has been locked away by her wicked stepmother (in literature, is there really any other kind?) after the death of Liesl's beloved father.
One night, a ghost named Po appears in Liesl's attic, accompanied by a small ghost-animal named Bundle. Not knowing why, Po feels drawn to Liesl, asking her to draw pictures for him, and Liesl values Po as her only friend and as someone who helps her send messages to her deceased father on the "other side."
Meanwhile, Will, an alchemist's apprentice, accidentally misplaces a concoction that his master has created for the very influential and wealthy Lady Premiere: a box that contains the greatest magic in the whole world.
Through the mechanizations of what seem like unlikely circumstances — or perhaps it is a mystical force that no one can fathom — Liesl comes into possession of the highly prized box and escapes her prison with the help of Po.
Liesl, Po, Bundle and Will find themselves taking a journey none of them ever expected, pursued by the most contemptible collection of villains, and in a city where sunlight and hope have ceased to exist, they will discover what exactly is the world's most powerful magic.
The biggest problem with this story is also one of its strongest aspects: the cast of characters.
Oliver has created an ensemble of loveable heroes, cleverly coldhearted adversaries, and even the small side characters have memorable quirks that add to the story's charm.
Po, either despite the fact or because he is not quite human, comes across at the most endearing. He gradually recalls more and more fading strands of the humanity he once had and struggles with his emotions that now feel so foreign to him as a ghost.
It is disappointing that this was not delved into more deeply; we get hints at what Po's past may have been, but we never really find out anything definite about Po or what he has been through.
The book is unfortunately too busy trying to tie its many, many strings of plot together to give any of the characters much exploration into their personalities.
This is the downside to Oliver's characters: There are too many of them. While all of her characters are fun, whether they be noble or sinister, there is simply too much going on in too brief a story (one could read this novel in one or two sittings) to allot enough time to truly get to know any of them.
This is especially true of the villains, which are normally my favorite characters in a story (they tend to be the most over-the-top and exciting). I could never get a true sense of maliciousness or danger from any particular one of them, nor do we truly learn why any of them want to achieve their goals (other than they're just selfish).
Liesl's stepmother is the one exception, as she proves to not only be life-threatening but enjoys being so, but she filled a two-dimensional, classically cliché role that could have been much more entertaining if she had been more prominent.
Then there were some characters I still cannot figure out why were in the book at all, save that they offered one moment of comic relief or acted as an unnecessary device to keep the plot in motion.
Kids and young adults will enjoy this book which feels familiar but fresh at the same time, and Oliver's interpretation of what the "other side" is like is uniquely imaginative and will keep young bibliophiles engaged. "Liesl and Po" could have been a little more fine-tuned, but it makes a fun treat of fluff for a Halloween read.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.