Tag Archives: high fantasy

Book Reviews: Dragonbreath is My Tonic for a Pandemic Reading Slump

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Continuing my quest for books that are enough like cotton candy that I can handle them in the middle of a pandemic, I stumbled across the Dragonbreath series in late September, and was very pleasantly surprised.  This series has been my best pandemic companion so far.

Danny Dragonbreath, a dragon with an overactive imagination and a predilection for cult movie genres, living in a suburban American community of less mythical reptiles and amphibians, has to struggle through the trials of middle school—homework, bullies, questionable cafeteria food….  His best friend, Wendell, an iguana and a straight-A student, is by his side—despite the many adventures and trips to the emergency room.  The protagonists’ relationship dynamic is one that I enjoy a great deal: the impulsive, reckless daredevil and the worried, doubtful, loyal friend. 

The parents too are individuals.  I enjoy that they have their own lives and quirks and are not just vehicles for the plot, not just support for (or hindrance to) Danny, and I like that his two parents complement one another and seem to have a good, working partnership.  Also Mrs. Dragonbreath is me in the morning.

The books blend adventure with the school story, fantasy with nonfiction (they squeeze in factoids among ninja frogs and were-wieners, making me feel like I do learn and that the books aren’t total cotton candy), and prose with the graphic novel format, where the prose occasionally breaks for an often very expressive bit of illustration with dialogue in speech bubbles and the text is sometimes broken by a full or partial page illustration.  The color palette is simple: primarily black, white, and shades of green. 

These are pretty nearly exactly what I’ve needed during this pandemic.  They are light.  They are ridiculous.  But there is enough plot that I feel that there are stakes, that the story has a reason to exist beyond laughs.  I began reading these mostly at night on my phone while battling insomnia, but once I read all that the Libby app had to offer, I moved on to print copies in the daytime.

Although I think that they’d read fairly easily independently of one another, successive books reference early ones. The first five books teach 1) marine life and oceanic geography 2) ninjas and samurai 3) werewolf mythology 4) Zapotec mythology and bat biology and lifestyles 5) the fraud of spiritualism and ghost stories from around the world.

SPOILERS.

Dragonbreath, Book 1.  2009.

Danny Dragonbreath is given the chance to rewrite a paper, but no way is going to read a book to learn about the ocean.  Instead, he’s going to the mythical Sargasso Sea to visit his cousin the sea serpent.  And Wendell is coming too.  Edward takes the two on a tour of the ocean, a mostly educational foray until in a deep-sea trench they are attacked by a giant squid and the book becomes more of an adventure as they have to be saved by Edward’s friend, a sperm whale.

Book 2: Attack of the Ninja Frogs.  2010.

Wendell is crushing on the foreign exchange student, Suki, and Danny is less than pleased about Wendell’s attempts to coax a girl to join them in the lunchroom.  A scream in the park after school draws Danny and Wendell to the rescue—because the chance to be a hero isn’t to be ignored, and maybe they’ll find an adult to help them on the way.  They find Suki fighting off two ninja frogs, who when Danny and Wendell arrive flee, leaving Suki behind.  Suki doesn’t know what to do about the ninjas, who seem to be stalking her.  Danny takes her to mythical Japan to visit his great-grandfather and learn about samurai and ninjas. They allow themselves to be captured by the ninjas to lead a group of samurai to the ninjas’ hideout.

Although this parodies ninja films far more than any kind of Japanese history or even (I think) any Japanese mythology, Vernon still finds time to squeeze in a few factoids about historical ninjas and samurai. 

Although Danny’s views of girls are disappointing, I like Suki herself as a character.  Also disappointing was the implication that a boy identifying in a way that is historically feminine is worthy of derision.  I have not seen that called out as much as I have Danny’s aversion to associating with a girl.  It was only this one page, but rereading this book, that moment was a gut-punch.

Book 3: Curse of the Were-wiener.  2010.

The tale of suspect cafeteria food continues.  Wendell is bitten by a disturbingly red hot dog served to Danny in the school cafeteria.  He and many other members of the student body begin to sprout hair all over his body, which itches terribly.  Sneaking into the school kitchen, Danny discovers the packaging for the wieners, Transylvanian were-wieners that are known to have caused lycanthropy.  The company’s toll free number, however, provides them with little help but the information that they can cure Wendell and the others if they kill the alpha.  Danny and Wendell travel to the sewers to enlist the help of the animate potato salad that Danny released in the first book and get help from the rats that treat the potato salad reverentially and have been adding to its mass with tributes.  But their quest is a race against the clock because in three days Wendell and the others infected by the rogue were-wieners will be under the sway of the alpha wurst, determined to protect the alpha and unable to be cured of their lycanthropy.

Book 4: Lair of the Bat Monster.  2011.

