Young Adult (YA) literature has enjoyed a boom period following the phenomenal success of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Publishers who earlier might have marketed a story either for younger children or would "dress it up" a bit for a more "adult" audience found themselves with a burgeoning market and an audience insatiable for stories that would resonate with them like Harry and Friends did. Over the past seven years, rarely does a year go by without some publicist or publisher proclaiming "the next Harry Potter" is about to be released.
However, the YA audience is a very fickle one. As even the last three Harry Potter releases have shown, a sizable amount of those buying these books are adults, but that there is still a sizable percentage of those reading YA fictions that are between the ages of 8 and 12, or those now labelled as "pre-teens" in various marketing categories. Considering how amorphous this "Young Adult" label is, how does an author go about writing a story that has enough of an appeal to those 14 and over without alienating the 8 to 12 age group? A great many works have failed because it leans too much to one side or the other in this volatile mini-generational split where each year often brings a vastly different approach to life as well as shifts in reading preferences.
One of the latest entries into this YA market is a book from Spain. Rafael Ábalos, a lawyer by training, his first book for young readers, Grimpow: The Invisible Road, in 2005. This book starring a "chosen one" boy around 12-13 years of age in the early 14th century quickly became an international bestseller, topping some charts in Spain and Italy, before the book was released here in the United States back in October. When reading this book, I could not help but to think of another Spanish author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind), who began as a YA author before writing one of the best books translated into English back in 2004.
Grimpow: The Invisible Road is a medieval mystery. The title character, Grimpow, is an orphaned boy of around 12 or 13 years of age living in 14th century France. Living an itinerant life under the tutelage of a sometime-thief named Durlib, Grimpow and Durlib one day discover the body of a murdered man, whose clothing and possessions mark him as a person of importance. In the dead man's right hand, a polished stone is held. After Grimlow takes it, he begins to see visions and to be able to understand all written languages, quite remarkable for an illiterate youth of the High Middle Ages. There is also a scroll containing some mysteries that leads Grimpow on a road that takes him through some of the more tumultuous events in 14th century France that had such a great historical impact.
It is hard to decide how best to approach reviewing this book's strengths and weaknesses, as much of what made it an enjoyable read for myself might make it a frustrating read for someone younger and not as inclined to be fascinated by the historical backdrop. While I would have loved to have received this book in the original Spanish in order to determine how much of the style was Ábalos and how much was the work of his translator, Noël Baca Castex, there were times when the talk was perhaps a bit too formal for the 8 to 12 subset. However, the talk about religion, reason, and the secrets of the Templars (ever a popular theme these days, as readers of writers as diverse as Umberto Eco and Dan Brown can attest) make for a compelling read for those of us north of that 12 year-old group. Ábalos has developed an engaging character in Grimpow, one who is curious but is not too intrusive or too obnoxious; a perfect character for us to look into his world as if he were a window to this time period. The pacing is done pretty well over 480 pages and the glossary of terms at the end will assist those who perhaps are not up on their medieval cultural and social history.
There is one potential trouble area for some readers. As Grimpow and a friend work feverishly to solve a puzzle involving a treasure of the Templars, there is the insinuation about religion that might make the more conservative/orthodox readers uneasy. There are no open or direct attacks on the institution of religion, but there is an undercurrent that might make this unsuitable in the minds of parents who would rather their children wait until their teen years before dealing with certain doctrines of the faith. However, this is not a flaw in the book as much as a personal choice of the author that does tie in quite well with the purpose of the story.
Overall, Grimpow: The Invisible Road is a book that might be better suited for those over the age of 14 than for those under the age of 12 (and I purposely left out 13 year-olds, as some of them are complete aliens to me after three years of teaching middle school social studies! Just teasing...a little bit). It is, for the most part, well-written and I think it would make for a challenging but enjoyable read for middle school-aged children and beyond. Recommended, with slight reservations related to age level.
Publication Date: 2005 (Spain, Italy), October 9, 2007 (US), Hardcover.
Publisher: Delacorte Press (Random House)