In his debut novel, “The Lock-Eater,” author Zack Loran Clark presents us with a very unusual protagonist. Melanie Gate is an orphan, and she lives with other similarly situated girls at the Merrytrails Orphanage for Girls. Mrs. Harbargain is the kindly woman in charge of the orphanage, and she lives with the children and her cat, Abraxas, who is redeemed neither by his looks nor his personality. Melanie has the strange ability of being able to open any door or lock. Other girls in the orphanage have different abilities; one is a talented baker, another is unusually charming, another a gifted storyteller.
They reside in the town of Crossport, and one night when Melanie senses Abraxas yearning to go outside to explore, she helps him gain his freedom—something that she, too, yearns for—and that act results in an extremely unfortunate event. For at the same time she is trying to help Abraxas, the death of a powerful wizard in the Empire occurs. One of the Empire’s leaders, the High Enchanter, is calling for war, and in the manner of many young people, Melanie thinks the idea of war is rather exciting in an abstract way.
Melanie’s situation is changed when an automaton appears at the orphanage with a bedraggled, wet cat (Abraxas) and claims to be there on behalf of a witch looking for an apprentice. Melanie is thrilled to be chosen to work with the witch, and thus begins her adventure with the mechanical creature, whom she names Traveler. The witch was a fabrication for it turns out that Traveler is no mere automaton; but as we learn, neither is Melanie your run-of-the-mill orphan. On their adventures, they meet evil wizards, gryphons, cat-people, and frog-people, and Melanie encounters her first crush. Along the way, we are forced to consider important questions that are worthy of pondering and discussion. What makes us human? Our bodies? Our intellect? What makes family? Love? Loyalty? And equally important: Is it ever justifiable to make war? To create a weapon so powerful that it could destroy life on the planet?
Clark also brings up questions about gender. When Melanie asks the automaton if it’s a boy or girl gearling, it responds by asking, “Must I be one or the other?” Melanie reassures it that such is not the case. “…the baker’s apprentice … goes by they.” And when the gearling decides to choose “he for now,” but asks if he can change his mind later, Melanie says that is something that people do–change their mind about their gender. So the story, in a pretty direct way, is also about awakening. Both Melanie and her close friend, Traveler, must discover what they are in spite of what they appear to be. And for each of them, that awakening will be very different.
There are adventures aplenty in the pages of this novel as well as a very satisfying ending. As a fifth grade teacher (albeit retired now), I know that for elementary students, this book would be a stretch for all but the most proficient readers. The vocabulary is robust, and I needed to look up at least one word – solipsism. While I know the meaning of “panoply,” I doubt many fifth graders would. However, one of the benefits of reading books like this one with advanced vocabulary is how it enriches and expands the breadth of knowledge of its readers. So while this book is a bit too young for young adult readers and perhaps a bit too sophisticated for 3rd and 4th grade readers, it should fit quite nicely in the niche of middle grade books for fifth through eighth graders.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Dial Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.