Arrows of the Queen

by Mercedes Lackey
First sentence: “A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the tree, but the young girl seated beneath it did not seem to notice.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there! (Though, to be honest, you’ll probably have to buy it used.)
Content: There is some violence, and some (tasteful) attempted sex. It would be in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, if we had it.

Talia is a young, sheltered girl in a Holding that is super patriarchal, giving all the power to men and making women either wives or nuns in service to the Goddess. But Talia dreams of something more: she wants to be a Queen’s Herald. She’s secretly read tales of the Heralds, with the horse-Companions and the adventures, and longs to be one of them. She has no idea how one becomes a Herald, but when she turns 13 and her elders start talking about marrying her off, she runs off. And is chosen by one of the Companions, Roland. From there, Talia is thrust into a whole new world, one of classes and work and acceptance and challenges and friends. At first, she is hesitant, but as the months and (eventually) years go on, she becomes more confident with her role not only as a Herald, but as the Queen’s Own.

I’ve read Lackey before, but not in a while, and not very much. I like her style, though there seems to be a lot more exposition than either action or dialogue. Perhaps that was part of the style when this was written in 1987, but it did drag the story down. That, and Talia was super perfect. I liked her — I mean you have to be heartless if you don’t — but she wasn’t the most interesting character. She was always stalwart, always likable, and always had the answers to her problems. It got old pretty quickly.

Even so, I liked her adventures and the world that Lackey built, and I’m not sorry I dipped into this one.

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Legendary

by Stephanie Garber
First sentence: “While some rooms on the estate had monsters hiding beneath the beds, Tella swore her mother’s suite concealed enchantment.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: Caraval
Content: There’s some violence and intense moments. It will be in the Teen section (Grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first one, obviously.

I had high hopes for this one, even though it’s been a long time since I’ve read Caraval and admittedly I don’t remember much. And while Legendary was good, I don’t know if it lived up to my high hopes.

It’s shortly after the Caraval that Scarlett won, and Legend has already set up another one. This one is  in the capital city, and it’s Tella’s turn to play. The prize? Legend’s name. The cost? Tella’s mother’s life. She’s made a bargain with a criminal: the location of her mother in exchange for Legend’s name. She has to win, but at what cost?

I did find this one engrossing; Graber has created a very unique world, full of magic and deception. But, maybe because it wasn’t new like it was in Caraval, I just wasn’t that thrilled by it. It could be that Tella’s journey wasn’t as interesting as Scarlett’s or that I just didn’t find the villain of the book that enticing, or even the final reveal all that shocking. I definitely found the ending unsatisfying. I probably just wanted… more.

It’s not that it’s a bad book; it’s not. And maybe if you read it right after Caraval, it would come off as better. Whatever the reason, I was a little disappointed.

Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini

by Sid Fleischman
First sentence: “I have been a fiction writer by choice and instinct for a long professional life.”
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Content: There are some risque photos (Houdini did a lot of his tricks in the nude for honesty’s sake) and some intense moments. It would be in the middle reader biography section of the bookstore, if we had it.

I’ll be honest: while I enjoy illusions, I’m not obsessed with it, and while I knew who Houdini was, I really didn’t know much about his life or his magic tricks. So, when my class hit a biography section and this was on the list, I figured why not read a kids’ biography on Houdini.

(First: are kids still interested in Houdini? Hubby saw this on my nightstand and remarked “I adored Houdini as a kid.” Does that still happen?)

I learned that Houdini was a workaholic, a bit of a jerk, and definitely competitive. He’d put himself in pretty much any situation to prove that he could do whatever it was that was put before him (challenges were his favorite thing!) regardless of personal safety. Fleischman, a fellow Jew and magician, is incredibly enthusiastic about Houdini (even though he keeps the actual secrets of how Houdini performed his tricks, well, secret) and that comes through in the biography. I don’t know if it’s something I’d refer kids to in order to do research on Houdini (though maybe: Fleischman does work to debunk some of the myths surrounding Houdini, ones that Houdini himself perpetuated), but it does make for entertaining reading.