In this Danny and Wendell rescue a bat from a pool drain, and not sure what to do to help it, Mrs. Dragonbreath sends them to Mexico and Danny’s cousin Steve, who researches bats.  While investigating the cave in the Mexican jungle that is the focus of Steve’s studies, Danny is carried off by a monstrously large bat who seems to be the Zapotec god Camazotz, leaving Wendell and Steve to track down the bat and rescue Danny, which of course does not go smoothly.  Wendell barely squeezes through the spider-infested crevice to get to Danny in Camazotz’s cave, and Camazotz is blocking the easier exit, so the two go deeper into the cave and discover the Camazotz who abducted Danny has a mate—and he’s hungry.  Bat species and behavior and Zapotec mythology are the areas of study in this novel.  I may be partial because I know a bat researcher and I didn’t know any Zapotec mythology, so I learned lots (and I love a good myth), but this has been my favorite so far.

Book 5: No Such Thing as Ghosts.  2011.

Danny Dragonbreath makes a Halloween special.  Dared by Big Eddy to enter a haunted house on Halloween night, Danny can hardly refuse when socially awkward, self-assured doubter Christiana agrees to go in—and Wendell follows rather than be left with Big Eddy.  Once locked inside, the three disentangle the explicable from the supernatural and turn around to scare Big Eddy with their knowledge of the house.  But even with Big Eddy fled, the three are locked in… and they may not be alone.  Still no one can explain how that creepy crying clown painting was replaced by one of a mundane flower vase, and the walls are oozing something that looks like… raw eggs….  And what is that in the doorway!?  I do not handle horror books well.  I managed to get through the creepy clowns and slamming doors, but… the thrills were atmospheric.  There were fewer factoids in this than in previous novels, though Wendell drops some knowledge of ghosts from around the world and Christiana briefly explains the scam of spiritualists. 

  —

I expect that I will finish this series if it is at all possible.  I currently have book 6 out from the library.  Episodic as these books are and as the reviews that I’ve been writing for them have become, I don’t want to subject you to a full review of all 11 in the series.  So maybe we’ll split them here, the first 5 and the last 6.  That I’m enjoying these enough to seek out the physical copies from the library really ought to be most of the review that you need, but if that isn’t enough:

These are a lot of fun.  They’ve been exactly the right level of nonsense and cohesive plot for me during this pandemic.  Read them.  Try one.  You don’t have to, it seems, read them in any particular order, so pick up whatever topic interests you most.

Objectively, the series overall is probably more of a

****

but during these weird times, when they have been everything I’ve needed in a series, it is tempting to bump them up to

*****

This review is not endorsed by Ursula Vernon, Dial Books for Young Readers, or Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Vernon, Ursula. Dragonbreath series. New York: Dial-Penguin Random, 2009-2011.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit the Penguin Random House for links to order and summaries.

Book Review: Friendship and Family Amid Violence and War in The Dragonet Prophecy

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Wings of Fire, Book 1: The Dragonet Prophecy: The Graphic Novel book cover

I’ve had the prose version of this story at home for years now, but it took being called on to lead a book discussion to goad me into reading this graphic novel version, which I knew I could read more quickly than the prose. I still haven’t read the prose version, so I can’t discuss this as an adaptation of a longer, prose novel but can only judge it as a novel and a story of itself.

While I can’t compare the two texts, I did find that the dialogue of the graphic novel felt sometimes forced. I suspect the details revealed in these forced lines either came more naturally in long dialogue or as narration in the prose novel. The protagonist, Clay the Mudwing dragonet, asks questions that seem for the sake of making one of the other characters explain some detail of their backstory or some detail lost when the narration was. Deutsch is perhaps relying on the belief that Mudwings are unintelligent to make Clay’s questions seem more probable.

Somehow, despite how many children and parents come to the store looking for this series, I’ve managed to remain relatively unaware of its plot. I knew that it involved a prophecy about chosen dragonets—well, the first book is called The Dragonet Prophecy—that would somehow influence a war, and that there were many species of dragons. And I think that was about it.  Dragonets I correctly assumed to be juvenile dragons, though if I now look up the term, it seems to refer to a type of fish.

This graphic novel was not what I expected it to be. It was more violent. The effects of the war on the dragonets of the prophecy and on the larger dragon cultures were more violent. Blood was shown.

This book delves into the politics of war far more than I ever expected it to do.

This book delves into prejudices and preconceived notions around race more than I ever expected it to do.

Like many of the best children’s stories about war, this one is about the power of friendship—despite all the violence that the friends endure.

It’s a story too about discovering and accepting yourself and about disentangling your self from the world’s expectations of you.

This is about what makes a family.

The later books especially I think will delve into fate versus choice and what being fated does to consequences and ideas of morality and goodness.  This only touches on these.

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SPOILERS! Many of them.

When we meet the dragonets, they are six years old but seem to be older adolescents and are being held captive by a society that has brought them all together as eggs and intends to use them to sway the war in their favor. The dragons are bullied, physically punished, and forcibly restrained by the older dragons who are their caretakers.

The dragonets, learning that one of them has been judged unfit and will be killed, escape from the cave that has been their only home.

They aren’t, however, past the threshold before they are captured by the queen of the Skywings, Scarlet, and imprisoned in her gladiatorial ring, made to watch combats between different dragons for the Scarlet’s amusement and later to become combatants themselves.

