Okay, I know you just stopped on the "very important music box" part. I know. Me too. It's really ... really ... unconvincing. Why would a ruler agree to a treaty only if they got a music box--even if it is a Fabergé-esque music box with an egg on top? Even if the other party wanted a token of good faith, a music box seems an odd choice. Personally, I would go with a sword or something. Something fancy yet useful. Anyway, enough about the music box. It's basically a MacGuffin.
Sasha was imprisoned in the ultra-scary, ultra-inescapable, ultra-gulagy Tyur'ma prison, where all the criminal children of the kingdom of Demidova are sent. It's a big prison, and it's chockful of kiddos. Which leads me to wonder what, exactly, are all these other kids in for? Sassing their parents? Eating an extra piece of bacon for breakfast? Because Sasha, Evil and Dangerous Music Box Thief, has been placed with the Black Hands, which is the scariest and most violent area of the prison. Oh noes! You really have to question the government of a country that has a special prison just for kids.
So in order to free her sister, Valor first has to get into prison. And what better way to assure her incarceration than to attempt to assassinate Anatol, the Crown Prince of Demidova, during a festival? Valor is an ace shot with a bow, so she's skilled enough to get close but never actually hurt the prince. Per her plan, she's sentenced by Queen Ana, who recently banished Valor's family for their other daughter's alleged theft, and sent to the prison for children that is so well-fortified that an army couldn't break in.
Once in prison, Valor doesn't initially get along with the other kid prisoners, like her roommate, who is introduced as having an issue with being dirty and makes everyone wash their hands. Except that only comes up twice in the novel and is then forgotten. This is not character development.
Valor heads out with the chain gangs to pick gems out of rock and do the laundry and other slavish work. Somehow, she's also able to steal things like a pickaxe and a piece of metal to use as a lockpick because Valor is Super Special. The rest of the novel involves Valor and Sasha attempting to escape the prison via Secret Tunnels that no one knows about except for Valor's dad. Along the way, they accumulate extra escapees despite being warned to trust no one, and one of their friends is definitely a traitor.
Isn't it a given when one character says "Trust no one!" and the main character does the exact opposite that someone is going to be a traitor?
Anyway, the actual escape is a rushed mess and leaves the book with at least 50 pages to go because it happens too early. We then have a second crisis wherein Valor confronts the real music box thief (I mean, if you didn't figure out that Sasha was innocent, then... I can't help you) and histrionics are had but then reason prevails and Valor and Sasha are rewarded. Happy ending!
In a middle grade book, I don't expect an intricate plot, but I do expect something that makes sense. The lack of characterization, particularly for the secondary characters, adds a lot of confusion. At the end, when everyone was escaping, I kept asking myself, "Who are these people? How are they all friends now?" The kids all have generic Russianesque names like Viktor or Katia or Nicolai (spelling from the book, not me) and have generic dialogue and fall into predefined roles, like the prickly person with a heart of gold, and the charming thief, and the cranky bossy girl.
Yes, there are good ideas in this story. I like that Valor is described as being tall and strong instead of the usual "I'm too skinny and delicate" aesthetic. I like the idea of Tyur'ma and its various punishments. The settings were rendered realistically, and the scene where Valor kills an entire wolf pack from the battlements of the prison is pretty cool.
Everyone who's read this so far seems to have loved it, and that's fine. I did not, which is also fine. I would consider this a secondary purchase.
P.S. Who names their daughter Valor in a vaguely Tsarist Russia-inspired fantasy land?