Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire – by John August (Review)

Arlo Finch #1

YA, Fantasy

Roaring Brook Press; February 6, 2018

326 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

Arlo Finch is 12. After his father fled to China, his family moved around a lot, passing between cities like the trees in a forest. Eventually, they made their way to Pine Mountain. But Pine Mountain isn’t like any of the rest. Indeed, it’s not a city at all—the town doesn’t appear on most maps, there’s little to no cell service, and trees vastly outnumber the residents. That said, this quaint little hamlet might just be the break that Arlo and his family need. The new start that they deserve.

Arlo, despite having an old man’s name, is an immediately relatable character—at least to me. I share some of his worrying, his anxiety, his love for adventure, open spaces and nature. After one day of moving to Pine Mountain, Arlo knows he’s going to love it there, as long as the world doesn’t try to kill him very much. And the world obliges. His uncle doesn’t immediately change into a bear and kill them. A rockslide doesn’t destroy the house, trapping them all inside. A mountain lion doesn’t unlock the front door, sneak upstairs, and attack Arlo. At least, it hasn’t yet.

For his part, Arlo does his best to avoid everyone and remain aloof and friendless. He does a lousy job at it, however, as within a week he already has a pair of friends and a new hobby to consume all of his non-homework time: Rangers.

Rangers is sort of like Scouts, albeit a Scouts dipped in magic and sweetened by the supernatural. You see, Pine Mountain (among other places) is home to the mysterious Long Wood, a transition point between our world and many others. Due to its isolation and locale in the mountains of Colorado, Pine Mountain sits right on the doorstep of the Long Wood, a place where the veil is thinnest, where someone can stumble right through and end up—anywhere. Rangers shares its knowledge of the inhabitants and ways of the Long Wood, so that its members might survive it. Rangers is built around “the Wonder”—the supernatural thread that connects our world to the Long Wood. Due to its locale, there is quite a lot of Wonder in Pine Mountain.

But there is more to the Long Wood than magic and mystery. Before long, Arlo has worn out his welcome in Pine Mountain—and the world goes back to trying to kill him. Actively, this time. For there is something different about Arlo Finch, something that the Long Wood may awaken, if he survives long enough to see it.

Arlo Finch turned out to be just what I needed.

In a month (well, a second month) where I’ve been dealing with health and illness, reading anything has proven difficult. Focusing on anything an impossible challenge. My stomach has been bothering me constantly. Nauseous most of the time. Had little enough sleep and no energy besides. My thoughts have been fractured, making writing anything coherent a challenge. Arlo Finch was light enough that I didn’t have to focus all my energy on it, but possessive of an entertaining and immersive story that kept me consistently involved. John August did a magnificent job on this one, a YA that toes the line between an immersive, detailed mystery and a light fantasy adventure. James Patrick Cronin was an exceptional narrator, effortlessly bringing Arlo’s story to life.

It wasn’t perfect, but near enough that my nitpicking will wear little upon it. A few points consistently bothered me, probably because I’m an adult, waaay over analyzing a kid’s book. But whatever. The first is that August clearly doesn’t live in the area he’s trying to recapture. There’s nothing wrong with that—I realize that residing in a place and recreating it are not the same thing. Furthermore, I doubt that Brandon Sanderson actually lives in the Cosmere, like, all the time. It’s just that August’s rendition of the place doesn’t really fit. The town has actual buildings. It has THREE full Ranger troops. It actually has SOME cell service. And mountain lions, though it’s too high for them. As someone who lives in a nowhere adjacent locale, my worldview and his butted heads. I guess I’m complaining that August didn’t do enough research, or didn’t make his setting believable, but hey—kid’s book, it’s probably fine,.

It’s the story itself that makes In the Valley of Fire a must-read. The story, and Arlo himself.

It’s an adventure that embodies the Ranger’s Vow: loyal, brave, kind and true. It’s entertaining. It’s fun. Though the plot mostly follows the Rangers, the story revolves around Arlo himself. Him, and his life. His idiosyncrasies. His heterochomia iridum—his two different colored eyes. His personality, his journey. If Arlo was a superhero—or if that’s what he’s to become—then this is his origin story.


Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire is a lovely adventure reminiscent of Gravity Falls and Percy Jackson. A light but immersive YA tale, filled with excitement and steeped in mystery, this tells the tale of Arlo’s origin story, his move to Pine Mountain, and his first involvement in Rangers. Everything that comes before—it all started here. Arlo is quite the lead; full of character, strong yet with all the flaws borne of youth, humanity. I loved the audiobook: raced through it in 2-3 days, then moved on to #2 and did the same. It’s short, light, fun—a great YA adventure. And exactly what I needed.

Book #2, Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon continues the series with the third installment, Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows, due out in February 2020.

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