The queen’s champion fighter, a Skywing dragonet about the age of the dragonets of the prophecy, takes an interest in one of the dragonets, Clay the Mudwing, because she’s “never fought a Mudwing. You know, because we’re on the same side of the war. I’m so excited!” Peril tells Clay. (I forgot to get this page number before returning the book to the library.  Sorry!)

She visits Clay in his cell, and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. When a trial that she is forbidden to attend piques the Peril’s interest, she hides in Clay’s cell to watch, and Scarlet’s story about killing Peril’s mother to save Peril falls apart. Peril rushes to her mother’s defense.

Peril’s is one of the more interesting plot lines to me because it’s a decent redemption arc, and she’s an interesting character with a complicated backstory. Having believed that Scarlet saved her from her mother, knowing that Scarlet has raised her and promoted her to a position of power and prestige, she struggles to disobey her, even as she befriends Clay, and Scarlet threatens Clay.

Freed, the dragonets set out to search for their families. Knowing where the society found Clay’s egg, they go there first. They find Clay’s mother, who dismisses her son, but they also find Clay’s siblings, who are more glad to see their lost brother. Clay learns about his family and his culture and then returns to his found family.

The war that the dragonets are destined to end is a Sandwing civil war in which several other species have taken sides. Three Sandwing sisters, daughters of the previous queen, vie for the throne. One is the strongest, one is the smartest, and one is the prettiest. The prettiest, Blaze, is also described as “about as smart as a concussed sheep” (18). I dislike that beauty in this war seems correlated with unintelligence. Two of the three queens are destined to die and one may live and learn.

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Humans—scavengers—exist in the world but are “endangered” (58), and I was interested to see that Black not white is the norm, the default. Pale skinned humans are so rare that one of the sisters keeps them in her collection of oddities.

***

Sutherland, Tui T. Wings of Fire, Book 1: The Dragonet Prophecy: The Graphic Novel. Adapted by Barry Deutsch. Illus. Mike Holmes. Color Maarta Laiho. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

This review is not endorsed by Tui T. Sutherland, Barry Deutsch, Mike Holmes, Maarta Laiho, Graphix, or Scholastic, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Clearing the Fog with The Dam Keeper

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and authors' bios.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and authors' bios.When Pixar art directors get together to work on a graphic novel series, you have to expect excellent illustrations and story. It seems that the series is actually based on a short film from the two animators from 2014, and that they had intended a feature length film that, to my knowledge, has not been released. There seems too to be a series of short episodes under the title Pig: The Dam Keeper: Poems, released the same year as the first graphic novel. I’ve seen none of the animated pieces.

I am less attracted by the art style of these characters—which is very cartoonish and round—than to the background illustrations, which are soft and subtle and gloriously detailed. It was the description on the book’s flap and then the first few pages of text and illustration that got me to take the first home from the library, though, on a whim.

“Nothing lives in the fog… except memories. Painful memories. They haunt me. Memories of emptiness and loss. The dam holds back the sea of black fog.”

That’s fantastically poetic for a children’s graphic novel and fantastically bleak.

The protagonist Pig becomes the de facto dam keeper after his father, mad with grief, leaves the dam for the world beyond, which is shrouded in a dark and deadly fog. Still a child, Pig tries to balance his responsibilities as dam keeper—a job that the townsfolk have forgotten the importance of—with school and a friendship that he has built with Fox. Fox, more free of responsibility than Pig, has made a new friend in the school bully, Hippo, who frequently targets Pig. Fox tries to bridge her two friends into a trio, but neither Pig nor Hippo is particularly willing to see past first impressions.

An accident at the dam strands the three characters together in the wasteland beyond the town. Lost, they attempt to find their way back home and must rely on each others’ strengths to see them there: Pig’s brains, Hippo’s brawn, and Fox’s kindness.

Fox’s kindness leads them to the blind lizard Van, who promises to help the children home—but first they must retrieve—liberate—Van’s truck from a city very like their own with an even more impressive dam—but in this industry has made the air inside the city walls so foul that the three require their gas masks to breathe.

As they travel across the wasteland in Van’s stolen truck, they find more cities and more civilizations that have found ways to survive in what Pig has always believed to be a dead wasteland.

They narrowly escape being sacrificed by one such civilization to a creature of smoke, which they discover to be a machine with the insignia of the dam keepers on its side.

Throughout all of this, Pig keeps seeing the ghost of his father.

By the end of the second book, the reader begins to see the changes that their adventures have wrought in the three friends manifest. Pig loosens up enough to join his friends in attempting Van’s silly dance. Hippo crushes Van in a hug when they are reunited, and he is friendlier towards Pig.

It must be mentioned too that I appreciate a series with a female and two male protagonists that has no romantic entanglement in sight.

These authors favor a slow reveal through dropped bits of dialogue over a more straightforward and immediate reveal.

A good deal of the storytelling is done through the illustrations. Many of the issues driving the misfortune of the world are only hinted at and must be inferred: pollution, unsafe industrial practices that harm the environment and quality of life, forgetfulness, tribalism, ignorance, deforestation. Some of these I may be incorrectly inferring without the whole story too. There’s a third book that I have yet to read.

I think for this series about child protagonists who find their world turned upside down learning so little so slowly works.

