The Counterclockwise Heart is a middle-grade fantasy by Brian Farrey, published by Algonquin Young Readers on 01 February 2022.
Short summary provided by the publishers:
Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . . Time is running out in the empire of Rheinvelt. The sudden appearance of a strange and frightening statue foretells darkness. The Hierophants—magic users of the highest order—have fled the land. And the shadowy beasts of the nearby Hinterlands are gathering near the borders, preparing for an attack. Young Prince Alphonsus is sent by his mother, the Empress Sabine, to reassure the people while she works to quell the threat of war. But Alphonsus has other problems on his mind, including a great secret: He has a clock in his chest where his heart should be—and it’s begun to run backwards, counting down to his unknown fate. Searching for answers about the clock, Alphonsus meets Esme, a Hierophant girl who has returned to the empire in search of a sorceress known as the Nachtfrau. When riddles from their shared past threaten the future of the empire, Alphonsus and Esme must learn to trust each other and work together to save it—or see the destruction of everything they both love.
The ARC for this book was offered to me, with the words:
Perfect for fans of Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly and The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, THE COUNTERCLOCKWISE HEART demonstrates that, in the words of Esme, “stupid compassion must be contagious.”
Perfect might be overstretching it, but I enjoyed my time with the book, once I sat down and read it. (My fault, I kept pushing the book back onto the virtual #MountARC.) It’s definitely perfect for the kind of middle-grade reader who likes to read more mature books and can handle darker topics of death, grief, violence; those are done gracefully not gory and too dark.
Although I am a native of German, I actually struggled with the German words within the story. They pulled me out of the flow of the story more often than I liked. This might be a problem for younger readers, too. Even more so, since most of the words are not explained or translated. Young readers might not bother about the hidden meaning of those words, but I was wondering what Germanic folklore exactly Farrey was hinting at. So I checked the word “Nachtfrau” (night woman), for example. It’s been out of use for a long time, and I was only vaguely familiar with the term. It used to refer to a female ghost-like creature that was supposed to drain the blood from children’s bodies; a bo(o)geyman story told to children to make them behave well. The Nachtfrau in The Counterclockwise Heart isn’t a ghost, nor does she drink children’s blood, nevertheless she is a figure people are afraid of.
My favourite character is Esme. She’s strong. She was brought up in a small community of Hierophants in the North who blames the Nachtfrau for their problems. Despite having been told to loathe the sorceress, Esme is strong enough to trust her own instincts. She weighs what she learned growing up against what she learned during her travels. She uses her brain and heart to determine whether what she had been told is actually true, and makes an informed decision based on facts, rather than ‘fiction’.
The magic system Farrey came up with is wonderful. It’s a system of balance: if you use energy for your spell that means you have to give back something. Some sort of energy conservation. This way magic actually added to the story, since it couldn’t be used as a panacea for all sorts of problems; using magic carelessly might cause more trouble.
A good middle-grade novel that, since that’s the one I read and liked, fans of Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon will certainly enjoy.
3/5 Harpy Eagles (or Goodreads stars)
About the author:
Brian Farrey is the author of The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse, winner of the 2017 Minnesota Book Award, and the Stonewall honor book With or Without You. He lives in Minnesota with his husband and their sweet but occasionally evil cats. You can find him online at brianfarreybooks.com and on Twitter: @BrianFarrey.