There are few authors that can make me feel like a thirteen-year-old discovering the fantasies of Tamora Pierce or Tanith Lee for the first time. Sophia Black has certainly joined their ranks with her debut novel.
The shining star of Strongstuck is clearly its lead, Isabel. Sophia Black maintains an excellent balance of showcasing a realistic young girl and a clear heroine in the making. For example, she's not afraid to be quippy or confrontational like most teenagers, but are there are times where that does more damage than it does good, so Isabel has to deal with the consequences. Her workarounds to problems, especially when she begins using her powers, likewise mirror her personality. As such, her magic itself feels very organic to the setting, and never once feeling like some sort of overpowered Chosen One narrative. It's extremely refreshing amidst a hoard of YA fantasies that do just that.
The story itself is serviceable. While it is no Game of Thrones, I did find it hard to put the book down once I was sucked into the story, as almost every chapter seemed to have some sort of plot twist ready to spring itself on Isabel and her party. Isabel's storytelling powers added a level of unpredictability to the story, as she frequently comes up with interesting solutions to typical fantasy clichés. Similarly, the supporting cast isn't groundbreaking, but they have strong enough personalities and motivations to keep the reader from losing interest.
However, the story does have flaws. In particular, there is a distinct lack of world-building in the text. Perhaps the intention was to give the story a timeless fairy-tale like veneer, but the lack of solid details about world of Illusia end up throwing off the overall flow of the story. There is simply too much dialogue and no true sense of scale, especially so during the first third of the story. It's not until half-way through that the action-dialogue ratio balances itself out.
Related to the world building issue, while it's clear that the "real world" is in the past, I couldn't tell if Isabel was supposed to be from the Middles Ages, the Victorian era, or somewhere in between. Due to the lack of detail, I couldn't even figure out where Isabel was supposed to be from--England? Greece? Mexico? It's certainly jarring that a young girl who has never left her little village before wouldn't react more to her new surroundings, especially when castles start popping up. While I do like that Isabel takes everything in stride, it does take away from how she ultimately ties up the loose ends in her home world.
Nonetheless, the meat of story is strong when it matters most. Stongstruck is an enjoyable adventure that's suitable for readers of all ages.