Both of these books ends on a cliffhanger, and given the current state of things, I have not been able to arrange to have the third book in my hands.

The villains in Ru Xu’s Newsprints & Endgames and Kazu Kibushi’s Amulet series are (literally) more concrete than the ones here, but I think there are certainly some thematic similarities between the three, and this may be a new series for those who have enjoyed either. I have read two volumes of each, which is the full story (100%) for Ru Xu’s, two-thirds (about 66%) for Dam Keeper, and only about 22% of Amulet, so my comparisons may yet prove flawed.

***1/2

Kondo, Robert and Dice Tsutsumi. The Dam Keeper, Book 1. New York: Tonko House-First Second-Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck distributed by Macmillan, 2017.

Kondo, Robert and Dice Tsutsumi. The Dam Keeper, Book 2: World Without Darkness. New York: Tonko House-First Second-Roaring Brook-Holtzbrinck distributed by Macmillan, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 7-11.

This review is not endorsed by Robert Kondo, Dice Tsutsumi, Tonko House, First Second Books, Roaring Brook Press, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: DNF But I Have Opinions

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Now for something a little different

This year there were a few books that I never finished but about which I still wanted to say a few words. I realized that when I pass them on to someone else and take them off my Goodreads lists as neither read nor to be read, I will lose any reviews that I might leave on them, so I’m taking advantage of having a blog, and leaving those thoughts here. Even if I never finished these books, I hope my thoughts will help you decide whether or not to begin them yourself.

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and awards list.

Mahurin, Shelby. Serpent & Dove, Book 1. New York: HarperTeen-HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 14+.

I left off reading the ARC of this book at page 257 of 514, but I want to take a moment to organize my current thoughts about the novel:

I’ve struggled to enjoy this one.

First I didn’t realize going into this book that it is far more a new adult novel than a young adult or teen novel. I perhaps should have known, knowing that the protagonists are married. I have read so few new adult or even adult novels that I wasn’t prepared for the tone and the themes.

But what is most keeping me from connecting with it I think is the seemingly unequal power dynamic of the supposed romance, which thus far in the novel, does not feel like a romance, though Reid is starting to begin making an effort towards connection with Lou. Lou is choosing to live with the threat that Reid poses to her because he poses a threat to those who would harm her too, choosing to live with him though she knows that if he knew her secret he would regard her as inhuman and fit only for death. That to me is unsettling. Perhaps we are meant to think that she too poses a threat to him, but Lou hasn’t killed; she does not view even witch-hunters like him in the same inhuman way as he does witches. I don’t like to see that sort of unequal power dynamic romanticized or marketed as a romance.

I think I would have given up this book entirely after the book club discussion except that I read a summary of the plot, and I now know where the novel is headed. I like the spoilers that I have, but I don’t know if it will be worth slogging through the uncomfortable relationship to get to see them acted out, and after several months of not touching the book I have decided to give up and give my copy of this book to someone who I hope can enjoy it more than I.

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.

Wen, Abigail Hing. Loveboat, Taipei.  New York: HarperTeen-HarperCollins, 2020.

Intended audience: Ages 13+.

Spoilers between the asterisks.

There are so many parallels between this and Christine Riccio’s Again, but Better. The protagonists of both books are girls whose parents set them on tracks for medical school but who would rather pursue the arts, who travel for the first time abroad to study, who find ways to circumvent their parents’ plans for their time abroad, who struggle with liking boys who already have girlfriends, who make lists of things that they will do to reinvent themselves while abroad, who drink for the first time, who dance in a club, who kiss a boy.

But Wen’s was so much better written!

I all but forgot every character of Riccio’s except the main romantic pair, Shane and Pilot, after reading this book—and Shane I keep wanting to call Christine for her strong parallels to the author, a booktube celebrity, and Pilot I was never sure I wholly liked.

The characters of Wen’s novel are fully-fledged and interesting. Their lives are complicated. They have motivations and individual desires. They are many of them shaped by their parents’ expectations.  They each get to defend themselves, to explain themselves to Ever.  They don’t feel like props or catalysts for the protagonist Ever. Two characters are dyslexic. It feels like anyone of the characters could have held the story on their own.

Reading Wen’s novel, I was given a peek into another culture than my own. Almost every character is Taiwanese American or Chinese American or a local Taiwanese citizen. The default is not white.

Despite it being outside of my usual genre, I found compelling Ever’s fight between her passions and her duty to her family and their expectations for her. I might have continued to read if it were any closer to a genre that I generally enjoy. I may hang onto this one, and I might go back to it one day, but there’s no magic system here for me to explore, there’s not a whole lot of the type of adventure that I enjoy, and frankly the drama of teenage romances is just… not holding my attention. It didn’t in high school, and it doesn’t now.

But I want to know if Xavier can finally get the help that he needs. I want to know if he’ll be okay. (If someone who has finished this book wants to tell me the answer to that question in the comments, I’d thank you.)  I already read a spoiler * promising that Ever gets her parents’ approval of her passion for dance in the end *—though I have not found out yet which path she ultimately pursues in college.

