Vivian Van Tassel and the Secret of Midnight Lake is the debut middle grade novel from Michael Witwer. Witwer is a New York Times bestselling author better known for his work on Dungeons & Dragons: Art & Arcana, Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, and Heroes’ Feast: The Official Dungeons & Dragons Cookbook. In this novel Witwer draws on his own gaming experiences and deep love of D&D. Exploring both the love of the game and the evolution of the game.
Vivian Van Tassel has relocated with her father from their apartment in Chicago to a creepy house in a small town on Midnight Lake. The recent loss of her mother follows them everywhere they go, tainting their relationship with each other and with the people around them. Reluctant to make new friends, and quick to make new enemies, Vivian begins to settle into her new town through a school history project, and a group of misfits playing Beasts & Battlements (B&B), a role playing game, underneath the school’s stairwell. Through the game and through her research into the Middle School, which is also the former sanatorium, Vivian learns that her new town is not all that it seems to be. There are also indications that maybe her family is not all it seems to be.
Within the first few pages, Witwer accomplishes a couple of things that impressed me, and made me want to keep reading. He quickly establishes that this is a world of fantasy within our modern world. He introduces mythical beings called “Vulture-Bears”, the use of longbows, and cell phones, all within the first event of the book. No question that we are talking about both mythical and modern, and the combination as depicted by Witwer is highly compelling.
Two pages later he addresses the elephant in the room for all YA modern-mythical stories of recent years, the Harry Potter phenomenon. How do you write a story about a middle grade teenager, finding a new life in a new school, surrounded by magical things she once thought fictitious, without stumbling upon Harry Potter? Well, Witwer just takes the bull by the horns. Vivan calls a fellow schoolmate a “Malfoy” describing this as “Harry Potter’s snobby rival.” It is seamlessly done, and rather than setting up this story as another Harry Potter variant, sets Harry Potter up as a fictional work within this universe. In one fell swoop, Harry Potter is acknowledged as an influence on today’s readers, and passed over for this “real” adventure. It is beautifully done.
Harry Potter turns out to be a recurring theme in the book, as Vivian carries around a copy of the first book with her, and makes many comparisons from her real life to the fictional world of Harry. Establishing further that the “Potterverse” is fictional while the town of Midnight Lake is “real.” Witwer pays homage to many of his own favorites throughout the book, most clearly in Beasts & Battlements but also in some overt references to The Princess Bride and in some more understated references to The Lord of the Rings. These references are woven in nicely, and lend some much appreciated nostalgia for this YA reading mom. For my son, Harry Potter and D&D are two of his passions and I am excited for him to sink his teeth into this book.
The development of the story, the town, the mythology around the game, and the friendships that Vivian builds are all executed well in their own right, and combine together in a really well developed universe. The story starts with a historical poem, and only lacks a map to make it the complete package! It is a page turner. I read the book on a stormy day at home with the family, and it is the first time in a while that I have finished a book in a single day. It is the first time in even longer that I have held a book in my hand to read while cooking supper, I just didn’t want to put it down. The book does stand nicely on its own, but also sets up a really interesting universe, possibly even a multiverse, for future books. I will definitely be excited for those to come out, and hopefully for many of them in the future, this is a world I want to explore further.
Vivian Van Tassel and the Secret of Midnight Lake was released last month and is published by Aladdin books with Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. GeekMom received a copy for review purposes.