Vivian Van Tassel is an angry young teen. Part of this is justified: her mom recently died and she blames herself. But as we quickly learn, Vivian has had a temper for a while (and as a parent, I’m genuinely concerned that she’s never been in therapy for this, either before or after what happened to her mom.)
Anyway, it doesn’t help her any when her journalist father decides they ought to leave their Chicago home and move back to her mom’s hometown of Midnight Lake, Wisconsin. Her mom’s ancestral home is falling down and her hapless father has little clue how to fix anything, and has taken a significant pay cut to come work at the local paper besides. Starting at the middle school is awkward enough even without the popular Amber Grausman deciding she hates Vivian. The school is a converted sanatorium, and the teachers almost uniformly mean. The few bright sparks are an understanding history teacher named Miss Greenleaf and a group of welcoming nerds who play the role-playing game Beasts & Battlements (B&B for short) that was actually written and designed in Midnight Lake decades ago by the late Garrison Arnold.
When Miss Greenleaf assigns the kids to research various local institutions to drive home the impact of history on the living, Vivian begins to learn a lot more about the curious past of Midnight Lake. Worryingly, she begins to see parallels between historical incidents and the goings-on in the B&B game she’s been reluctantly observing. As people start to go missing and dead creatures begin to mysteriously appear, Vivian will find herself plunged deeper into the secrets of her new home, even as her own bad temper continues to get in her way.
My favorite part of this book was the B&B group, who were delightfully diverse and way more inclusive and understanding than the average group of gamers or of kids. I wish we’d been able to spend more time with them in this book, and hope that Snarfette eventually realizes what a colossal damage dealer she can be (rogue is my favorite class for a reason!) As a role-playing nerd, I enjoyed all the little Easter Eggs that were woven into this homage to that great grand-daddy of RPGs, Dungeons & Dragons, which was created by Gary Gygax in his hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. While D&D has its flaws, it’s inarguably popular, and anything that gets people into role-playing as a hobby is a net good, in my opinion.
I personally found Vivian hard to sympathize with, tho that’s less her fault than it is her parents’. The girl is ANGRY, and her parents never seemed to have any idea of how to cope with that. It helped to think of her as a barbarian (my second favorite RPG class,) and it was good to see her grow over the course of the book. I still found her B&B group to be far more interesting characters than she was, tho.
I was not a huge fan of all the Harry Potter references. My antipathy to the Scottish author aside, it felt weird to have so much of Vivian’s narrative be so fawningly dependent on real-world works, when D&D itself was so cleverly fictionalized. I can’t remember ever reading any other fantasy series that referenced another intellectual property so often: it was a surprise that that wasn’t lightly fictionalized, too. It also feels a bit like the book shooting itself in the foot with regards to expanding itself into other media, with the tangle of copyrights and trademarks that will entail.
Also, this book has the worst poetry I’ve ever read.
That aside, I enjoyed this middle-grade fantasy novel that clearly loves D&D and wants more people to discover its joys, too. The ending was great, and I loved the cleverly hidden puzzles as well as the little Stranger Things-type touches throughout. The cover is also tremendous, and will hopefully draw more girls and nonbinary kids into both fantasy novels and gaming.
Vivian Van Tassel And The Secret Of Midnight Lake by Michael Witwer was published August 29 2023 by Aladdin Paperbacks and is available from all good booksellers, including