REVIEW: “They Set the Fire” by Daniel Kraus

Both of the previous entries in Daniel Kraus’s The Teddies Saga have easily ranked among my favorite reads of the past few years. They’ve consistently delivered a great mixture of adventure, mystique, and horror. But as any reader knows, an ending can often make or break a story. So, there was a lot riding on They Set the Fire, the final entry in The Teddies Saga. But I’m happy to say that They Set the Fire is as perfect an ending as you can hope for. By far the most horrific entry in the series, They Set the Fire pushes the boundaries of what’s appropriate for middle-grade novels about as far as it can, but it never strays too far from what makes the genre work. It’s a scary, action-packed, and deeply emotional read. But it’s also one that brings the series’ overarching storyline to a very satisfying conclusion.

They Set the Fire picks up immediately where They Stole Our Hearts ended. Buddy, Sunny, Reginald, and Nothing meet the newly-awakened Proto, hoping he can finally answer the questions that have haunted them for so long. And, in a way, he can. But those answers require yet another journey, one that leads them to the very center of the city. For inside the Courthouse, the Suit is on trial accused of the very crime that led to the world’s hatred of the Furrington Teddies. But before the Teddies can finally get the answers they seek, they have to get through all the protestors gathered outside the courthouse. Protestors that hate everything about the Teddies. It’s a threat unlike any the Teddies have yet faced – but one which might finally provide the closure they’ve longed for.

They Set the Fire delivers a fast-paced, emotionally satisfying conclusion that neatly ties up every one of The Teddies Saga’s loose ends. From page one, things get off to a roar of a start, and Kraus never takes his foot off the pedal. He crams as much as he can into the book’s relatively short page count, but it never feels rushed. Instead, it reads as the culmination of three books’ worth of stories, with more than enough room to deftly explore all the avenues such a culmination requires. Obviously, I can’t go into any details about the book’s bigger revelations or character beats. But what I will say is that, underneath all the grander revelations, it’s a story about growing up. About how hard it is to grow up, but also how immensely rewarding it is. And that might just be my favorite part of the book.

One of the (admittedly few) problems with They Stole Our Hearts, the previous book in The Teddies Saga, was the lack of focus given to the book’s characters. But They Set the Fire goes a long way toward fixing that mistake. Buddy’s certainly still the main character here, and easily gets the vast majority of the attention once again. Here, Buddy feels the pains of growing up. He’s a teddy who’s been changed by the world around him – both for the better and for the worse. And the more the world changes him, the more Buddy realizes things can never remain the way they were. But how do you cope with that? How do you open yourself up to that change and allow yourself to keep growing? That’s the question at the heart of the book, and it’s one that Kraus explores to great effect.

It’s not just Buddy struggling with this concept, though, but the rest of the Teddies too, each in their own ways. Kraus does an excellent job at using this universal theme as a way to help even the smallest of supporting characters feel like fully-rounded characters. Sunny, in particular, goes on quite an arc here, but to say any more about that would definitely be too spoilery. Overall, They Set the Fire does right by its characters, giving each of them ample time to shine and develop. You’ll walk away feeling very satisfied with where Kraus takes these characters, and that’s a very nice feeling to have.

It’s also worth pointing out just how dark this book is. To be fair, it’s not like the previous Teddies Saga books haven’t flirted with darkness. But They Set the Fire operates on a whole different level. There’s some imagery in here that would prove shocking to even the most seasoned horror fan. Part of what makes the book so scary is the way it combines the childlike innocence of the teddy bears with the harsh, cruelty of the world. The same elements that made movies like Toy Story 3 so upsetting are exactly what make They Set the Fire so inherently horrific. Again, I can’t go into too many details here about what, specifically, makes this book so scary, but there were multiple times I had to briefly put the book down and allow myself to mentally decompress a bit.

That being said, it’s not like the book is wildly inappropriate or anything. It’s very similar in both tone and subject matter to works like Neil Gaiman’s Coraline or Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. These are all books that sort of blur the line between what’s considered “children’s literature” and what might be considered YA or adult fare. And there’s a genuine joy to be had in that. As a kid, I always found myself drawn to those kinds of stories. The ones that felt a little dangerous to read, that might be just a bit too scary or too adult for me. And that’s very much how They Set the Fire feels. Kraus is careful not to make things too intense or too alienating for his audience. But you can definitely feel the influence of some of his other work find its way into this book.

Overall, I absolutely adored They Set the Fire from start to finish. It’s every bit as good as the previous two books in The Teddies Saga, if not better. It’s a fast-paced adventure, filled with enough twists, turns, and emotional gut punches to make even the most adult stories quiver in fear. While it’s scarier than the previous entries, it never feels gratuitous or ventures into anything that’s too frightening. And above all else, They Set the Fire is a rip-roaringly fun time. It’s an immensely satisfying read that’s sure to stick with you long after you finish it. Whether you’re a young reader or just a reader who’s young at heart, They Set the Fire is a must-read in every sense of the phrase.

They Set the Fire is available now in hardcover and ebook formats.

Disclaimer: A review copy of They Set the Fire was provided by Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group/Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) and NetGalley. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.

Note: this review was also posted on Geek Vibes Nation.

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