Doctor Dolittle was my hero as a child; I wanted to meet the pushmi-pullyu, the giant snail that took him across the ocean, Polly, Jip, Gub-Gub, and all the other animals that filled Hugh Lofting’s pages. And although my dog is very chatty, I have never figured out how to talk to animals. But Simon Thorn knows.
12 year old Simon lives in a small Manhattan apartment with his Uncle Darryl, who cares for him while his mother is away. She travels for her work as a zoologist, and Simon stays behind to go to school and have friends and a normal life. Except that he has only one friend (a mouse named Felix), is bullied constantly, and oh yeah, he talks to animals. And they answer him.
After getting in a fight on the first day of middle school, Simon returns home to find his mom has dropped by for one of her rare visits. Which is weird enough. But then she is kidnapped by rats, and Simon discovers that he is not alone after all – he is an Animalgam, someone who can not only talk to animals, but can also shape-shift into one at will. He is descended from the bird line of the five kingdoms that make up this secret world.
Ok, FUN. This is a wonderful story.
Simon is a genuinely likeable boy who finds a circle of friends in his new life who all strike the right chords. Jam, the friendly, nerdy, dolphin shape-shifter, Ariana, the kick-ass punk black widow spider, and Winter, his first ally in the bird kingdom. Although they are not all outcasts, they are different and individual enough to stand out from the rest of the pre-teen shape-shifters.
Like any 12 year old, Simon makes questionable decisions, constantly. His life turns upside down in the space of a day, and he doesn’t know who to trust. He tries to go on instinct, but that doesn’t always work out for him. (Although his solution to dealing with the bully that torments him daily is one that I think a LOT of people would hope to pull off.)
I like that the adults, so often one dimensional in middle-grade books, play a front and centre role but do not take away from the kids’ presence. Uncle Darryl, Malcolm, the Alpha, and Orion are all very strong characters in the story, and are integral to the plot.
Which is, unfortunately, a bit flat, as the conflicts between the kingdoms and origin of the Predator are not really explained clearly. But given that this is the first of a series, there is plenty of time for development. And that criticism aside, there are plenty of moments that will have you on the edge of your seat, then falling off it with laughter.
Author Aimee Carter has done a great job with the world-building. Perfect. Beneath the towers of Manhattan and expanse of Central Park lies a whole other world for the Animalgams to be themselves, even as they can move amongst the people in the city up above. The different sections for the five kingdoms are vividly described, and I am still feeling a bit creeped out about the insect habitat. Thanks for that.
The cliff-hanger at the end is a great set-up for book two, and will have the reader yelling “I KNEW IT!” (Yes, me. I did that.) There is definitely room for the story and the characters to grow and develop, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den was published February 2nd 2016 by Bloomsbury USA Childrens.