This is a book I will recommend to those who tell me that they enjoy this genre—and definitely to anyone who read Again, but Better.

I am currently on page 240 of 414 of this ARC.

This review is not endorsed by Abigail Hing Wen, Shelby Mahurin, HarperTeen, or HarperCollins Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: How to Confront Hate and Discrimination with A Tale of Magic

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and excerpt.TaleofMagic

Spoilers.  The one spoiler that is of the book’s ending instead of its beginning is in white.  Highlight between the stars to read.

I have never read any of Chris Colfer’s Land of Stories series though it has been recommended to me, so I didn’t really know what to expect when I opened this one to try to prepare for an event at the store. A Tale of Magic… is I think a prequel series to The Land of Stories. I began an ARC of the story in October and didn’t finish it until the very end of December, but I kept reading it past the event, and I finished it, which I can’t say of every book that I begin for an event. There seemed near the middle to be enough parallels between the story that I thought Colfer might be telling and the story that I am struggling to tell that I decided that I had to finish this one, even if the event was long over. (I managed just about 150 pages before the event.)

The book didn’t end up going quite the direction that I thought that it might.

In the Southern Kingdom we are introduced to Brystal Evergreen. Brystal is living beneath laws that are deeply misogynistic. Women are allowed only to pursue motherhood. They are banned from reading or even entering the library. But Brystal has brothers. She has studied law alongside them and reads novels that her younger brother sneaks to her. She manages briefly to hide a part-time job as the library’s nighttime maid, reading through the library’s offerings after close.

One book reveals to her the corruption of the government, the manipulation of laws for the purpose of consolidating the power of the government, and another reveals the existence of good magic, fairy magic instead of witchcraft.

I would actually have liked to have spent more time with Brystal’s family, the dynamics of which I found very interesting, while she slowly picks apart the prejudices that have built her world, but that wasn’t the story that Colfer wanted to tell.

Reading a passage from that second book reveals Brystal to be a fairy, and her magic lands her in a Correctional Center that is really a workhouse, from which she is rescued by a mysterious and obviously magical Madame Weatherberry, author of the book that landed her in such trouble.

The magical community is even more oppressed than women are in the Southern Kingdom. Magical peoples have been pushed to the dangerous In-Between, which is outside of the control of any of the four kingdoms and where resources are scarce for such a large population.

Madame Weatherberry begins a school for magic with the intention of training fairies to do good works for the non-magical inhabitants of the kingdoms and by so doing erase the prejudice and suppression that causes non-magical people now to hunt the magical.

That was the original thought of my own WIP’s protagonist, though recent years have made me more cynical. I wanted to see if Colfer was able to convince me that there was some good to be achieved through such a plan.

Then I thought that Colfer’s characters might begin to see as I have that “Stonewall was a riot!” and that only through revolution is revolutionary change achieved.

Neither was really the direction that the book went.

Instead Brystal * learns to leverage society’s fear of magic by leaving alive a greater threat that only she and her classmates are powerful enough to fight.   She and her classmates attack no one but neither do they perform good works across the kingdom.*

The writing was at times not subtle enough for me, perhaps a little didactic. I was not wholly on board with how easily Brystal accepts the leadership role into which she is thrust nor how adult she acts or how quickly the protagonists pass through their challenges.  The magic system was vague, but it worked, because I never felt that the magic was anything other than a stand-in for other inborn traits that lead to discrimination in our world.

Knowing some of Colfer’s biography, I felt it likely that magic was here a stand-in for an LGBTQIA+ identity, though there was no instance in this book of any romance—which itself is a welcome change.  This book touches too on the dangers of a culture of toxic masculinity with the character of Xanthous, the only masculine-presenting fairy that we meet.

I marked several poignant ideas from the novel, thoughts mostly on how to change the world and why the world is hateful and how to react to the hate in the world.

My ARC is 61 pages shorter than Goodreads advertises that the book is in the final print; I don’t know what was added or what other changes may have been made between the ARC that I read and the final print copy, though I know that mine lacked much of the artwork, most places where illustrations will appear merely held with the phrase “ATK.”

****

Colfer, Chris. A Tale of Magic…  Illus. Brandon Dorman.  New York: Little, Brown-Hachette, 2019.

This review is not endorsed by Chris Colfer, Brandon Dorman, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: An Original Fairy Tale Reimagining and a Timely War Story by Ru Xu

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.This review contains spoilers for both books. They are too many in this review to be hidden.

This first book ends on something of a cliffhanger! I was unprepared. I went out and bought the second in the series—new not used—when I could not get it from the library, something that is becoming for me quite rare for me unless I can get the book at half its list price. The first book’s cover has intrigued me for a long time with its buoyant protagonist in turn of the 20th century garb, surrounded by crows and being trailed by one bright canary.

Xu did something neat by having the cover art of the first book run neatly into the action of the book, the cover serving as—if not the first page then—the prologue to the novel.  (In the second book the cover does not serve as an opening for the story, but the title page and edition notice do.)

I was not expecting when I opened this novel to find a steampunk-y science-fiction/fantasy about warring countries and conscious war machines.

I was not displeased.

Where are my Legend of Korra fans? I was getting some serious Republic City vibes from Nautilene.

