Little White Hands by Mark Cushen
When Mark Cushen reached out to me about the review of Little White Hands, I wasn't sure I was the right person for the task. I don't usually read books aimed at young readers. Mostly because I don't have kids myself, or contact with them, so I'm way out of touch with what their tastes can be. However, two things changed my mind - the blurb and the gorgeous cover artwork by Jeremy Adams! And I'm glad they did.
The blurb reads:
"Almost five hundred years have passed since the Seasons were at war.
Half a millennium since Winter defied Spring, and lost.
Generations have come and gone, not knowing the bitter freeze and howling snows of Winter ever existed.
But now, after centuries of silence, the participants in this ancient struggle have resurfaced and reignited their feud on the doorstep of an unassuming little kitchen boy.
Garlan's dreams of being just like the knights he idolizes may not be as impossible as he has always been led to believe, when he is chased from his home and thrust headlong into the kind of adventure he had only ever read about in books.
Setting out on a journey that spans the entire kingdom of Faeland, Garlan will traverse impossible mountains and stormy seas and battle terrible monsters, all to keep the world he knows safe from an enemy who will stop at nothing to bring about a never-ending winter.
With a cast of fantastical characters to aid him in his quest, can Garlan overcome his self-doubt and find the courage he needs to rise above his humble station and become the hero he always dreamed of being?
The fate of the world rests in his hands."
Many moons have passed since I read a fairytale-like story, but when the book opened with:
"If I were to tell you that there was once a humble little kitchenhand who struggled through many perils and pitfalls to become a venerated hero, would you believe me?"
I was ready to get under a cosy blanket with a cup of hot cocoa and immerse myself in the whimsical world of Garlan, a kitchen boy who wants to be a knight.
And what a world that is! Inhabited by wizards and faeries, humans and ghosts, snowmen and knights, and obviously - the Four Seasons, this vivid creation is lovingly curated for the younger audiences. There is plenty of action to keep the reader interested, and a good few lessons to be learned.
Now, since I am an adult and work under the assumption that the review will be read mostly by other adults looking for a recommendation for young readers in their lives, there will be spoilers ahead.
If you yourself are a young reader - I will say that you chose well. Make yourself comfortable in your reading spot and enjoy the story.
-- Spoilers inbound --
The main character, 11-year-old Garlan, wants to be a knight. He has a dream and works for it within his meagre means. As a kitchen hand, he knows that the road to knighthood will be long and hard, if at all possible. But despite all the naysayers and doubts - he trains every day with his wooden sword to become the best he can be.
Yes, it's good to have dreams. It's ok if they seem impossibly far to reach. Dedication and hard work will pay off - in the best-case scenario, you'll triumphantly live up to your dream. At worst - you'll gain invaluable skills in the process.
His journey is long and full of both dangers and heartbreak. Various characters come to Garland's aid, and sometimes this aid comes in the form of sacrifice he doesn't want to accept. Yet, for the journey to continue, there's little he can do to prevent it, being just a young boy. A painful reminder that we may lose something or someone on every journey we take, and there is nothing we can do but to endure. It doesn't make the pain any easier to bear, but it is a part of our journey nonetheless.
Garland, surrounded by sidekicks much older and wiser than him, is often given advice or actively asks for it. Even though the final decision is still up to him, he always listens to his advisors. Sometimes he makes a questionable choice but is not afraid of facing the consequences of such. Unpleasant as they may be, he keeps reminding himself about what would a knight do in his situation and acts accordingly.
Honestly, many grown-ups I know would benefit from applying the (mentally) "dress for the job you want" rule in everyday life.
And the final lesson I'll bring up, the one I personally appreciated the most, is the one given at the very end. Upon Garland's return from the quest and saving the world from Hoarime's frosted rage, a reward awaits him. The King, in appreciation for his courage, appoints him as...
Here I was expecting the usual "get the ultimate reward and live happilyeveraftertheend" conclusion. The children's and YA stories often portray that since you helped rescue the Princess and did half the work, you get half the swamp. Or something along this line if Donkey is to be trusted.
Don't get me wrong - you did the work, you should get rewarded, but in real life, the story doesn't end with the arrival at your Destination station. When you land the dream opportunity, you rarely rest on laurels as the end credits run - most of the time, that comes with many more a chapter, a lot of work (thank you for coming to my TED talk...). You probably guessed that this is a pet peeve of mine.
Here's what Mark did in "Little White Hands" - at the end of the story, when King heard of all Garland's perils, he decided to award him appropriately. And so Garland is given an opportunity to become... a squire! YES! My heart rejoiced! You worked damn hard for your dream, and the opportunity knocks on your door. But, as real-life often has it, it is dressed in overalls and carries a promise of more work to be done. And more adventures to have, and growth, and self-improvement, etc...
All of the above makes me forgive two blemishes the book has, both of which can easily be improved upon as Mark Cushen builds upon his craft.
One - the story is leaning more towards the male audience since the vast majority of the characters happen to be male. Having said that, I'd rather read a decent male character than an ineptly created female one. One of the pieces of advice that writers are often given is "write what you know", which I see happening here.
And two (which is more likely a me problem, than a book problem) - I had to keep reminding myself that Garlan is 11. The way he was portrayed put him in my eyes as a 14 to 16-year-old teenager instead. Something about his attitude and ability to hold up in a fight with more skilled opponents was a bit amiss for me. On that note, my experiences with 11-year-olds are limited, and I suspect that any 11-year-old who practised with a sword and a shield more than I did would've been able to painfully prove me wrong.
All in all, these are more of an observation than a criticism.
Overall - I enjoyed the story very much and would certainly recommend adding it to a reading list of a young adult in your life.
"Little White Hands" is Mark Cushen's debut, and seeing how much love and care he pumped into it, I eagerly look forward to reading his future creations.
-----Little White Hands on Goodreads