I sink into my favorite chair and lose track of the real world when I have a Barnhill book. She is a strong writer when it comes to creating fantasy worlds - actually she is on my burn-the-dinner book list. I make sure I start her book early in the day because I know I won't put it down. Her books have layered themes and layered characters. In this one, Ned struggles with not being able to talk, but he is also much better than the average person at observing others around him. When he sees a newcomer at a village gathering to see the Queen that is stealing from people's pockets, he is frustrated by his inability to warn them with words. At the gathering, the Queen falls ill and Ned's mother saves her with magic. The newcomer has a pendant that glows strangely and Ned is uneasy about his flushed face watching his mother save the queen's life. He dismisses the idea that there is nothing for the newcomer, who happens to be the Bandit King, in the village.
The word, "nothing" is repeated throughout the novel and signifies how people can strive for personal gain but in the end it is for nothing. Meaning in life is not gained through materialism or power but through giving to others first. Aine, who is the same age as Ned, lives over the mountains and beyond an enchanted forest in a Kingdom that Ned's villagers no nothing about. They believe the world ends and that there is nothing beyond the woods. Here nothing means ignorance; just like Ned ignorantly believes the Bandit King will do nothing. When Aine's mother dies she lives in the city by the sea until she has sold all their goods. She tells her father that they have nothing which triggers him from his grief so that he takes Aine to the forest where he grew up. Here nothing signifies power for her father. His wife kept him from using magic and stealing from others. With her gone, he turns back to his life as a bandit and slowly transforms into a greedy man that loses sight of the importance of raising his daughter and showing he cares about her. Aine wants nothing to do with magic. She is very practical and tries to show that she doesn't care but she forms a deep friendship with Ned in the end.
When the Bandit King tries to steal the magic from Ned's mother while she is away, Ned ends up being engulfed by the magic where it resides on his skin in the form of words. The words can be calm if he commands them or they can burn his skin and hurt terribly. He repeats over and over to think nothing so the magic won't control his thoughts. He is tempted to use it for personal gain but knows it can kill him if he gives in. He empties his thoughts as the magic pressures him to use it for selfish reasons. Ned feels like he has nothing because his dad won't look at him. Aine feels like she has lost her father's love as the pendant twists his mind. Both discover that their fathers' love them, but not without suffering first through neglect. At the novel's end, Aine tells the bandits she has nothing and burns down her house and barn symbolizing a rebirth for her and newfound independence. Just like the words in a book magically give birth to a story. Words make the characters feel like nothing at times. Ned's community belittles him and strips him of his humanity because he stutters. They don't want to show they care. Their abuse to him and his mother show a lack of compassion and caring. Aine tries to act like she doesn't care, but she does. The magic is in the form of words and after it leaves Ned, he is scarred permanently. Words leave scars. Words can be said for good or for evil.
Magic represents the good and evil in all of us. A subplot involves nine stones that talk to each other and are tied to the magic affecting Ned. I got confused as to whether or not they were good or bad. Sometimes they seemed good and other times they did bad things. While it was clear that the magic pot was good and evil, the stones vacillate. If you remember that the stones represent the good and evil in all people then it is less confusing. Also, once I knew they were connected with the clay pot magic I could see where the author was going.
The stones remind me of the Stonehenge history and myths showing it as a place of healing, religious, celestial, and magical properties. Today, archeologists can use advanced techniques to determine more about the stones; thus, taking some of the magical mysteries out of the equation. The stones in this story lose their magic and leave the world too. When the stones pick up the characters and carry them on their shoulders, it reminded me of the hobbits traveling on the trees in The Lord of the Rings movies. Fairy tales of enchanted forests, bandits, and witches had me making references throughout the book. If you liked the theme regarding the power of words then try, A Snicker of Magic, by Lisa Graff.