From the author of School for Sidekicks comes a witty and thoughtful middle-grade fantasy about the bonds of family and the strength of true friendship.
"Fans of Percy Jackson will be eager to hop into Kalvan’s world." The Bulletin
Kalvan Monroe is worried. Either he’s going mad or he really did wake up with uncontrollable fire magic and accidentally summon a snarky talking fire hare. (Yes, that’s right, a hare. Made of fire. That talks.) He’s got to be going crazy, right?
But if he’s not, then magic actually is real, and he’s got even more problems to worry about. Because Kalvan isn’t the only one with powers. The same fire magic that allows him to talk his way into and out of trouble burned too brightly in his mother, damaging her mind and leaving her vulnerable to the cold, manipulative spells of the Winter King.
Can Kalvan gain control of his power in time to save his mother, or will their fires be snuffed out forever?
Kelly McCullough combines Magic, Madness, and Mischiefas well as dangerin a delightful fantasy set in a magical version of St. Paul, Minnesota.
About the Author
Kelly McCullough is the author of School for Sidekicks and the adult fantasy series Webmage and Assassin's Blade. He lives in Wisconsin with his physics professor wife and a small herd of cats, all of whom he adores.
Read an Excerpt
FIRE RAN THROUGH all my dreams and I ran after it, the blackened ground crackling beneath my feet. It wasn't the first time I'd dreamed of chasing the fire. I dreamed the flames whenever we moved — eight times in my thirteen years on the planet — and when I'd started at my new school, and right before my mom married Oscar ...
And that was it; I was awake. I glanced at the clock — my mom was old-fashioned, like, still-reads-the-newspaper old-fashioned, and wasn't going to let me have a cell phone until I turned fifteen — 3:08 a.m., sigh. Might as well get a glass of milk and read for a while. I flipped back the covers and started to get out of bed.
That's when I discovered that the sound of the world starting to change is a sort of scratchy, scuffing rasp. It felt like there was sand on the floorboards.
What the heck?
I leaned over and flicked on my lamp. The soles of my feet were covered in gritty black powder. I ran a fingertip along my heel — soot, or something very like it. And more on my sheets. I started to freak out a little at that point, because I couldn't think of any reasonable explanation, and if there wasn't a reasonable explanation, then I might be going ...
I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. Leaping out of bed, I bolted for the bathroom. I made it as far as the kitchen before I almost tripped over my mother. She was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the kitchen, wearing a full-skirted red dress. All the houseplants were lined up in front of her, and she had a small trowel in one hand. She was singing:
"Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer true. I'm half —" She broke off as she noticed me.
"Oh, hello, Kalvan, what are you doing out of bed? I'm repotting the plants."
At three in the morning? I wanted to ask. But I didn't. It was a long way from the strangest thing she'd ever done. My stomach lurched again, and I forced myself to ignore it for the moment. Being gentle with Mom was much more important than my problems.
"What was that you were singing?" I asked.
"'Daisy Bell,' or 'On A Bicycle Built for Two' ... Well, one variation on it, anyway. I like to sing to the plants. They listen so well, and it helps them grow." She smiled her lopsided smile and rose to her feet, coming to put her hands on my shoulders and look down into my eyes. "Perhaps I should sing to you more often."
I snorted. Genevieve Munroe was a tall woman — much taller than me, her only child, though I hoped to catch up to her not quite six feet in the next year or two. She was also pale, almost shockingly so in contrast to the thick, soot-black hair that hung nearly to her waist. I was much darker — like my dad, she always said. But I had my mother's strange amber-brown eyes.
Strange. That was a good word for my mother. It covered everything from finding her repotting plants at three a.m. in what appeared to be a formal gown to her insistence on sending me to a series of weird schools that had culminated in the five years I'd now spent at the Free School of Saint Paul — a magnet program for the children of people who believed that traditional education stifled creativity. Most of all, strange was a kinder word than some I'd heard used to describe her.
My mother looked over my shoulder. "What on earth?"
I turned to follow her gaze and saw the trail of smudged black footprints leading back to my room. "Um ..."
