R. L. La Fevers, . . Dutton, $16.99 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-525-46993-3

England after the Norman Conquest furnishes the setting for La Fevers's children's debut, a somewhat familiar tale pitting the weak but pure of heart against the powerful and cruel. Ten-year-old Wat, blind in one eye and unable to use his left leg, lives in poverty with his mother; he is hated and feared by the other villagers for his deformities. When Wat sees two falcons mistreated by Lord Sherborne and his heartless henchmen, the boy daringly steals the birds and escapes into a bordering forest. Here he meets a grizzled hermit who quietly and mysteriously serves as the forest's guardian—and who just so happens to be Wat's grandfather. Wat's destiny, he learns, is to take over as keeper of the forest. A quick indoctrination in the ways of the woods leads to an inevitable showdown between Wat and the Lord's men. Unfortunately, the story feels thin, running dangerously close to an oversimplified good guys versus bad guys structure; of the cast, only Wat and his grandfather begin to seem developed. The magic system, a hodge-podge of enchanted "sigils," magical waters and a pervasive forest spirit that rules everything, enters the story belatedly and without clear enough explanation, so that when Wat calls upon it during the finale, the fantasy elements seem abrupt and dissonant. Ages 8-11. (Nov.)