“In ‘The Traveller’s Stone’, S.J. Howland has created a wondrous fantasy world, inhabited by the creatures of myth and fairytale. Any fan of J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis or Philip Pullman will immediately feel at home in this fantastical place.” LoveReading
Xander King does not believe in fairytales. He prefers rational explanations, keeping his head down and trying to avoid the inevitable comparisons with his genius mother. The last thing he expects is to have his life turned upside down by terrifying shadows and an encounter with a mysterious stone tablet, challenging his entire view of reality and catapulting him into the parallel world of Haven.
Faced with extraordinary creatures, ancient secrets and a heritage he does not understand, Xander is drawn into the struggle to protect the border between his own reality and Haven, and prevent disaster overcoming them both. But, as darkness spreads, he must confront new questions. Where does he belong, and is anything in Haven really as it seems?
Discover the mesmerizing world of Haven and the truths long-hidden in the ancient stories in this gripping fantasy adventure.
Genre: Coming of Age Fantasy for teens and Young Adults
Print Length: 430 pages
Publication Date: August 14, 2019
*** SPOILER FREE REVIEW ***
As I started reading, I got a serious flashback feeling of the first book in the Percy Jackson Series. This book is also about a young teenager, and his first encounter with the extraordinary is also at a museum.
I don’t know if it’s because I got the same feeling as when reading The Lightning Thief (one of my alltime favorite book series!), but I instantly felt connected to main character Xander King.
The book’s written in British English, and all the words are written in full, like ‘He could not look away’ instead of ‘He couldn’t look away’, which did slow down my reading a bit. But only in the beginning as it’s just different than what I’ve been reading lately and I had to adjust.
The targeted audience, based on the writing, feels definitely more towards Middle Grade or Young Adult, but with use of some big words like peremptorily or acquiescence. I consider myself pretty well read in the English language (even though it’s not my native language), but I had to look up the meaning of these words! Personally, I felt a bit torn about the use of these kind of words, considering the age group.
First off, hello gorgeous cover! This immediately pulled me in and I love seeing great (and fitting!) covers for Indie books.
Concerning grammar, this is definitely one of the best edited stories I’ve read from an Indie Author. Hardly any grammar issues, and the few I did notice, were so minor that anyone could’ve overlooked it. And none actually intervened with the enjoyment of the story, which to me is a big plus!
Though I did find quite a bit of passive writing, which can be a threat to readability: “Xander felt a swift, crawling sensation down his spine.” Making it more active would be better: “A swift, crawling sensation went down Xander’s spine.”
Or this sentence: “Xander found that when he looked straight at them…” which could definitely improve by deleting the first three words.
Story wise, there were a few issues. A few questions during reading weren’t answered, which I did expect to know after finishing this book. Like, why didn’t Xander object when he was first introduced to this whole new magical world? I couldn’t help but wonder why a 14 year old would do as he’s told by strangers, and follow them through several magical settings, when he had no idea what was going on or even where they’re going. Especially because I, as the reader, was just as gob smacked and confused as Xander about what was going on. I’m sure it’s because he’s just very curious to find out more about what’s happening, but some communication would’ve benefited that part of the story.
The scene in the kitchen after they arrive at the Stanton house made up for this though, but it did feel a little too late for me.
Another question quickly followed: why did the Stanton family take in Xander? He’s a boy they don’t know, who exhibits abilities they hadn’t seen before in someone from another world. Why were they so easily trusting him? Either I have totally read over the part where this was explained, or it was just not clear enough.
As Xander practices his powers, he’s told he’s a natural. The fact that he seemed to get everything handled so quickly is something that kind of gets underneath my skin because I don’t believe it to be realistic. After all, to master most things in life it takes practice, practice, practice. Call me crazy, but I like it when someone struggles a bit to come into their powers. Or at least let it have some effect on them, mentally or physically. It makes the story more humanizing to me. Not the superhero kind of character who seems to have no flaws whatsoever.
Fortunately, Xander being a natural is being tested later on in the story and we find out he does face some difficulties. I’m glad the author decided to go that route with him.
A lot of characters were introduced quickly one after the other. That, to me, was a bit jarring and while reading I had a hard time remembering who was who and what role they had in the story.
Like the scene where Xander meets the Stanton family. By introducing parents and grandparents by name, instead of role, it makes it harder to see them in their roles. For example, Jenna and James were introduced by name, and a quick mention that they were the parents of Ollie, but as the story progressed they were referred to as just Jenna and James. Perhaps if the dialogue added more ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’ while interacting with them, things would’ve been different. I’m sure this is more personal than objective, but it was something I found myself struggling with.
Another thing that threatened to take me out of the story, was the use of last names for certain characters, but first names for other characters. Like Flint, who’s name is actually Ben Flint and Thorne, who’s full name is Roran Thorne. In both cases their last names sounded like first names, and seeing as Jenna and James were addressed with their first names, I actually got confused at times when someone was addressing Flint as Ben, or Thorne as Roran. Not to mention that at one point Roran Thorne was called Roran and the next moment he’s Thorne again.
But to be honest, these issues were minor to me, overshadowed by all the positive things that surprised and inspired me.
In my own writing I always try to incorporate certain life lessons, mostly in dialogue. S.J. Howland has that same tendency, perhaps subconsciously, to incorporate these lessons.