She let go of my shoulders and stepped around me, squatting so that her red skirt pooled around her feet like a circle of fire. She ran a fingertip across one of the prints and lifted it to her nose, sniffing.
"Ash and char." She spoke as though she were remembering something from long ago and far away. She tilted her head to one side and half sang, "Ash and char, sun and star, wind and smoke, ash and oak ... No, that's not quite right. How did it go?"
She jerked as though startled. "Sorry, Kalvan, I got lost there for a moment."
"What was that you were saying?"
"Nothing, a couple of old rhymes your grandmother Elise used to sing to me at night. There was another one that felt the same even if it didn't sound it, but she only sang it on the solstice and the equinox and the turn of the seasons. She said it was important to keep an eye on the North's changing Crown, whatever that meant. Now, what was that other verse ... Summer's King, brings the birds a-wing, Winter's Queen, draws wolves so lean, Queen of sun, harvest done, King in ice, death's the price ... something like that, anyway.
"But there I go meandering again." She smiled and shook her head before rising to look down at me. "You had better go wash your feet while I clean up here. I don't think your stepfather would be very understanding about the ashes of burned dreams." She made a shooing motion. "Hop to it — tomorrow's a school day."
It wasn't until I was back in bed and half-asleep that I thought to wonder how my mother had known the soot came from my dreams, or to remember how freaked out I'd been about the whole thing before I talked to her. But then, my mother had that effect on me — making the odd feel normal, and the truly bizarre no more than passing strange. It could be scary.
Sometimes it seemed like she wasn't entirely of this world, like she'd wandered in from one of my books about wizards and elves and the misty lands of faerie. It made her a weird mix of fragile and frustrating. I spent half my time wishing I was something out of stories, too, so I could protect her, and half of it wanting to just be part of a normal family with normal problems. I tried to follow that thought further, but sleep had too strong a grip, and before I could chase it very far, I fell once more into dreams and darkness.
* * *
The harsh beeping of the alarm felt like someone poking me in the bridge of the nose with a fork, and I half fell out of bed in my rush to shut it off. Saying that morning is not my best time is like saying our Minnesota winters are not the warmest. Forty Below, meet Kalvan when he wakes up: you have a lot in common in the misery department.
That's why the clock was on top of my bookshelf on the far side of the room from my bed. If I can reach the snooze button without getting out from under the covers, I will keep hitting it over and over without ever actually waking up. I blinked at the clock now as I smacked it repeatedly in an effort to get it to shut up — 6:15 a.m.!
I felt a brief stab of panic. The bus came at 6:20, and there was no way I could even walk the five blocks to the stop in — Wait, Kalvan, think it through. The alarm went off at 6:15. That must mean I set it for 6:15, right? So, what was I thinking ... I shook my head and tried to clear out the worst of the cobwebs. Nope, nothing. I was going to miss my bus.
Just then, my stepdad, Oscar, stuck his head into my room. "Get a move on, Kalvan. Your mom's already gone, so I've got breakfast waiting on the table. We need to be out the door by six forty-five."
I blinked at him stupidly. "What?"
"Move!" he growled. Oscar spent a lot of his time growling. Well, when he wasn't snapping, snarling, or shouting, that is.
My stepfather had a temper on him, and zero patience. Add in that he was a big, burly man, and there was something very troll-like about him. That illusion seemed even stronger than usual this morning, as some trick of the light made his face look as if it were carved from granite and his eyes were as hard and cold as a pair of blue glass marbles. I blinked and rubbed my own eyes then. Red light flared across my vision like dancing flames, and I thought for a moment that I smelled smoke. When I looked at Oscar a second time, he looked even more like a man of stone.
He frowned, and it seemed a miracle that granite could move like that. "Come on, speed it up." Then he was gone from my doorway.
His words came out as a command, and I found myself moving to obey without really thinking about it. Grabbing a pair of socks, some jeans, and a T-shirt from the pile of clean clothes my mother had left on my dresser, I bolted for the shower. I snagged my egg-and-bagel sandwich off the kitchen table as I went by and wolfed it down while I waited for the water to get warm.
