Module 4: The Grey King

Cooper, S. (1975). The Grey King. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Genre: Fantasy, Newbery winner. Definitely fantasy, as it pulls from mythology and uses magic. And a good example of a Newbery winner.

Book Summary: Will, who in an earlier book in the series realized he was an Old One, and tasked with protecting the world from the rising forces of the Dark, is convalescing in Wales, recovering from a bout of hepatitis. While there, he meets Bran, a strange local boy who helps Will fulfill part of a prophecy by stopping the Grey King from garnering his forces and waking the Sleepers in preparation for the final battle.

Impressions: This is the fourth in a series, so reading it as a stand-alone probably isn’t recommended. However, I routinely re-read the second, The Dark is Rising (which, incidentally, does work as a stand-alone), so I felt comfortable dipping into this world out of order. However, for those who approach this as a stand-alone will probably be lost. There is a lack of character development, especially with Will (because you’re already supposed to be familiar with him), but also Bran, though he has a greater character arc. Cooper is a master storyteller, deftly weaving personal concerns — the neighbor who is convinced that Will’s uncle’s dogs are killing his sheep — with a greater sense of menace and tension. There is a moment when Bran’s dog is killed, and the tension between Bran and Will is palpable, especially because, as a reader, you can relate to Bran’s frustration with being a player in a higher plan and struggling with a sense of a loss of freedom because of that. Cooper’s writing is tight and elegant as well, accessible enough for younger readers (though probably not as young as eight), but smart enough to keep an adult turning pages. My only issue is that in spite of the “lesson” on speaking Welsh, I know I still don’t pronounce the names right in my head. But that’s a minor quibble. It is also one of those Newbery winners that not only deserves the award — it really is an excellently written book — but has held up as a timeless story over the past 40 years.

Review: The School Library Journal wrote that, in spite of lacking in character development, the book added much to the high fantasy genre, with the  most intriguing thing being the dichotomy between the plain lives of the Welsh sheepmen and the higher, mythical role the land — and Will — plays around them.

Wilton, S. M. & Gerhardt, L.N. (1975, October). Book reviews. School Library Journal, 22 (2). 104-105.

Library Uses: I would put this one on a display of fantasy books, series books, or older Newbery winners that are still great to read.

Readalikes:

  • Before I give other recommendations, I ought to recommend the most obvious and suggest reading the rest of this series: Over Sea, Under Stone; The Dark is Rising; Greenwitch; and Silver on the Tree.
  • The Prydian Chronicles, beginning with The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander: While not specifically set in Wales, this series is probably the most like Susan Cooper’s books. It has the Welsh feel, the struggle between Dark and Light, and a male main character who finds out he is More than he originally thought.
  • The Raven Cycle, beginning with The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater: This one is loosely based on Welsh mythology, though Stiefvater says that Cooper’s books were an inspiration for it. A group of four boys and one girl, the daughter of psychics, set out looking for a dead Welsh king in the hills of Virginia. Conflict, magic, and epic writing follow.
  • The Merlin Saga, beginning with The Lost Years, by T. A. Barron: I found there is a lack of Welsh fantasy books for kids (though there is more for adults), so I tapped into the Arthurian side of Cooper’s books. Barron’s series is the definitive works for kids interested in Merlin and Arthurian legend. The books follow Merlin as he becomes a powerful wizard.
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The Belles

by Dhonielle Clayton
First sentence: “We all turned sixteen today, and for any normal girl that would mean raspberry and lemon macarons and tiny pastel blimps and pink champagne and card games.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: February 6, 2018
Content: There is some physical and emotional abuse and an attempted rape scene, but it’s not overly graphic. It will probably be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Camille is one of the Belles, the only people in the kingdom of Orléans who was born with color and who have the ability to manipulate the bodies of everyone else, and she is determined to be the favorite of the Queen. This means she’s the best, the chosen, the, well, favored.  Only she’s not chosen to be the favorite… and from there, she starts unraveling the mystery that is the Belles, and discovers the lengths that the royals will go to keep the Belles in their control.

So the tagline on the ARC was “the revolution is here” which is REALLY misleading, so I’m glad they changed that. This is a very long (almost overlong), very opulent, set up to whatever is going to happen in the next. There’s a lot of world-building here, and quite of bit of it leaves questions hanging. We discover things as Camille discovers them, which means we are left as frustrated and impatient as she is. I liked the world and I liked the characters… for me the downfall was just the descriptions. Everything was food (buttercream, chocolate, caramel, honey) and fabric, and I felt almost smothered in it all. Underneath, I could sense a criticism of plastic surgery, of the desire to change one’s appearance, but I’m not sure I could find it underneath all the clothes and makeup. But that’s just me (though I do admit that I’m curious about the sequel). There will be readers who gobble this up and love every minute. I’m just not one of them.

The Burning Sky

by Sherry Thomas
First sentence: “Just before the start of Summer Half, in April 1883, a very minor event took place at Eton College, that venerable and illustrious English public school for boys.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some violence and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Iolanthe was enjoying a quiet life with her guardian, Master Heywood, in a small town, when her life gets turned upside down. It was simple enough: she was trying to salvage a ruined light elixer, and brought down lightning from the sky. That simple (well, maybe not) thing brought not only the crown prince, Titus, to her doorstep, but the dreaded Inquisitor, and sent Iolanthe into hiding with Titus as she learned her True Purpose: to overthrow Atlantis and kill the Bane, Atlantis’s unkillable leader.

It’s pretty by-the-numbers — of course Titus and Iolanthe are taking on the Big Bad Guys, of course they fall in love. But, I still found myself enjoying this. Perhaps because it’s kind of a reverse Harry Potter — Iolanthe and Titus come from the magical world to go to school at Eaton where they not only have to pass as non-magical but Iolanthe also has to pass as a boy. It’s an interesting world Thomas has built, with the elemental vs. subtle (learned) magic, with dragons and wyverns and wands and potions. I liked it quite a bit. Maybe not enough to continue on with the series, but still. It’s an intriguing start to a series.

