Arlo Finch #3
YA, Middle Grade, Fantasy
Roaring Brook Press; February 4, 2020
314 pages (ebook) 7 hr 20 min (audio)
1.8 / 5 ✪
Goodreads • Author Website
Warning: Contains minor spoilers for the previous Arlo Finch books.
Arlo Finch is back—but something has changed.
Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows is the third book in John August’s series surrounding the young lad, Arlo, after his family move to the secluded town of Pine Mountain, Colorado. While the previous two entries in the series dealt with the exciting adventures of Arlo and his friends, the Kingdom of Shadows attempts to add more drama and suspense by throwing Arlo’s data-mining father into the mix, in an adventure that will change the fate of both the Long Woods and the Real World. But where the previous two books succeeded by trying to encapsulate children’s adventures while adding a bit of action and flair, the third book falls short by trying to do too much while ultimately delivering about the same sense of resolution. Ugghhh—I’ve tried to write this intro half a dozen times and it still sounds bad. Just… bear with me, yeah?
After an adventure at summer camp spanning thirty years, Arlo is back home in Pine Mountain, preparing to face a new school, new teachers and new challenges. In Rangers he is training hard, ready to leave Squirrel for a new rank—but has to compete with new additions to his troop, new techniques, and harder tasks than ever before.
But first, Arlo is going to undertake the most dangerous adventure he’s ever conceived. He’s going to rescue his father, bringing him home to Pine Mountain by traversing the Long Woods. But the Eldritch have plans for Arlo, and the way is already not without its dangers. Enemies—old and new—are all around him. Arlo must rely on his two best friends, his fellow Rangers in Blue Patrol, and his family to see him through it. And even with all of them on his side, it might not be enough.
Okay, so it’s a short blurb. The book actually contains two adventures: Arlo’s mission to rescue his father, and then whatever the Eldritch want. They’re loosely connected later in the text, but for all purposes, they’re really two separate tales. Coming into this I was expecting a rip-roaring gauntlet spanning from Colorado to China and back, with the Eldritch, the government, enemies new and old alike taking shots at Arlo in-between. What I got instead was one adventure, then a break, another adventure, and then a loose connection that sets up a conclusion somehow neither here nor there.
In terms of an adventure, Kingdom of Shadows is a typical Finch special. That is it blends enough action, drama and fun in a bag to create an enjoyable, entertaining, PG adventure. I had no more trouble getting into and through it than usual, which is very little. I had issues with pieces along the way, which I’ll get into in a minute. But the adventure itself, the setting are just as good as usual, the story no harder to read.
I had more issues with the book itself than usual, while taking into account that it is a middle grade story, after all. The first has to do with the story itself. But I’ve already discussed this a little. It’s mostly the pacing that I object to, and the plot. The starting one adventure, then another, only to blend them later on but somehow conclude neither adequately. The pacing gets going early only to slow and never build itself back up to the level it leads with—even during the exciting boss-fight toward the end.
My main issue with the book is Arlo’s father. Clark Finch is a hacker of some sort—never described fully as Arlo himself doesn’t understand it. In fact, Arlo doesn’t understand computers or technology much at all. Instead, he regards it as akin to magic. This is incredibly convenient in the story as there’re parts where Clark will whip out some device, give some generic techno-babble and then magic up a solution to whatever problem they face. As a reason for his exile, it’s a good, modern idea. As a plot point, it’s incredibly lazy—like having the main character carry around a bottomless sack full of whatever it is he might need. Other than this hacker persona, Clark really doesn’t seem to have much of a personality at all. He’s just… there.
Which brings me to my next point. Arlo, by this point, is in seventh grade—making him somewhere around 12-13. But he’s as much of a child as he used to be. The book clearly disagrees with this assessment, going out of its way to compare how he approaches problems now, versus how he would’ve in his year before Rangers. But this mostly regards things that he’s learnt, not any maturing on his part. And yeah, I understand that my maturity level didn’t improve between the ages of 10-14. It CHANGED, but didn’t exactly improve. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that there should be some kind of character development at this point. But there isn’t. Arlo still goes through the same, simple, straightforward steps when he gets in trouble. While his skills have improved, the process itself hasn’t. And by this age, I would’ve liked to see some evidence of development, even if it’s just regression.
While it still tells a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows pales in comparison to its predecessors, promising a greater sense of drama and suspense and illusion, but delivering on little of it. The sense of fulfillment is equal to past books; no more, nor less. While the story regarding the Eldritch and the Long Woods is a good one, and the adventure to and from China entertaining—the two don’t blend well together, fighting one another for control of the book. Each would’ve made a good read on its own, but together they fell short of a complete story, failing to deliver a satisfactory resolution. Despite the fact that Arlo is now in 7th grade, little has changed from when he first arrived in Pine Mountain. He’s older—technically—and has different skills, though it’s difficult to see any character development. I know this is a Middle Grade book, but I would’ve liked to see SOMETHING. Though it falls short of perfection, short of its predecessors, and feels somewhat lacking upon completion, Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows is a worthwhile read for fans of the series. Hopefully from here it will just go upwards, but only time will tell.