After a few minutes, the fact that I had simply done as told like some kind of zombie finally registered and I shook my head angrily. I didn't like that one bit, but I still hadn't sorted out what was going on, and I tried not to fight with Oscar unless I had a very good reason. Especially in the morning when I'm stupid and slow. I can win an argument with him, but I have to think fast and make a good case ... And even when I do win, the end result can look a lot like losing.
Five minutes later I was hopping around as I tried to get my still-damp foot to go the right way into my pants leg. Shirt was next, and then socks. Brushing my teeth ate up a few more precious minutes. When I came out of the bathroom, Oscar was waiting impatiently in the back hall, though he looked human again. Oscar works for a civil engineering firm specializing in highway projects, and he had on the retroreflective vest he always wore for on-site stuff.
That's when I finally woke up enough to remember what the late start was all about — Oscar's current project was in the same direction as my school, which meant he could drop me off along the way. That saved me an hour and change on the bus and bought me an extra twenty minutes in the sack.
"About time!" He tossed me my backpack, which I quickly slung over one shoulder. "Why your mother lets you sleep that close to when you have to leave, I'll never understand."
Because she's got even stranger sleep habits than I do? Because she knows that even fifteen more minutes on the morning side of things makes a huge difference in how well I deal with the rest of the day? Because she's a better person than you are? Of course, I said none of that.
It would only have made Oscar grumpier than he already was, which he would take out on me now and Mom later. Instead, I grabbed a jacket off the coat tree and opened the door for my stepfather. We didn't get along very well, and I had no idea what my mom saw in him, but she needed stability in her life. Oscar was nothing if not stable and predictable, kind of like that geyser at Yellowstone, Old Faithful — right down to the eruptions you could set your watch by.
Oscar and I didn't talk on the way to school — we'd both figured out long ago that us talking in the morning always ended badly. I just slipped into the passenger seat of his big gray Crown Victoria and pulled out a book. Mercifully, it was a brief ride — ten minutes to my downtown school. The janitor was just unlocking the doors as I got there, and he smiled at my sleepy wave.
Score one for weird schools. At a normal school, I'd have had to wait in the office or something until more of the teachers got there, but freedom and personal responsibility are what the Free School is all about. So, I was able to head up to my advisor's homeroom — which was also the school's black box theater — and crash out on a beanbag chair for another forty minutes of catnapping.
* * *
At lunch I couldn't bear the thought of spending any more time inside than I had to. So, I headed for the playground in back of the old high school building, which the Free School had taken over. There were probably a dozen other kids heading the same way. Most of them had bag lunches and wanted a chance to hang out in the sun instead of the cafeteria. Others were skipping lunch, or trying to catch a quick game of pickup basketball before heading back in.
At the Free School, lunch is an open period for everybody and you can do pretty much whatever you want, though eating is strongly encouraged. Hmm ... maybe I should explain open periods for those of you who went to regular schools. At Free we put together our own schedule in consultation with our parents and advisors.
You have to learn all the stuff you would at a regular school, but not necessarily in the same order, or in class. So, if you're reading above your grade level, they won't make you take a class with other kids your age. They'll let you test out of it and offer you the chance to take a literature or drama class a couple of grades ahead so you stay challenged.
They're also super into "unstructured time," or open periods. Everybody has at least one class hour a day that's not scheduled. Some kids use it to play games, or read a book, or write software — whatever you're into. In addition, everybody gets to run a bit wild at lunch.
When I got outside, I saw my best friend, Dave, already sitting on the broad concrete railing that surrounded the playground, a science fiction novel in one hand — books were one of the things we had in common. He waved and smiled as I got closer, and I couldn't help but grin back at him. We'd been tight for about three years now, and he's the sunniest person I know. I'd never understood the idea of an infectious smile until I met Dave. He's got these ridiculously white teeth and skin a couple of shades darker than mine that really makes them shine, and you just can't help but smile with him.
"Hey, Kalvan. Is it Monday enough for you?"