Miss Ellicott’s School for the Magically Minded

by Sage Blackwood
First sentence: “A secret nearly cost Chantel her life, on a dark summer morning when the rains ran down the stairstepped streets of Lightning Pass.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some frighting parts. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Chantel (pronounced shan-TAL not CHAN-tel) has grown up learning magic in Miss Ellicott’s orphanage/school. She’s quite talented at it, one of the best students, except she has a problem. All the magic users in their walled city-kingdom are supposed to be “shamefast and biddable”, and those are two things that Chantel, well, isn’t. It turns out to be a good thing though, for when Miss Ellicott and the rest of the kingdom’s seven sorceresses disappear, Chantel takes it upon herself to Figure Out and then Solve the problem, which grows to include an invasion, treachery, and a dragon.

On the one hand, this is a delightful magical tale, well and complexly told, by a very talented writer. I loved Blackwood’s Jinx series, and while this one is a stand-alone (hurrah!) it’s much more of the same elegant, interesting writing with a good dose of snark, something that I think the most reluctant readers will enjoy.

On the other hand, this is a fantastic allegory about the state of women throughout history. (Or at least, that’s what I saw.) I saw women taking their power and conforming it to the patriarchy (in this case, there was a king, but the men who ruled the kingdom were called The Patriarchs), working to maintain the Status Quo, because upending it is unthinkable. And then there was a girl who asked “WHY?” and started doing things differently, even though she was told — by the king, the patriarchs, the older women — that she Couldn’t. Still, she persisted, and Change — not just small change, but Large Sweeping Change. It was not only entertaining, but it was hopeful and empowering.

And I loved it.

Penelope March is Melting

by Jeff Michael Ruby
First sentence: “Years ago, scientists spotted a strange iceberg floating a hundred miles off the coast of Antarctica.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy sent by the author.
Content: There’s some bullying and a couple of intense situations. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Penelope March lives a quiet, ordinary life in Glacier Cove. Her brother leaves her riddles, her father goes and works as a turnip farmer (they’re the only food that grows on an iceberg). She goes to school, but doesn’t have many friends. She reads a lot though, and wishes for an adventure. Until, one day, she goes into the ramshackle house of  the town eccentric, and learns that an evil force is trying to take over the ocean, and is planning on melting Glacier Cove. And it’s up to Penelope (and a team of ice penguins) to stop it.

On the one hand, this was a unique premise. Not many middle grade fantasies being set on a town build on an iceberg. And, the penguins were truly amusing. There was the same old dead parent (mom this time) and the grieving remaining one (out of touch father). There was the Skeptical Boy (the brother, who didn’t really get on board until the last part of the book) and the Misunderstood Friend. And the buildup to the whole evil magic thing at the end just didn’t work for me. That said, it wasn’t a terribly written book, and I think there are kids — specifically ones who don’t mind a bit of magic with their adventure — who will enjoy this one. I just found it to be a bit… too basic and banal for my tastes.

The Supernormal Sleuthing Service

by Gwenda Bond and Christopher Rowe
First sentence: “Stephen stepped over the low iron fence and past a sign that said ‘DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS.'”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There’s some mildly scary situations. It’s in the Middle Grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Stephen has grown up his whole life with his father believing that it was just the two of them, plus a grandmother who came to visit every once in a while. But after his grandma’s death, Stephen and his dad move to New York City, and Stephen is thrust into a whole new world. One with “supernormals” which is how the supernatural — faeries, ogres, dragons, vampires, gargoyles, etc — prefer to refer to themselves, and one where Stephen, who isn’t always the best with rules, quickly learns that he’s got a LOT to learn. Especially when a priceless heirloom, and his family’s “permission” to stay in this world, goes missing.

This was a lot of fun. I liked Stephen’s growth arc as he learned about the supernormal world, and the friends he made — there’s a team of three kids who solve the mystery about the missing book. I liked the other characters he met, especially the dragon (whose name escapes me right now). I thought the authors did really well with their worldbuilding, and it was an interesting take on the whole supernatural world. I also like that, though this looks like it’ll be a series, it didn’t feel like a “first-in-a”.

Definitely worth taking a look.

Nevermoor

by Jessica Townsend
First sentence: “The journalists arrived before the coffin did.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Release date: October 31, 2017
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some scary moments, and it’s a bit long (almost 450 pages). It will be in the Middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Morrigan has grown up thinking she was cursed. Everyone — from the townspeople to her own father — blames her for everything that goes wrong. No one speaks to her, and worst of all, she is slated to die on Eventide. It’s a miserable existence.

So when, on Eventide, a mysterious man named Jupiter North swoops in and takes her away (with permission; but that’s a long story), Morrigan doesn’t know how to react.  She’s swept away to a city called Nevermoor to not only live with Jupiter in a magical hotel, but to compete in the trials to become part of the Wundrous Society, an exclusive magical society/school. There are conflicts and challenges, and Morrigan makes friends as she goes along.

So, I know what you’re thinking: it sounds an awful lot like Harry Potter. And you’re right: it is. But, it’s also its own thing. It’s not just that it’s a different sort of magic, it’s also lighter. More like Sorcerer’s Stone, even though that’s darker than this one is. Nevermoor is a delightful sort of fantasy, with a wonderful world kids can fall into. Yes, this is a beginning of a series (argh!), but it’s also a complete story on its own. There are delightful characters to meet and get to know, and the trials themselves are interesting and fun.

In short: it’s a fun read. Definitely hand this to those Harry Potter fans.