Series Review: The Harwood Mysteries by Antony Barone Kolenc

Posted January 8, 2024 by meezcarrie in Antony Barone Kolenc, Book Review, children, Christian, historical, middle grade, mystery/suspense, YA / 1 Comment


The Harwood Mysteries series review

The Harwood Mysteries have been on my TBR list ever since I first featured Antony Barone Kolenc on the blog. This medieval mystery series for upper middle graders through middle schoolers & teens (it grows with the readers as the main character ages) has won copious awards – including the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards, Illumination Book Awards, and the ACP Excellence in Publishing Awards. If you’re looking for a series, written from a Christian worldview, that can engage the whole family, this is it! It’s the perfect choice for fans of Andrew Peterson and/or classic authors like Lloyd Alexander, Gerald Morris, Brian Jacques, and Marguerite de Angeli. As a bonus, make sure to check out the curriculum companions on the series website.


Shadow in the Dark by Antony Barone KolencSHADOW IN THE DARK by Antony Barone Kolenc
SERIES:
The Harwood Mysteries #1

GENRE: Middle School/YA Medieval Mystery (Christian)
PUBLISHER: Loyola Press
RELEASE DATE: July 13, 2020
PAGES: 205

An attack by bandits in the middle of the night leaves a young boy with no memory of who he is or where he is from. Nursed back to health by the devoted monks in a Benedictine abbey, he takes the name Alexander, or Xan for short. Aided by the kindly Brother Andrew, Xan commits himself to finding out who he really is.

Does he have a family? Are they still alive?

And who–or what–is the shadowy figure creeping around the abbey in the dead of night?

 

Shadow in the Dark introduces us to the endearing Alexander, a young boy whose whole world is turned upside down by a gang of murderous bandits, leaving him wounded – with no memories – as our story begins. Fortunately for Xan, and for readers, he is taken into the care of a nearby Benedictine abbey where he befriends Brother Andrew (who becomes his mentor too) and a young girl – Lucy – who is staying at the adjacent convent. This inimitable trio tackles a variety of issues relevant to the time period, providing an entertaining learning experience for young readers, and Xan quickly proves himself to be a boy of cleverness and courage. I really loved these characters, not to mention the supporting cast that includes a grumpy monk who may not be what he seems, an adorable orphan boy who looks up to Xan, a friendly nun, and even a bully.

The mystery in Shadow in the Dark is more than just who Xan really is and how he came to be at the Abbey, though that certainly plays a significant role. There’s also a mysterious figure that can be seen skulking around the abbey grounds each night. This story is full of adventure and intrigue, as well as solid faith lessons in forgiveness, grace, and trusting God – lessons that continue throughout the series. No pat answers here, either; Xan struggles realistically with areas of spiritual growth that challenge adults as well. Kolenc doesn’t dumb down the sins or violence of the time period (not so very different from the ones in our own), but he also handles them in an age-appropriate manner.

Bottom Line: Shadow in the Dark by Antony Barone Kolenc is an entertaining mystery full of layered characters and a plot that captures the imagination. Readers will be drawn into this compelling story right from the beginning and they will stay invested in the outcome. While the third person narrative is written from the perspective of a young boy, the writing is elevated enough to appeal to adults and accessible enough for upper elementary, tween & teen readers at the same time. The spiritual message is woven naturally through the story, and the historical backdrop of medieval England is well-researched and engagingly drawn. This would be a great resource for homeschoolers as well as a delightful addition to any family’s library.

(I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book which I received from the author. All views expressed are only my honest opinion.)

My Rating: 4 stars / loved it!

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The Haunted Cathedral by Antony Barone KolencTHE HAUNTED CATHEDRAL by Antony Barone Kolenc
SERIES:
The Harwood Mysteries #2

GENRE: Middle School/YA Medieval Mystery (Christian)
PUBLISHER: Loyola Press
RELEASE DATE: February 1, 2021
PAGES: 210

An ill-fated journey, a long-lost uncle, and a mysterious cathedral mark the next chapter in the life of Xan, an orphan in search of his destiny. For a year, he has lived in the care of Benedictine monks at Harwood Abbey. Now he learns that he has an uncle, said to live in the far-off city of Lincoln.

Will Xan survive the trip alongside the prisoner Carlo and his cruel guards?
Will he find Uncle William?
And why is Xan drawn to the spirit that haunts Lincoln Cathedral–could a ghost reconnect Xan with his dead parents?

Join Xan and his friends to solve the mystery of The Haunted Cathedral.

 

A lot happened to Xan and his friends in Shadow in the Dark. A year has passed since Xan first entered the abbey’s care, and he has settled in to the routine and comfort it provides while also continuing to learn more about God and grow closer to him. However, as this second novel in Antony Barone Kolenc’s middle school series begins, we also see some of Xan’s weaknesses – particularly grumpiness and bitterness. A surprising twist of fate, however, sends him on a new adventure and helps refine those rough edges in The Haunted Cathedral.