I shook my head ruefully. "I am soooo not ready for it to be the second week of school. What happened to summer?"
"Poof!" He made a popping gesture with his fingers. "But I bet we could grab a bit of it back, if we wanted to ..." He jerked his chin toward the big wooded hill to the north of the school.
I knew immediately what he was thinking. The hill was the perfect place to sit and read or talk on a sunny afternoon. We'd discovered that the previous school year. And, to be honest, the idea of slipping off for a bit had been in the back of my mind from the moment I'd decided to head for the playground. Things always go chaotic around noon because of lunch and the fact that it's the time of day when a lot of the older kids go off to internships or classes at the local college. People are coming and going like crazy, with kids everywhere doing all kinds of things. It's hard for the teachers to keep track of everybody, which makes it the perfect time to skip out of school for a bit. And this was one of the best places to make the break.
I hopped up onto the concrete beside Dave and pulled a book out of my backpack. We chatted and pretended to read while keeping an eye on Pete — the teacher monitoring the playground. When he went to break up an argument among the basketball players, I rolled off the low railing, hooked my backpack over one shoulder, and dashed across a bit of open lawn to drop into the ditch that ran behind the gym. Dave was right behind me.
The school is built on a steep slope and the ditch keeps the building from flooding. It also makes a great escape route. There aren't many windows on the gym side of the school, and you're much less likely to be spotted going out that way. Now, all we needed to do to make it clean away was duck around the corner and into the hedges that separated the school from the government buildings around the capitol and ...
"Hello, Kalvan, Dave." I froze as, turning the corner, we nearly ran smack into our principal, Aaron Washington — a tall, black, balding man, though still fit for his age. "Where are you headed on this lovely day?" He smiled as he asked the question, but I knew we'd be in trouble if we couldn't come up with a good answer.
I quickly held up the book I hadn't yet put away. "We were just trying to find a quiet spot to read." As I spoke, I felt a strange heat at the back of my throat, like cocoa on a cold night, or a campfire in the darkness.
"Not planning on sneaking off school grounds, I hope."
I wanted to say no and look innocent, but my mouth didn't want to listen to me. "Thinking about it," I replied with a broad smile as the heat spread from my throat to my lips and tongue. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Dave giving me a what-are-you-doing! look — I ignored it. "But we weren't going to sneak off very far, Aaron."
Calling all our teachers and even the principal by their first names was among the hardest things I'd had to learn when I first started at the Free School, but that was one of many tricks the school used to "break down habits of authority." Aaron raised an eyebrow at that, but didn't say anything.
I lowered my voice conspiratorially. "If you follow this hedge back up the slope, you can get to the stoplight behind the court building — which is the safest place to cross over to the big hill." I pointed at the top of a steeply wooded slope visible above the building behind the school. "There's a spot just below the brow of the hill where the afternoon sun is perfect for reading." I shook my book gently.
Aaron's other eyebrow went up, and Dave looked positively gobsmacked. "That's very ... honest of you. I take it you two've been there before."
I smiled fire and nodded. "It's one of the places Evelyn" — our drama teacher — "takes her roving theater class to work outside. She says the natural setting helps put our minds in a different place from the school environment. She also has us pick up trash as part of our service-to-community requirements."
Excerpted from "Magic, Madness, and Mischief"
Copyright © 2018 Kelly McCullough.
Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Fire's Child,
2. Burning Hare and Other Worries,
3. Hare, There, and Everywhere,
4. Elementally Yours,
5. Rabbit, Aim, Fire!,
6. Red Haring,
7. Muskrat, Packrat, Give the Hare a Bone,
8. Bad Hare Day,
9. Mischief's Child,
10. Long Day's Bunny into Night,
11. Smoke and Mirrors,
12. The Redcoats Are Coming,
13. Fire Fur and Foul Weather,
14. Drowning Season,
15. Fireship Down,
17. Red Rabbit Rising,
18. Down Deep,
19. A Midwinter Night's Hare,
20. Burning the Candle at Both Ends,
About the Author,