The Traitor’s Game

traitorsgameby Jennifer Nielsen
First sentence: “The truth of where I’d been for the past three years wasn’t what anyone believed.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some intense situations and violence. It’s in the young adult (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Kestra Dallisor is the daughter of the second most powerful person in the land. Which makes her highly valuable. She survived a kidnapping attempt three years ago, and has been in exile ever since. Now, as she is summoned back to Antora by her father, she is faced, yet again, with an impossible situation: she’s been kidnapped by rebels, her beloved guard held hostage, and they’ve laid before her an impossible challenge: recover the Olden Blade, the only thing that can kill the immortal dictator of Antora. And do it in three days.

She complies, of course, but not willingly. And the things she discovers as she searches for the Blade are going to turn her world upside down.

I thought this one was a lot of fun! I enjoyed Kestra’s determination and stubbornness and her desire to receive affection from her father. She’s smart and capable and it was quite delightful reading her banter with the other characters (no one was safe from her sarcasm). And there were a couple of twists in there that caught me off guard (happily so) and led the story in interesting directions. It’s the first in a series, so while it has a conclusion, it leaves it open for the story to take off in intriguing directions.

Highly recommended.

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Gregor the Overlander

by Suzanne Collins
First sentence: “Gregor had pressed his forehead against the screen for so long, he could feel a pattern of tiny checks above his eyebrows.”
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Content: There are a couple of battles and some tense moments. It is in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

First a story: M read this when she was about 10 or 11 years old, and told me that it was SO good and that I needed to read it. I balked: Gregor goes underground and goes on a quest with talking cockroaches?! Ew. (I loathe cockroaches. Ugh.) She finally, after years of bugging me, gave up and moved on. However, when I saw it on the list for the science fiction/fantasy module in my children’s lit class, I remembered M’s urging and I picked it up (finally!).

And you know what? She was right. (Not the first time.) The basic premise is that Gregor, whose father has been missing for 2 years, falls into the Underland, a world where there are some humans who live in an uneasy peace with giant spiders, cockroaches, and bats, and whose mortal enemies are the giant rats. (And yes, all the animals talk.) Once there, Gregor finds out that he may be/is the Warrior who would fulfill the prophecy, perhaps bringing peace between the humans and the rats. And, oh by the way, the rats have his dad, so maybe they can rescue him, too.

Yeah, it sounds trite: there are talking animals and a prophecy (they’re all the rage!) but Collins is quite masterful in telling a story. She keeps the action moving, she makes us care about Gregor and all the other Underlanders and she even gives us a nice twist at the end that careful readers will see coming (I didn’t guess, but I wasn’t surprised). And she included Gregor’s 2-year-old sister, Boots, who is literally the best character ever. She’s funny and charming, and provides a humanity to the other characters that otherwise wouldn’t be there.

Oh, and this is a bit of a spoiler: I cried when one of the cockroaches died.

It’s just that good.

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.

5 Worlds: The Sand Warrior

by Mark Siegel, Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, Boya Sun
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: May 2, 2017
Content: There’s some intense action moments. It will be in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

This came into the store, and I passed it off to K, since she’s the graphic novel aficionado in the house. She took it, read it, and came home raving about it. Made me sit down and read it (while she read it again over my shoulder!) pretty much right then.

And she’s right: this one’s a winner.

Oona is a sand dancer on one of the five worlds. She’s learning to control the sands, and perhaps see the Chosen One, the one who will fill the prophecy and light the beacons. (Though lighting the beacons is a source of contention: not everyone in the worlds thinks that will save the dying worlds…) Oona’s not a star student by any means; she finds she can’t control the sands. And so when Oona receives a letter from her sister who left a year earlier, she decides, on the eve of Beacon Day (when they choose the Chosen One), to ditch everything and see her sister.

And that’s where the adventure starts. Through a series of accidents, she meets An Tzu, a boy from the slums who has a knack for getting out of tough situations and Jax Amboy, a famous starball player who has a couple  of secrets. Together, the three of them set out to figure out the prophecy and find someone to light the beacons.

That doesn’t do it justice, really. It’s fun, it’s packed full of suspense and adventure, and I love the mythology and lore that the authors have created. I also really liked the different worlds and creatures they’ve created. It’s a inventive story while retaining a sense of familiarity (I mean, how many times have we read a Chosen One story, after all?).

It’s really one of the best graphic novels I’ve read in a while, though.

The Heart of Betrayal

by Mary E. Pearson
First sentence: “
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Review copy snagged off the ARC shelves at my place of employment.
Release date: July 7, 2015
Others in the series: The Kiss of Deception
Content: There’s violence, and a hint at sex (but none actual). It’s kind of slow moving, and complex, but it should be find for the younger end of the age range. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for The Kiss of Deception. You’ve been warned.

Lia is a prisoner in the “barbaric” country of Venda, having been kidnapped by Kaden, the assassin, and dragged there as a prize for the Komizar, Vendan’s ruler. Venda doesn’t take prisoners; their reputation for violence is well-deserved. But because Kaden has a thing for Lia, so he made an exception.