Blue masquerades as a boy to remain a part of the found family of newsboys that she has found at The Bugle, a family managed by the paper’s owner (who is also the city’s mayor) and his wife, who uses a wheelchair. Blue shares her secret only with Mrs. Nancy and an older boy who has left the Nancys’ home and is now a reporter in the capitol city—and he knows her secret because he was the one who found an orphaned girl on the street and invited her to the Nancys’ found family.

This first is a story about finding family, about truth and propaganda, about embracing truth, about morality, about personal autonomy.

Both books discuss the effect of war on civilians.

The second book gets into more of the grit of the war. I love how much of the politics of war Xu includes in this book supposedly written for children; she gives her intended audience ample credit.  This book expands on the way war changes the civilians’ mindsets on both sides as well as the cost of war and empire-building on colonies.

Blue chases after the friend that she made in the first book who turns out to be an automaton that controls a fleet of weaponized airships for the country of Goswing. She is abducted by a spy who has been working as Jack Jingle’s assistant. The spy, a girl about Blue’s age, reveals herself on the sea crossing to be a mixed-race child like Blue. Rejoining the Grimmaean air fleet, the pair are immediately shot down—by the Grimmaeans who distrust the spy, Snow, and her transgender brother, Red, who is Snow’s getaway pilot.

The three mixed-race children and Crow help to stop the war by making the adults in the room see reason—with the help of a natural disaster caused by the fighting that destroys a vital fuel source for the emerging world. But this is a book that gives me hope that a new generation can undo an old world’s prejudices, violence, and imperialism.

This second book deals with the prejudices that are ignited and are inflamed by governments to justify and sustain war and the prejudice.

We are introduced to another differently abled person in Goswish’s young, newly crowned queen who is blind but has learned to use a form of modified echolocation to help her navigate. She fears that her people will think her weak for being blind, but she proves an able and wise ruler.

In reading the second book particularly I noticed the fairy tale inspiration for the characters and their names. The Goswish take their inspiration from Mother Goose’s rhymes while the Grimmaeans take inspiration from Grimm’s. Blue herself echoes Little Boy Blue, and the queen is advised by a team of Jacks (Jack being a name that a person takes as part of the team): Jingle, Horner, Nimble, and Anory. There are Grimmaean twins named Snow-White and Rose-Red, and there’s brave little Leonhart Tailor and the kings Jacob and Wilhelm. It’s exciting to see someone doing something so different with fairy tales and clashing fairy tale characters when their worlds collide. This series is at once a fairy tale reimagining and a timely, original story of war and prejudice.

It is strongly hinted I think though never confirmed that Leo and Hector become a romantic pair.

This series feels complete to me.  I don’t think that there will be a book 3.

*****

Xu, Ru. NewsPrints, Book 1. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2017.

Xu, Ru. NewsPrints, Book 2: EndGames. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

This review is not endorsed by Ru Xu, Graphix, or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Surprising Sweetness of Dog Man

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Click to view the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and reviews.

This was my first Dav Pilkey novel. I missed the Captain Underpants books when they were coming out during my elementary school years; I didn’t have any interest. I never had any interest in Dog Man either as an adult and a bookseller despite their popularity among the children. Then I was asked to throw a release party for the 8th novel in the Dog Man series, and I thought I had better at least introduce myself to the characters and the story.

Lucky for me, the 7th book at least begins with a recap of the story thus far. In sum, a police dog’s head is surgically attached to a policeman’s body when the two are in a horrific accident (a bit of a creepy premise, but okay). The two become Dog Man. Dog Man continues to protect the city from evil, which seems to come primarily in the form of other even more anthropomorphized animals, because Dog Man himself doesn’t talk.

Among his foes is Petey, a cat inventor, and Piggy, an evil mastermind who was shrunk with his henchmen to the size of a flea prior to the start of For Whom the Ball Rolls.

Petey’s heroic deeds in the previous novel earn him a pardon from the mayor at the beginning of For Whom the Ball Rolls.

Petey comes to claim his son/clone Lil’ Petey from Dog Man and 80-HD, who have been parenting Lil’ Petey during Petey’s incarceration.

Lil’ Petey is conflicted about leaving his found family to live with his father/clone Petey, but Petey insists, though he does quickly compromise by saying that he will allow Lil’ Petey to spend weekends with his found family if he can have weekdays.

This is what first sold me on Dog Man. How many other books are dealing with incarcerated parents right now? While I wish such books weren’t needed, there is a need. I can think of few other fictional parents who have been incarcerated and released (Lucius Malfoy, the Titan General Atlas) but no books that have at all dealt with a child’s return to a formerly incarcerated parent’s custody.

Ultimately, I think this book was about the meaning of family. Lil’ Petey, Dog Man, and 80-HD have become a family through proximity that becomes love and a bond. Petey believes at first that his blood bond with Lil’ Petey gives him more claim to Lil’ Petey. With that lesson, Lil’ Petey discovers that Petey doesn’t know his own father and sends 80-HD to retrieve the tomcat. Petey’s father remains critical and curmudgeonly as he was in Petey’s youth. He steals all that Petey and Lil’ Petey have, and Petey explains that it is okay that his father won’t be in his life; his father’s blood bond with Petey and Lil’ Petey does not promise him a place in their life. Petey as promised leaves Lil’ Petey with Dog Man and 80-HD for the weekend, and Petey goes home to his empty house with his love of Lil’ Petey to keep him warm.