With continued depth and insight, Kolenc takes Xan and Brother Andrew – and readers – away from the bubble of the abbey in search of Xan’s uncle. They are accompanied by a prisoner who tests Xan’s rubber-meets-the-road faith – and would challenge the same for any of us, I dare say. This particular test of faith is not something that’s addressed a lot in books for tweens/teens but it needs to be, and I’m really glad that Kolenc has chosen to do so in Xan’s compelling, ongoing journey. I was delighted to be reunited with Lucy, too, and was glad to spend more time than expected with her in this book. We’re also joined by new friends Father Phillip, Simon, and Christina. These new characters add further depth to the story and to Xan’s relationships, and they made the perfect co-investigators for this new mystery.

Bottom Line: An escaped bandit, an ancient crypt, a secret treasure, and a cathedral plagued by eerie noises and troubling tremors… these elements all comprise different facets of a mystery that Xan must solve in The Haunted Cathedral, even as he tries to find his uncle (who has his own issues to add to Xan’s already full plate). Kolenc continues to craft a compelling story with an engaging writing voice that appeals to all ages, and he gives us characters we can easily embrace as friends. Once again, the spiritual lessons on these pages are intrinsic to the story, and the historical setting gives interesting insight into the medieval era. Another entertaining adventure with Xan and his ever-growing circle of friends.

(I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book which I received from the author. All views expressed are only my honest opinion.)

My Rating: 4 stars / loved it!

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The Fire of Eden by Antony Barone KolencTHE FIRE OF EDEN by Antony Barone Kolenc
SERIES:
The Harwood Mysteries #3

GENRE: Middle School/YA Medieval Mystery (Christian)
PUBLISHER: Loyola Press
RELEASE DATE: July 13, 2021
PAGES: 210

 

Antony Barone Kolenc continues to impress me with this deeply-layered and immersive series for tweens/teens that can be enjoyed by adults too! In The Fire of Eden, we watch Xan make some tough decisions – for which he seeks discernment and wisdom from God – but we also see him stumble personally (and wound others) because of his own pride. This juxtaposition of maturity in some areas and continued need for growth in others makes Xan all the more relatable to all of us who live in the same tension of the sanctification process. It’s an important message to put into the hands of youth now – while they are young – so they can see what an authentic journey of growing in Christ looks like vs. the social media facade that so often dominates. That, while we inevitably fail, as long as we live we are never too far from Him to correct our mistakes and pursue Him with our whole hearts.

I loved being back at Harwood Abbey – however briefly – in this book after our detour to Lincoln in book two. (Don’t get me wrong, I liked visiting Lincoln. There’s just something special about this abbey.) The monks here, while not perfect, seem to have a heart for following after God. This is in stark contrast to the more worldly monks at Grenton Prior where a contingency from Harwood – including Xan and a newly-blinded John (the bully we met in book one) – travel for Brother Andrew to be ordained as a priest. Kolenc accomplishes this important contrast with much grace and without condemning the other monks, but gently showing them that there is a better way. More valuable lessons – several to unpack there – for youth to learn early. And John… I loved the character growth we see in both him and Xan – and their relationship – in this book! It’s not easy or quick or ‘pat’ – but it’s so worth the effort in the end. Oh! And I can’t forget to mention the foundling twins at Grenton – they are so endearing! I would love to read a spin-off series featuring those two!

Bottom Line: The Fire of Eden by Antony Barone Kolenc entertains us with a missing ruby, strained family dynamics, spiritual lessons, friendship, and suspicious characters including a local legend and a curious beggar. The mystery on these pages will test the wit of Xan and his friends like never before, and readers young and old will enjoy trying to solve it alongside them. Kolenc hones and develops these characters in each new book with added layers and ongoing challenges, keeping readers coming back for more time with their faves. I look forward to hanging out with Xan, Lucy, and Brother Andrew again!

(I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book which I received from the author. All views expressed are only my honest opinion.)

My Rating: 4 stars / loved it!

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The Merchant's Curse by Antony Barone KolencTHE MERCHANT’S CURSE by Antony Barone Kolenc
SERIES:
The Harwood Mysteries #4

GENRE: Middle School/YA Medieval Mystery (Christian)
PUBLISHER: Loyola Press
RELEASE DATE: October 17, 2022
PAGES: 234

In this thrilling installment of the award-winning Harwood Mysteries series, Xan leaves the Abbey for far-away Lincoln to apprentice with his uncle. But he quickly learns that all is not well. Uncle William has fallen in debt to a heartless moneylender called the Master. Nigel, the reckless nephew of William’s business partner, has put them in danger by befriending an enemy of the King.

Why are the Master’s thugs lurking near Uncle William’s shop?

Does the disfigured woman in the marketplace really have power over life and death?

Will Nigel stop his dealings with a known traitor?

 

In The Merchant’s Curse, the storyline centers around Xan’s relationship with his Uncle William, whom we first met in The Haunted Cathedral. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t read book two yet, let’s just say that was a less than ideal situation for Xan. And though William’s dubious dealings with ‘the Master’ – and his financial distress – have supposedly been resolved, it was with more than a little hesitation that I watched Xan leave the abbey to live with William in this fourth book of Antony Barone Kolenc’s award-winning medieval mystery series for middle schoolers.