NOV 2021 UPDATE
Hey, if you read my original review of Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows way back in 2020—well, welcome to Round #2! At the time I remember saying that while the book wasn’t great, I’d address its problems later, depending on what was done to resolve them in the following entry.
Well, it’s been over a year and a half since the latest Arlo Finch book came out, and it appears that no fourth book is following. Needless to say that I’m disappointed. So it’s time to revisit this series and wrap up our thoughts on it, while saying a few choice words about just how it ended.
There are some spoilers following, so if you’d like to avoid those, just skip to the TL;DR.
While originally planned and purchased as a trilogy, the Arlo Finch series had the potential to provide so much more mystery and adventure than three books could give them. As such, while the first and second titles in the series were highly entertaining, the third book—Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows—fell flat. Partly because it came at a crossroads for the series and in Arlo’s character arc; partly because it wrapped up the series; partly since the book tried to wrap up so many threads, while ultimately accomplishing very little. The problems I had in my original review notwithstanding, the Kingdom of Shadows was a conclusion wrought with issues—from what it set out to accomplish in the first place, to what story it managed to tell at the end.
Let me just say that while I didn’t see this coming, I really should have. But I didn’t know going into it that the Kingdom of Shadows was planned as the last book in a trilogy. And so the ending (when it just up and ended) made very little sense to me. Looking back on it, and knowing that it was the planned conclusion… it makes even less sense.
The conclusion itself is open-ended, with the final scene acting as both a finale and a beginning of sorts. As the precursor to a new book, this would’ve proved effective. As a final well, finale, it does the opposite. Instead of a cliffhanger ending to be resolved in the next installment, the Kingdom of Shadows uses a Sopranos-style moment—had the show ended a half-hour sooner. Or for the people that don’t know what this means, or are too young: it ended in the middle of a scene, with not a lot being actually resolved. The Kingdom of Shadows takes this a step further, by resolving even less. Yes, the antagonist from the second book has been defeated. Yes, Arlo’s dad is home. Yes… actually no, that’s pretty much it.
So, basically, we’re just expected to believe that these two things will fix all the world’s problems. Arlo’s dad is just not in trouble anymore—because that makes perfect sense. The Eldrich just magicked all those problems away for… what reason, exactly? Even if it had made any sense for them to have that power, their rationale to do so didn’t make any more sense. Even less, actually. And with the tag-line of the book coming down to:
Arlo must make an impossible choice: save his friends and family, or save the Long Woods.
I mean, he doesn’t even manage either of these things. The Long Woods is still doomed. He didn’t save his friends or family in any reasonable way—the book was just like “well, it’s about that time, so I guessed our hero must’ve saved the day” and wrapt up without anything really being finished. This book makes about as much sense as my last three November novels have, and I ended each one with: “and then they all died”, regardless of what was happening. Don’t even get me started on the dragon.
The dragon that doesn’t really do anything, but then gets freed at the end and… the world is totally fixed. Because. Because magic fixes all problems, so we don’t even have to get into all the how’s and why’s or explain anything in detail. It just works. Because magic.
Have you ever sat down with your kid and told them “I know that you tried your best and didn’t succeed but magic magic magic you win and everything is perfect!”
…did that work? Honestly asking.
Not only am I disappointed by the lack of coherence, but as I reread it now, I notice more and more how rushed this conclusion feels. Not only the conclusion—the entire book. The premise itself doesn’t even really work. The enemy we just defeated in the previous book magically escapes and undoes everything in the blink of an eye? It’s not like you can just rebuild a death star by snapping your fingers. It’s like the author was brainstorming and only came up with “I know I just concluded this storyline in the last book but imagine this—maybe all that stuff didn’t happen” and just went from there. It’s just all… lazy.
If you skipped this very healthy, very understandable rant—you don’t know what you’re missing. Every now and then, we as readers should reflect on our biggest disappointments and vent a little, as it’s the only resolution we’ll ever get. I don’t regret any of the complaints above, as they were all perfectly reasonable requests despite the book only being intended for middle-graders. I work with elementary school children all the time and if you think that your explanation of “and everything was magically fixed because magic” will still fly when they’re that age, you’re probably not ready to be a parent. Not only was the conclusion sans resolution, the entire book itself felt rushed, and the premise completely undid half the stuff the last book worked so hard to accomplish in the blink of an eye. I don’t exactly regret rating this at a 3/5, but had I known it was the planned conclusion—as opposed to the de facto one—I would’ve roasted it over the coals earlier and saved myself some time.
Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows – by John August
• Original Rating – 3 /5 ✪
• Updated Rating – 1.8 /5 ✪