Lil’ Petey is this story’s heart and conscience, though here he briefly falters and has to be uplifted again by Petey.  Love, Lil’ Petey espouses, sometimes must be an act before it can be a feeling.  So too good acts prove goodness; good intent without good acts are not enough for goodness.

The book is ridiculous. There’s no denying that. We’re introduced to a superhero this book whose superpower is less a superpower than a compulsion to eat cupcakes and knock over whatever baddies stand between him and the treats. But there’s also a great deal of sensitivity and positivity in this book.

Petey sees the mud and the pollution and the weeds but with Lil’ Petey’s help he learns to see the beauty in the world. He learns that a world that is shared with those he loves is never only horrible.

This was such a short book that I was able to finish it in the time that it took for my 20 oz of brewing tea could cool to lukewarm (maybe 20 minutes?). Do you have 20 minutes to spare? Perhaps while waiting for a cup of tea to cool or a pot of water to boil into spaghetti? Perhaps like me you’ll feel good about having completed a book in so little time. Perhaps like me your soul will feel just a bit better, the future will look just a bit brighter, and you’ll trust a bit more that the littles know good literature when they find it.

****

Pilkey, Dav. Dog Man, Book 7: For Whom the Ball Rolls. Graphix-Scholastic, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 7-10, Grades 2-5.

This review is not endorsed by Dav Pilkey, Graphix, or Scholastic, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Selfishness Mars The Wizard of Once

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, samples, trailer, and a drawing tutorial with the author.

Spoilers are in white.  Highlight to read.

I read nine of the twelve novels in Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series between 2011 and 2015. Then I sort of stalled. I had hoped that this, the first book in her newest series, might help to springboard me through those last three novels by reminding me of all that I had originally so loved. Comparison between the two series is for me truly unavoidable because it is in fact what I was seeking.

And I don’t think that this series was able to accomplish what I’d hoped that it would.

I stalled on this book too. I began reading it on a plane in October 2018. I finished it in June 2019.

This very British story is set in a Britain before it was Britain, during a fantastical conflict between magical Wizards and iron-wielding, fortification-building Warriors; even setting aside the magic of the Wizards, I’m finding no exact historical matches for these cultures to set the story at any historical point (the Bronze Age Beaker culture vs the Iron Age, hill fort-building, Celtic Britons maybe being the nearest since the Wizards can’t bear iron, and the Warriors definitely have iron).  This seems more to me more like a mythic version of Britain, Arthur’s Britain maybe before even he was born (though Arthur’s Britain has a more concrete place and time than this) than a representation of the actual Britain.

As in How to Train Your Dragon, the narrative here is peppered with some fantastic lines, particularly oaths that build her world such as “by ivy and mistletoe and green things with long, hairy whiskers” (183) and some very choice descriptions like “a splintering scream like the death agony of five hundred foxes” (60)—I wish I had marked them as I read along. The text too is littered with allusions to British and Norse myths and British literary canon. Finding those allusions was a fun game. But I don’t think the prose was enough to carry me through what I found most difficult about this novel:

I just don’t like Xar. He’s not a very likable hero. He is arrogant. He puts his followers in danger. He is willing to break the rules to achieve his goals, and his goals are selfish. It takes the imminent death of a friend (follower? pet?) before Xar feels any responsibility or regret or humility. He then does try—he really tries—to save his friend, and that is admirable. But even that quest is not wholly unselfish for in achieving it, Xar can save himself as well.

Xar and Hiccup are near enough one another in circumstance if not in personality that the comparison is fairly unavoidable. Both’s fathers are the leaders of their peoples. Both boys lack the characteristics that are valued in their societies. Xar has a lot more growing to do before he becomes as likable as Hiccup was in the first book, let alone in the later books when Hiccup is becoming more and more the King of the Wilderwest who will unite the Vikings. Hiccup pushes back against his society’s standards when they are wrong (he promises to free the slaves, promises to free the dragons, speaks to dragons in their own language instead of shouting at them in the Vikings’). Xar seeks to conform even knowing that what he does endangers others as well as himself.  [SPOILERS] Xar leads his father to believe that Wizard society needs a place for the magic-less but without ever setting out to do so, then he lies again to his father and his people and he uses his accidentally retained Dark magic without guilt. His reward is not being accepted into the society as he is but rather obtaining that which he no longer needs to be accepted—and perhaps at great personal cost. [END]

Wish is a bit more likable. She is a Warrior who does not live up to the expectations of her mother, Queen Sycorax. She should be fierce and orderly and tidy but is instead disheveled with an odd eye over which she wears a patch and has a big heart, even keeping a secret pet of which her mother definitely wouldn’t approve. Wish wants to make her mother proud but always comes up short. She can be brash.  [SPOILERS] She does show her mother in the end that she can be fierce by standing up to her mother. [END]

Bodkin I liked best, but he is the sidekick and isn’t given the page-time that I would have liked him to have. He is nervous, anxious, cautious, fainthearted. He is trying to protect his charge as an Assistant Bodyguard. He wants to make his family proud too.