Lia regrets that now.

It doesn’t help that Rafe — the prince Lia was initially supposed to marry and whom she fell in love with when they were both pretending to be commoners — is also a prisoner in Venda, masquerading as an inept emissary. They have to keep it under wraps that they know each other (let alone that they care for each other), or they are both dead.

And that’s just the beginning.

It’s a twisty, turn-y maze of lies, double crossing, manipulation, maneuvering, and deception, and I loved every minute. Even the love triangle, which could have been trite, worked to Pearson’s advantage. Kaden and Rafe play off each other, and I truly didn’t care, really, which one Lia “ended” up with. (Honestly: the woman is her own woman, and doesn’t need either of them. You go girl!) There was complexities to the relationships that Lia had with both of them, and even though Pearson wrote that Rafe was Lia’s True Love, I never felt that that relationship defined her.

But what intrigued me most was Lia’s role in Venda, how she plays against the Komizar, trying to outsmart him, using his weaknesses (of which there are few) to her advantage. The Komizar is the primary villain, but Pearson gives him layers; he’s not simply an Evil Dictator Overlord (though there is some of that). Additionally, there was an element of prophecy to the book that could have been oppressive and lame, but I felt Pearson even worked that to her advantage. And Pearson is still ruthless: killing people right and left.

Of course, this ended on a cliff-hanger, and I have to WAIT until the next one comes out. Which is always the most difficult part.

Excellent.

Rebel Belle

by Rachel Hawkins

First sentence: “Looking back, none of this would have happened if I’d brought lip gloss the night of the Homecoming Dance.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing, and some (somewhat oblique) references to sex. Plus some violence. None of which is enough to make it “objectionable”, so it’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Harper Price is one of those annoyingly perfect people. She’s the president of everything, super involved in her school. Great grades, popular friends, the Perfect Boyfriend. She’s even going to be crowned Homecoming Queen. (Seriously: about 50 pages into the book. I’m thinking she’s the embodiment of everyone I loathed in high school.) So, the last thing she expected, when she went to the restroom the night of the homecoming dance to touch up her lip gloss, was to get superpowers. She inadvertently stumbled into a world with Mages and Paladins — who are protectors, and it’s the powers Harper ended up with — who have sworn to protect the Oracle. Who just happens to be the person Harper loathes most.

There’s a lot more going on in this novel, including boyfriend drama and a Cotillion, but that’s basically the gist of it.  Harper, the annoyingly perfect girl, gets powers and becomes awesome.

I was in the mood a while back for something completely fluffy, something that was fun, but not taxing, so I turned to an author who I knew would deliver. And Hawkins did. Yeah, there’s probably some inconsistencies in the book and it’s definitely really white. (Then again, it’s Alabama.) No, it’s not as good as Hex Hall. However, it IS fun. It’s got that delightfully quirky Southern feel to it (I loved Harper’s great-aunts), and the magic is clever and different. But mostly, it was just FUN. Which is all I really wanted out of this book.

I even enjoyed it enough to pick up the second one. 

The Vengekeep Prophecies

by Brian Farrey
First line: “Even weeks later, I heard rumors that I had ruined the Festival of the Twins.”
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Content: Aside from the fact that Jax and his family are thieves — and  I suppose adults might have a problem with their kids reading that (though I don’t know why…), and maybe some scary monsters (depending on how sensitive your kids are; they’re not that scary) there’s absolutely nothing untoward in this book. Resides quite happily in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

Jax Grimjinx is a thief. He comes from a long line of thieves. It’s the family business, and has been for centuries. There’s only one problem: Jax is a bookish nerd, a klutz, and actually is quite a terrible thief. (Yes, it is his fault — this time — that the Grimjinx family ended up in jail.) Then a suspiciously convenient prophecy turns up, putting his family at the center as the Heroes. It predicts all sorts of Dire Perils for the town of Vengekeep, which start coming true. (It wasn’t supposed to: there really is no such thing as Lava Men.) There’s seemingly no stop to it. Until Jax with his bookishness figures out there might be a Way to break the prophecy. And it’s up to him — and his new friend, Callie — to go and get what is needed.

There’s so much to love in this book. Jax is a terrific character: a bookish kid (I love that he’s wearing glasses. I know it’s a little thing, but I do love it.), an unwilling hero, and yet he finds a way to outsmart the more Savvy characters and Save the Day. I love his relationship with Callie; none of that sappy romance stuff (I’ve decided that I don’t like romance in my middle grade fanatsy), but a good solid friendship that works. I love that it’s all plausible and that the “prophecy” isn’t something that’s set in stone, which gets old after a while. And the writing is tight; it kept me reading, turning pages, wondering what is going to happen next. I’m just glad the second one, The Shadowhand Convenant, just came out. Because I don’t want to wait to see what happens next to Jax and his family.

(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)