Audiobook: Children of Blood and Bone

by Tomi Adeyemi
Read by: Bahni Turpin
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Listen to it on Libro.fm
Content: There’s a lot of violence, some of it intense. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Imagine a world in which magic existed, but the non-magic users (who happened to be in power) were afraid of what magic can do, so they (well, he: the king) did everything they could to stamp it out. They killed the magi — adults who were at full power — and suppressed the children of the magi. These children, Diviners, were never able to fully come into their power, they were discriminated against, and their families taxed beyond what they can afford.

This is the world that Zélie, a Diviner, was raised in. She remembered the raids, when her mother was taken and killed and her father (who is not a magi) beaten. She remembers the stories her mother told about magic and the gods, and has all but lost her faith that it can ever come back. That is, until she meets Amari, the daughter of the king that ordered the raids. Amari has stolen a magic scroll, an artifact that, in the right hands, can bring magic back. And she’s on the run. She teams up with Zélie and Zélie’s brother, Zane. And together they are determined to bring magic back.

Except it’s not as easy as that. Amari’s brother, the crown prince Inan, is on their tale, determined to stop them. And nothing — NOTHING — goes to plan.

It’s a huge book, but it’s a fast-paced one; Adeyemi definitely knows how to plot to keep a reader engaged and the pages turning. Or, in my case, a listener listening. It helps that my favorite narrator, Turpin, read this book, and as always, was fantastic at it. It’s such an excellent performance, one that immersed me into the world of Orïsha (and it helped with all the foreign names and places too!) and the story.

And what a story! There were moments that I was afraid Adeyemi would disappoint me (especially toward the end), but she pulled off a spectacular ending, and still left enough undone for a sequel (which I can’t wait for).

Remarkable. And definitely worth the hype.

Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories

by Kelly Barnhill
First sentence: “The day she buried her husband — a good man, by all accounts, though shy, not given to drink or foolishness; not one for speeding tickets or illegal parking or cheating on his taxes; not one for carousing at the county fair, or tomcatting with the other men from the glass factory; which is to say, he was utterly unkonwn in town: a cipher; a cold, blank space — Agnes Sorensen arrived at the front steps of Our lady of the Snows.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are more mature themes and some swearing (though I’m not remembering any f-bombs). It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

I have a tortured history with short stories. I want to like them, but I find them much like poetry: I don’t get them. They’re words, and often pretty words, but I just don’t… well… understand them. (Even Neil Gaiman’s stories, which I seem to have a bit more affinity for.) And this collection was more of the same: I liked the stories, but I need someone else to read them and then explain them to me. (Especially the title story. I know it’s a metaphor, and I’m sure I’ll smack my head when someone tells me what it’s a metaphor for, but right now, I’m a bit lost.)

Barnhill is a gorgeous crafter of sentences, and this is no exception. She has a beautiful way with words, and it does pull you into the story. I especially liked the final story, which is more of a novella (which could be why), because the world that Barnhill built — a comet flies by once every 25 years and endows pre-born children with magical powers which a minister then harnesses for his own means — was so fascinating, but also because the writing was just so beautiful.

And maybe, someday, I’ll figure out how to read short stories and actually understand.

A Wizard of Earthsea

by Urusla K. LeGuin
First sentence: “The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.”
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Content: There’s nothing objectionable, but it has an “older” feel to it. It’s in the YA sections (grades 6-8) of the bookstore. (I think. It might be in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section…)

I read this a long time ago — not as a kid, but before I started keeping a blog — and was underwhelmed. Since LeGuin recently passed away, I thought I’d give it another try.

And… I was still underwhelmed. The basic plot is the journey of a boy, Ged, becoming a wizard. He goes to school, unleashes a demon, fights a dragon, runs from said unleashed demon for years, until he finally faces his inner darkness and becomes a powerful wizard. Voila!

And that’s the problem with this book. Maybe it was the style of fantasy writing in the 1960s, but now? It just feels all surface and no depth. This happens and then that happens and we never really get to know Ged. We just follow him on his adventures. So when there’s this huge climax at the end where Ged fights the demon and names him and it’s all supposed to be so powerful, it’s just… not. I can see the influence she had on other writers: definitely Gaiman and it felt a little like Dianna Wynne Jones as well.

But, the afterword? The afterword that was written in 2012 was fantastic. LeGuin’s personal voice is smart and sassy and gave insights that I know I missed when I was reading it. So, maybe what I need to do is pick up some of LeGuin’s essays.

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.