***

Cowell, Cressida. The Wizards of Once, Book 1. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2018. First published 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Cressida Cowell, Little, Brown and Company, or Hachette Book Group, Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Rowan of Rin Confronts Fantasy Tropes

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and sample.

This little book that I took far too long to read utilized nearly every trope danger of fantasy—dragons, spiders, mountains, dark forests, swamps—all battled for the sake of a village’s necessity for water and for one boy’s love of his bukshah, maned, cow-like, herd beasts which he tends though it is usually a job for younger villagers. Rowan is considered too small, too sickly, too weak by the villagers, who look down on him. But he is forced to join a dangerous quest to scale the mountain, the rumored home of a dragon when the village Wise Woman ties him to her prophetic map when consulted before the quest.  He joins a group of the village’s strongest, bravest, most boastful adults—those that most consider him a burden and antithetical to their ideal.

I am reminded of young Bilbo Baggins the Burglar joining the quest of the twelve dwarves—who also take a difficult journey and climb inside a mountain and defeat a dragon, who also battle spiders that fear light in a dark forest.

Though Bilbo’s journey is farther, necessitating a broader world from J. R. R. Tolkien, Rowan’s world is intriguing for being only hinted towards. There are promises of a world beyond what the reader sees in Rowan of Rin in the village’s suspicion of outsiders like the Travelers who camp near the village every few years, bringing festival-like days of performances and trading fancies from outside of the valley, and in the revelation of a traditional journey undertaken by the village’s young children to learn to swim. But the world to which the reader is actually exposed, the culture that the reader gets to know in this book is very limited, to a village of perhaps less than 100.

This book had so much to recommend it to me. I find myself gravitating towards the smaller of the heroes, the ones that rely more often on kindness and friendship than on brawn. I in many ways romanticize the small village life and its smaller, more insular concerns. I use both in my own WIP. Reading so many novels where the fate of the world depends on the outcome of the novel’s story, reading a book where the larger world might continue on without dissolving into chaos even if the book’s quest is a failure can be refreshing. Rin would not survive of course without water, but the larger, only hinted at world probably would not know of any change in the valley until the Travelers came by some years later, and then only they would take the news of an abandoned village and unknown catastrophe to the world that would continue on as it had done but with a new ghost story to tell.

Yet still maybe because it was such an easy read, and its adventures seemed so episodic as the group was tested by first one and then another trope danger, the book took me too long to read; I began it first in 2017; I read 151 pages over a year and half. So I can’t say that the book grabbed and then held me. I can say that I enjoyed it whenever I returned to it, that the book was an easy book to pick up and put down. That quality is valuable too, and may make this book ideal for some lifestyles. Certainly it was a good book to carry around with me for long waits at doctors’ offices and car maintenance appointments.

I think too that because it does use so many tropes and is so short, this would be a good introduction to a young one just starting to read high fantasy.  The book avoids feeling cliche because Rowan himself is a different type of hero, and the adults, the typical heroes of the old stories, are one by one forced to confront their own insurmountable fears and weaknesses.  This book is as much about Rowan discovering himself equal to an overwhelming task as the adults realizing that they themselves are not as heroic as they tout themselves to be, that the qualities they have so valued are not enough.

I was a little off put by Emily Rodda’s occasional slip into omniscience. For the most part the story is told from the limited third of Rowan, but sometimes, especially in times when confronted by their greatest fears, the narrative slipped inside the minds of the adults. At one point, it slipped into the mind of one of the bukshah. These switches in POV were not always marked by breaks in the text, which when used I find alleviates some of my sense of being jarred.

That though again is a personal preference.

I do have to compliment Rodda’s skilled use of prophetic poetry, that ability that I so envy, to divulge and disguise the truth in that form. Her skilled use of this device rivals that of Rick Riordan. Though the map’s prophecies tell the characters and the reader how to achieve the correct outcome of each step of the journey, I was almost always surprised by what the characters needed to do to succeed, how the words needed to be interpreted.

The series continues. There are five books altogether. I’m uncertain yet whether I will continue to see how the world expands and Rowan and the villagers around him are influenced by their growing sense of a world beyond Rin. As I said, I enjoyed the hints of a larger world without seeing it, and I occasionally enjoy a more personal quest, so for me, it may be better to leave the world and the story where it is without allowing it—as I think it might—to become a greater, more world-altering story. This publication though wisely included a few pages of the next book, which I foolishly read, so I may need to continue simply to revisit the village of Rin.

****

Rodda, Emily. Rowan of Rin. New York: Greenwillow-Avon-HarperCollins, 2001. First published in Australia by Omnibus-Scholastic Australia in 1993.

Intended audience: Ages 8+.

This review is not endorsed by Emily Rodda, Greenwillow Books, Avon Books, HarperCollins Publishers, Omnibus Books, Scholastic Australia Pty Ltd.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.