Reviewed by Robert Runté
If you've already read The Hollow Boys (book 1 in the Dream Rider saga), you don't need me to tell you to buy the sequel (except to say that it was published in March and is now available). If you are new to the trilogy, Smith insists that you read Book 1 first: this is a single mystery written across three books, with Book 2, The Crystal Key, picking up directly a few weeks after the climactic events of The Hollow Boys. Although Smith provides some backstory, the reader must keep the momentum going from Book 1 to land in The Crystal Key.
With The Hollow Boys, I was slow to realize I was reading a text-based superhero story; knowing that, Smith surprised me again with The Crystal Key, tapping into my deep nostalgia for Saturday matinee serials. The opening scene in particular put me right in the middle of episode 12 of, say, Radar Men from the Moon. Or, if you grew up a few generations later, the banquet scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Smith manages to perfectly capture the summer I was 13, hunkered down on the basement couch reading The Black Dwarf of Outer Mongolia - only without the overt racism and stilted dialogue of that era. . or the banquet scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Smith manages to update the genre with an ethnically diverse cast and strong female characters. Smith's take on superheroes and serials is both modern and original, but it recreates the same energy, the same yearning for superpowers, the same subconscious fear of dark places and boogeymen as the best stories of our own remembered youth. High adventure leavened with romance and mystery. Perfect for any 13-year-old looking for a summer read, or any 70-year-old looking to be 13 again for a while.
As the title suggests, the McGuffin here is an ancient crystal, the key to the mysterious disappearance of our hero's parents, his own superpowers, and the various factions vying to kill him. Finding it, figuring out what it does, how it works, who else wants it, what they want it for, and what they are willing to do to get it, keeps things moving at a fast clip. No spoilers, so all I can say about the plot is that it involves the multiverse, astral travel, ancient cults, hypnotic powers, criminal gangs, private mercenaries, romance, and betrayal. In other words, the whole 1950-60s Saturday matinee movie package.
The other thing Smith nails perfectly is the outside observer. Effective mysteries have to lead the hero(s) through a series of incremental steps to a point where they (and now the audience) know what's going on, but no one else could possibly believe it. The really great versions, as here, introduce the "Wait, what?" character, the outsider who arrives late in the story and, lacking those earlier experiences, is suitably discombobulated often to comic effect. Smith's subplot of the intrepid reporter confronted with an inexplicable-and ultimately unreportable-story is a textbook example of this outsider-observer technique.
My only complaint is that, for the sake of brevity, Smith occasionally lapses into explaining what various characters are feeling rather than showing us. This is especially noticeable with the two leads, who are constantly worrying about their relationship with the other -- but to be fair, I was probably that obsessed with relationships at that age, so okay, I'm willing to give Smith a pass on that one.
Overall, great fun. While it is common for the middle of a novel, or the middle book of a trilogy, to drag a bit, that is definitely not the case here. The Crystal Key has everything that made The Hollow Boys work and turns it up a few notches. I can't wait for the conclusion in The Lost Expedition, which is coming soon.
The Crystal Key is published by Spiral Path Books.
Book 1 of the Dream Rider Saga, The Hollow Boys, has been shortlisted for the Aurora Award for Best Canadian YA SF&F of 2022.