“Words are powerful, Xander; they frame your thoughts. When you name someone as less than they are, before you know it you start to think they are less.”
The one thing most authors have trouble with while writing a portal fantasy is: “What’s happening in the world they leave behind? How is the absence of the protagonist explained?” S.J. Howland thought this through and I LOVE her explanation of it. And no, I won’t share it – that’s kind of a spoiler. But, let me tell you, it’s good! I just hope she shows a bit of that in the following books. I’m so intrigued to see how that plays out!
Where the beginning of the story gave me Percy Jackson-feels, a later scene (where Xander goes into an Orb Shop) gave me so many Harry Potter vibes. Now, I’m not a big fan of stories that seem to copy other (famous) stories so I’m always extra aware when I get these feels. I don’t want to read a rip off from another book, even if it’s just a scene. But as I read these scenes, it made me smile and giggle. Her scenes definitely had their own vibe and it just proved to me that the author was probably just inspired by those other books. #highfive
What also stuck out to me was the way the author described certain trivial events. Like the next scene, which took place in the magical world:
“A young woman walked past, her head bent to speak to the small children holding her hands, with bags of groceries bobbing behind her like ducklings following their mother.”
I could visualize it with ease and I love these kind of visuals in a magical world. Carrying groceries is such a normal thing to do, but to see an author think about how that would translate into a magical world is just awesome to me. It’s these little details that make a story come alive.
Oh, and without spoiling anything (I hope), how COOL is it to use the constellation as part of a puzzle to solve – I love it! #nerdgirl
Point of view
This story is written in a 3rd person limited perspective. When writing in this style, the author has complete access to the thoughts, feelings and actions of a single character, in this case being the protagonist Xander. So, we (the readers) know just as much as Xander does, and only if Xander learns something new, we learn it, too. That can be pretty tricky (as stated by my earlier comment about Xander following strangers without knowing where he’s going).
Xander King is a 14 year old kid, who’s interested in all things Egyptian (This reference doesn’t come back during the story, so I’m hoping the author will incorporate this in the following books). He’s curious, pretty mature for his age, but there’s still a lot of kid in him (meaning, he can be a bit naive at times).
Mrs King (Xander’s mom) is a genius, and my first impression was that she’s pretty chaotic and not very aware of her surroundings. I wasn’t too keen on her as a mom, seeing how she’s treating her son (like, calling home at half past 10 in the evening to check up on her son, who’s home alone. It seems a bit late).
Mrs Mac(Leod) who’s the cleaning lady and basically a substitute mom to Xander due to his mom’s chaotic nature. I’m glad she was there to help Xander out.
Will Nicholson, best friend of Xander, didn’t get much page time, so I’m hoping that changes in the next books to really establish their friendship. It would be wild to see him join Xander into this magical world.
Flint is one of the first travelers Xander meets and he’s a bit of a grumpy character, pretty much a know-it-all kind of person.
Ari is another traveler; she helps Xander when he’s practicing with his powers.
Ollie is about the same age as Xander but from the magical world. He’s the one who connects best with Xander and I would consider him to be Xander’s best friend (to be honest, as soon as Ollie showed up, I completely forgot Will).
Len was a bit of an enigma to me in the beginning. She’s Ollie’s cousin and, together with Ollie and Xander, remind me a lot of the trio in the Potter books. Just like Hermione, Len’s pretty badass! They complement each other well!
Thea Stanton, Ollie’s grandmother, is a gifted healer and could be named the Mentor in this story as she’s the person who explains a lot of the magical things to Xander.
And then you have a bunch of other characters, like the rest of the Stanton family: Katie (Ollie’s younger sister), Jenna and James (Ollie’s mom and dad), and Jasper (Len’s father). And people from the Council whose names I won’t all mention here. There were quite a lot.
I had a hard time really grasping the danger in this book. I kept waiting for it to become really exciting, where my eyes would stay glued to the pages.
The scenes that did have the potential – like Xander’s encounters with the Shadows – were too brief to really get me riled up and eager to read further. But seeing as this is just the first book in a series, and it’s common to kind of ‘ease into’ the story, I’m pretty sure the author will play more with that in the coming books.
The ending was clean, no cliffhangers (Thank you!) and the most vital questions were answered, but enough was left unclear for the story to continue in the next installment.
Part of a series?
Yes, The Traveller’s Stone is the first of five books in the Haven series. According to the biography on Amazon, the second book, The Lore of the Sea, will be released this year.
So, is this book by S.J. Howland enough for me to continue reading her stories?
Most definitely. I really enjoyed reading this book. It had a lot of fantastical elements, a good storyline, and solid characters. It left me with enough questions I would want to have answered, so the next book will definitely be on my TBR as it releases. Also, and I can’t emphasize this enough, I loved S.J. Howland’s writing style.
Petra is a published Indie author. She’s been writing all her life, but only dared to publish a book when she started writing the Somnia Series. She’s a motivational coach for (Fantasy) writers, offers all kinds of services on her own Dutch platform www.fantasyschrijfcoaching.nl, and uses her author’s website to help other writers achieve their writing goals. She loves using her platform to promote other Indie Authors who have the courage and determination to make their books worth your (reading) time.