Xan continues to grow up in age as well as maturity, and we have some slightly stronger hints of romance potential tucked away in this book, too. (These feelings are not enough to totally gross out tween/teen boys but this particular subplot is important to decisions that Xan will need to make sooner or later.) His uncle’s business partner also has a nephew as his apprentice, but the differences between Xan and Nigel are like day and night. In fact, Nigel is sort-of the ‘anti-Xan’, allowing readers to see the rippling impact of our individual choices over time. In keeping with the eerier undertone of the Lincoln setting that we experienced in book two, The Merchant’s Curse also deals with the battle between good & evil a bit more overtly than the other books in this series. And I will say that if you or your reader have a sensitive stomach you may want to skim over the parts where two of our characters are violently ill. It’s not unnecessarily graphic but it’s not glossed over either.

Bottom Line: The Merchant’s Curse by Antony Barone Kolenc has it all – adventure, mystery, intrigue, friendship, faith, and even a little romance. The author excels at immersing readers in the heart of the story and creating layered characters that we love to read about, and our time spent in the pages of this book is no exception. Parents, if the mention of a witch and curses in other reviews makes you nervous, please don’t worry. All is not what it seems, a la Scooby Doo. Based on the events in this book, I am also very interested to see what Xan, Christina, William, Father Andrew, Father Phillip, and hopefully Lucy are up to next!

(I voluntarily reviewed a copy of this book which I purchased for my own collection. All views expressed are only my honest opinion.)

My Rating: 4 stars / loved it!

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Murder at Penwood Manor by Antony Barone KolencMURDER AT PENWOOD MANOR by Antony Barone Kolenc
SERIES:
The Harwood Mysteries #5

GENRE: Middle School/YA Medieval Mystery (Christian)
PUBLISHER: Loyola Press
RELEASE DATE: October 24, 2023
PAGES: 248

Xan and Christina embark on a journey to Harwood Abbey, where they reunite with their old friends, Lucy and Joshua. When a brutal murder occurs at nearby Penwood Manor, all evidence points to Laurence, a Crusader recently returned from the Holy Land. Unconvinced of the man’s guilt, Xan and his friends must act swiftly to solve the crime.

Who could have committed such a horrible killing, and is anyone safe?
Is Laurence tormented by demons, or is he haunted by some other secret?
And will Xan be forever changed by the choice Lucy and Christina present to him?

 

In Murder at Penwood Manor, Xan is once again reunited with his friends at Harwood Abbey (and so are we!), including John, Joshua, Brother Leo, Father Andrew, and of course our dear Lucy. I haven’t said it much yet in my reviews of the other books but I love the character of Lucy so much! Christina has grown on me – and she as well as Father Phillip and Uncle William join Xan on his trip to the abbey – but Lucy is still my favorite. Along those lines, Xan has some choices to make where his heart is concerned, though I’m wondering if all is settled there for sure.

As this book’s title would suggest, we also get to spend some time with the people of Penwood Manor which is where the murder mystery begins. I enjoyed the variety of characters in this new setting, their different personalities and backstories making the list of possible suspects a long one. Like with The Fire of Eden, Xan’s puzzle-solving abilities are stretched to their limit in this fifth book. He must work hard with his friends to prove that the crusader with ‘fits’ is innocent of the murder, and while the clues are there in hindsight it’s not so obvious when you’re in the thick of it. Translated: this one kept me on my investigative toes too!

Bottom Line: Over the course of the five books released so far in The Harwood Mysteries by Antony Barone Kolenc, we have watched Xan grow from a frightened young boy into a young man. He is still just as endearing though as he was when we first met him, and it’s always entertaining to join him on his mystery-solving adventures! Murder at Penwood Manor shows further growth in young Xan as well as his friends, and I enjoyed the various dimensions to the plot – the murder-solving, the relationship developments, the personal growth, and the spiritual lessons (including the perils of envy) that we get to witness. The writing style is, as always, engaging and easy to read, and I look forward to whatever comes next!

(I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book which I received from the author. All views expressed are only my honest opinion.)

My Rating: 4 stars / loved it!

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Antony Barone Kolenc

Antony Barone Kolenc is a law professor, podcaster, speaker, and author of award-winning fiction and non-fiction.

He writes The Harwood Mysteries: an award-winning medieval historical fiction series for youth published by Loyola Press. He is the host of The Shepherd’s Pie, an ecumenical radio show and podcast that focuses on applying faith to our messy lives. He also writes short stories and pens a regular legal column in Practical Homeschooling Magazine.

In his professional life, Tony teaches at Ave Maria School of Law. He also authors legal casebooks, book chapters, and journal articles on matters of constitutional law, homeschooling law, and military policy. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps after 21 years of military service, where he litigated civil and criminal cases before trial and appellate courts and taught at the Air Force Academy.

He and his wife, Alisa, homeschooled their five children. Connect with Tony at his website.


What about you? What makes you want to read The Harwood Mysteries by Antony Barone Kolenc?

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One response to “Series Review: The Harwood Mysteries by Antony Barone Kolenc

  1. Lesley

    Thank you for reviewing these books! I’m always looking for good reads for my 8 year old nephew (he’s already reading chapter books). I’ll be sure to give these a try.

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