cover image The Traitor's Gate

The Traitor's Gate

Avi, , illus. by Karina Raude. . Atheneum/Jackson, $17.99 (353pp) ISBN 978-0-689-85335-7

Avi lifts a few facts from Charles Dickens's biography to spin this action-packed tale of secret identities, double-dealing and betrayal, set in mid-19th-century London. John Huffam (the middle names of Charles J.H. Dickens) is 14, reluctantly attending Muldspoon's Militantly Motivated Academy, when his father (like Dickens') is sent to debtor's prison. His mother is a layabout who does nothing but complain of her husband's fecklessness, and his sister's sole concern is how this family crisis impacts her marital prospects. It's left to John to unravel a mystery involving a military invention that his father, a naval clerk, has information about and a web of foreign spies willing to pay for specifics. John is a bit too good to be true: although he's horrified to uncover his father's various deceits, he refuses to listen to his estranged, rich great-great-Aunt Euphemia bad-mouth the man (“Your shame speaks well of you,” she says, misunderstanding him). Though idealized, John is also thoroughly empathetic, a child with hefty concerns thrust upon him, unsure of who he can trust. At least one character's motivation remains murky at the end, but the twisty plot keeps the pages turning and the rich period detail—as well as debut illustrator's Raude's delicate pen and ink illustrations scattered throughout—places readers right in Victorian England at a time when the serialization of David Copperfield had London abuzz. Ages 11-14. (June)