The Shadowhand Covenant

by Brian Farrey
First sentence: “It was exactly the funeral Nanni always wanted.”
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Others in the series: The Vengekeep Prophecies
Content: There’s some intense action-related moments, and a small amount of violence, but nothing else. It’s perfectly happy in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.

When we last left our fair Grimjinx family, they were trying to leave behind thieving. Jaxter was off to the Dowager’s estate to become apprentice to her, and the rest of the family was becoming (mostly) clean. Six months later, things aren’t exactly happy. Jaxter and the Dowager are fighting and he’s seriously considering giving up the internship altogether. So, when he heads back for Nanni’s “funeral” (it’s Par-Goblin custom to throw a funeral when a thief retires), he’s pretty much sure that he’s going to try and find another line of work.

But then, he, his Ma and Da get summoned by the Shadowhand, a super-secret organization of thieves. Someone’s making them disappear. And it seems to be tied up with valuable relics that were stolen from the High Laird. And the Sarosans — a group of gypsy-like people who are against magic and the Palatinate, the group of mages who seem to be grabbing too much power.

Of course, Jaxter gets involved (though not because he wants to; his hand is kind of forced), and he uses his knowledge of plants and powers of deduction to help him — and his friends — out.

Much of what I loved about the first book in this series is back: I adore the Grimjinxes as a family. They’re fantastic. It’s not very often that you have amazing parents in middle grade, but Ma and Da are them. Sure, Farrey has to find a way to separate Jaxter from them so he can have adventures. But they’re so supportive and just plain good people (thieving aside, of course). And I still love how bookish Jaxter is. He’s not athletic, and he’s terrible at magic, but somehow he makes his book knowledge work for him.

I also liked the action in this one; Farrey has a good sense of action sequences, and there were a couple of moments when I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what’s going to happen next.

And Farrey does a series right: each of these books have their own plot, wrapping it up by the final pages, while having a slower over-arcing plot weave them together. The writing’s smart, the characters fun. It’s fantastic.

The Real Boy

by Anne Ursu
First sentence: “The residents of the gleaming hilltop town of Asteri called their home, simply, the City.”
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Content: Some intense moments — both physically and psychologically — and the language and pacing are a bit slow, especially for a struggling reader. Still, it fits in the middle grade (3-5th grade) section of the bookstore.
Review copy snagged from the ARC shelves at my place of employment.

After I finished reading this, A took a look at it and said,”Huh.’The Real Boy’? Is that like Pinocchio?”

Well, yes. Yes it is.

The island of Aletheia is full of magic, even though there are no wizards anymore. There are magic smiths, and Oscar is the hand to one. Which means, he collects and chops the herbs and basically stays out of the way. That is, until the apprentice turns up dead and the magic smith go missing. That’s when Oscar’s world starts unraveling: everything he thought Aletheia was built on, everything he thought his master was turns out to be built upon a lie. And it’s up to Oscar and Callie, the healer’s apprentice, to figure out what the truth is, and how to set everything right. And, because I alluded to it, yes, the Pinocchio story does play a small role.

This was a lovely, lyrical book; Ursu is a magnificent, quiet writer. She knows how to evoke a feeling and a place — the forest is dark and magical and calming. And even though it’s never explicitly said, Ursu makes it obvious through little words and phrases that Oscar has some form of autism. That simple fact upped the tension when it was up to Oscar become the Hero of this story. How — if he doesn’t know how to interact with people — is he supposed to figure everything out? Enter Callie, who was a remarkable character. (In fact, all the characters, from the magic smiths to the bullies, to the people in the city who were Indulged and Coddled, were remarkably written.) She is the healer’s apprentice, magicless in a world where magic is everything, and yet she’s smart and plucky and brave, but most of all caring.

In addition to all that, and refreshingly, it’s not a start of a series! Hooray for stand-alone books! My only detriment is that I’m not sure this will appeal to many kids. But for the ones who are daring enough (or quiet enough) to pick it up, they’re in for a real treat.

(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.)

The Rithmatist

by Brandon Sanderson
First sentence: “Lilly’s lamp blew out as she bolted down the hallway.”
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Content: It’s pretty mild; there is some talk of murders, and some intense situations by the end and a mild romance. It’s only upper middle grade because of the length. I’d give it to my 10 year old, if she showed interest. It’s shelved in the YA section (grades 6-8) at the bookstore because of the length. That, and the publisher’s recommendation was 15+, which I disagree with.

Imagine a future where some unforseen disaster splits the US into several island country/states. Imagine a future where there are people — Rithmatists — who can draw with chalk and make it come… alive. Imagine a future where wild chalkings — two-dimensional chalk drawings that are sentient, somehow — can attack and kill a person. It’s in this world that Joel, a chalkmaker’s son, exists. His father used to be the chalkmaker for a prestigious Rithmatist training school, before he died. Now, Joel and his mom are scraping by. Joel would love to be a Rithmatist, but they’re chosen at age 8, in a mystical/religious ceremony, and Joel wasn’t Chosen. That hasn’t stopped his passion for Rithmacy and the history. He’s pretty much shunned until one of the top professors, Fitch, is toppled from tenure by a young upstart. And then, top students start disappearing. With another not-so-great student, Melody, Joel works at figuring out just what is threatening the students.

This was slow-going at first. I didn’t quite grasp the idea of the world, or the importance of the illustrations. Which, in many ways, is a drawback: if you can’t grab a kid in the first chapter or two, then in many ways you’ve failed as a book. But this one is worth the slog in the first couple of chapters. It takes a while, but as the mystery develops, and things become more intense, and more about the Rithmastist world is explained, Joel — and especially Melody — come into their own. The final couple of battles are quite intense and very much worth the while. And even though I kind of called the mystery, there is a bit of a twist that I didn’t see coming, which was very satisfying. And as I came to understand the illustrations — which admittedly were off-putting at first — I found them at least as fascinating as the story. If Sanderson wants to write a guidebook for the Rithmatist world, I’m sure there’d be a market for it.

I do wish — and I know that I’ve said this before — that people would stop writing series books. This one worked quite well as a stand-alone, even with a few threads hanging. I do appreciate that (even though the last three words are “To Be Continued.” ARGH). But overall, it was a fascinating world to immerse myself in.

(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.)