Dystopia tends to be the domain of YA fiction, so I was really interested to see how it would work for middle grade readers in The Middler… And the answer is, brilliantly!
Book: The Middler by Kirsty Applebaum
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent by Nosy Crow free of charge. All opinions my own.
From the very first pages of The Middler, you know it’s going to be good. Kirsty Applebaum manages to create a world that feels extremely normal, and deeply wrong, all in the course of the first scene. This is a world where birth order decides your fate: the eldest child is sent away at fourteen to fight in the war, and until then, they are given all sorts of special privileges. We follow Maggie, a middle child, as her elder brother prepares to go to the front, and watch as she moves from resenting her ‘special’ older brother, to realising that being the eldest may not be a privilege after all, to realising that something is very, very wrong with the whole concept of eldests. It’s fascinating, and really a testament to the writing that you can feel just how Maggie feels, whether that’s childish jealousy or the sick feeling of dread as she comes to understand the world.
I particularly liked Maggie’s friendship with the wanderer girl Una. Wanderers have opted not to live within the restrictive town rules, and live in the unprotected countryside. Maggie’s always been taught that they are dangerous and animalistic, but her meeting with Una is really the spark that ignites her investigation of the values she’s always been taught. Aside from this, it’s also a really good depiction of the intense and confusing kind of friendship that you can make when you first pick someone for yourself, rather than being friends due to circumstances. There’s a kind of ecstatic glee that you managed to find someone else like you, all by yourself, which I thought was really well represented here. The scene where Una and Maggie climb through the boundary hedge is a huge ball of emotion – just so compelling.
The plot is fast-paced, but leaves space for you to consider the background behind the ongoing action, and I thought this was really well done. It doesn’t heavily push the themes, but just leaves them there to worry in the back of Maggie’s (and the reader’s) mind. It feels genuinely suspenseful and gripping, and would be an amazing first introduction to dystopia, as it’s unsettling rather than violent. I found myself so emotionally invested in Maggie’s journey that the triumphant ending almost made me cry.
The Middler is fantastic – thoughtful, intelligent fiction that I think will have cross-age-range appeal, especially for those with siblings. I loved it! Five out of five cats!