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.

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Fridays with the Wizards

fridaysby Jessica Day George
First sentence: “It was good to be home.”
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Others in the series: Tuesdays at the Castle, Wednesdays in the Tower, Thursdays with the Crown
Content: These books are so great for those middle readers who don’t like super long books, but want action-packed stories. Not too many difficult words, and George keeps them short and sweet. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Now that Castle Glower is whole again and Wizard Arkwright is captured, Celie figures her work is done and she can just go back to normal. Except that normal isn’t, well, normal anymore. Lilah and Lulath are engaged (yay!) and so there are preparations to go to Grath and meet Lulath’s family. The king decides that a ship really needs to be built. And people keep bonding with all the baby griffins, though they soon learn that it’s the griffins who choose, not the people.

Celie isn’t happy with all these changes, but she can deal. Until they discover that Wizard Arkower has escaped his prison and is creeping around the secret passageways of the Castle. Celie’s the one who knows the Castle best, and so it falls on her to figure a way to capture the wizard. If she can.

This series is such a delight. I love that the family is a good one, that Celie has challenges that are outside of her family and that her family is generally supportive of her as a person. It’s wonderfully refreshing. I also enjoy that these books build on each other while offering an individual adventure that actually comes to a stopping point. No real cliffhangers, which is nice. And that she writes at a kids’ level without talking down to them. It really is a fun series. I’ll definitely be sad when it ends.

As a bonus, I got to host her here for school visits and a store event a couple weeks ago. She’s just as delightful as her books!

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The Wand & the Sea

by Claire Caterer
First sentence: “Holly Shepard was unlike most twelve-year-olds in that she didn’t at all mid sharing a cramped cottage bedroom with her pudgy, snoring, laptop-loving younger brother.”
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Others in the series: The Key & the Flame
Review copy provided by the author’s publicist.
Content: It’s kind of slow to start, and the fantasy is more Narnia-esque than Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. Even so, there’s nothing content-wise, and if there’s a 9- or 10-year-old who likes Narnia, they’ll probably love this. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

It’s been a year since siblings Holly and Ben and their British friend Everett have been to the magical land of Anglielle, where Holly can do magic, and where they’re caught up in a good versus evil battle. They’re determined to get back, but this time, the portal they used before won’t work. This time, it’s the water element that’s highlighted. This time, they need to rescue their friends, who have been imprisoned by the king, and try and find the other adepts, who have been exiled from Anglielle.

Of course, it’s not a simple thing: Everett is still playing the role of the sulky somewhat traitor (think Edmund), the prince Avery’s loyalties are still in question. They do meet a group of pirates, on the ship the Sea Witch, that are quite fascinating. And when Holly finally confronts the Big Bad Guy, it’s pretty intense.

I went back and re-read my review/reaction to the first book in the series, and it seems I liked it. I had a less positive experience this time around; the first book didn’t stay with me as much, and it’s been a couple of years, and it took me longer to get into this story. Still, it’s channeling Narnia quite well, and in the end, the adventure was satisfying, while leaving room for another sequel. (I’m starting to suspect there will be four in all; one for each element.)

Not bad, overall.

Thursdays with the Crown

by Jessica Day George
First sentence: “‘You are not leaving me behind,’ Celie repeated.
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Others in the series: Tuesdays at the Castle, Wednesdays in the Tower
Content: There’s nothing objectionable, really. It’s a good book for both readers who love fantasy, and for struggling readers — lots of white space, and short chapters — who need action. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

When we last left Celie, Rolf, and Lila, they had just disappeared from Slene (along with Lulath and Pogue). No one knew where they went or why the castle sent them away.

As the book opens, Celie and her intrepid siblings and friends are stuck in a place they didn’t know existed. And they need to find the Glorious Arkower, the head magician, to go back to Slene. Except, things aren’t that simple. They discover that Rufus (Celie’s griffin) isn’t the only one; he’s got parents. Who happen to be the king and queen of the Royal Griffins. The motley crew manages to find and hatch a couple more griffin eggs (one for everyone!) and discover that the Glorious Arkower is… not so glorious. And things aren’t as simple. The question is: can Celie figure out a way to return back (and wake up!) the castle she loves?

This is such an adorable series, though I think it might be one that’s better read in one sitting. Sure, I fell pretty fast into the world (I haven’t read the other two in a while). But, I think I would have liked it more had I read them all in quick succession. Even so, Celie’s delightful, Lulath’s still my favorite, and I’ll happily spend time in Slene with them for as long as George wants to write about them

The Iron Trial

by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
First sentence: “From a distance, the man struggling up the white face of the glacier might have looked like an ant crawling slowly up the side of a dinner plate.”
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Content: There’s some intense violence at the start, but nothing worse than, say, Harry Potter. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore. We’ll see how the series goes; it might change.

Callum has grown up believing that magic is bad, that the mages at the Magisterium only put their interests in front of the students, that his leg which was injured as a baby and never healed right was the fault of the mages. His father — once a mage himself — has told Call this among other things. So when Call gets summoned for the Iron Trial — the selection process for the Magesterium — his father tells him to throw the entry. And, because Call is only 12 years old, he tries. And fails. He gets into the Magesterium and is exposed not only to the dreaded magic, but also the story of his past that his father never told.

I’m just going to come out and say it: it’s Harry Potter. The similarities are really numerous — a boy raised as an outsider finds out he’s magic, he has a special calling, he was at the death/disappearance of the Enemy and has a connection to him (um… bit of a spoiler, there. Sorry.), the story takes place over a school year, he has two friends (a boy and a girl), there’s a rich snob bully boy, and on and on.

Except, for all the similarities, it works. I’ve been looking for a (good) Harry Potter read-alike for years, and this one — Black and Clare are superb writers in their own right — fills the bill. The world building is solid, the magic interesting. And there’s a bit of a twist that caught me off guard. So, even though there’s solid Harry Potter similarities, it’s definitely worth reading.

The Glass Sentence

by S. E. Grove
First sentence: “It happened long ago, when I was only a child.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s nothing objectionable or scary. It is, however, nearly 500 pages and it’s small type and that can be intimidating. (A was initially intimidated. I think I’ve convinced her to read it.) It’s also kind of slow-moving, with a lot of tricky names, so probably not the best book for a reluctant reader.

I think the best place to start with this one is Megan Whalen Turner’s quote on the back cover: “Not since Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass have I seen such an original and compelling world built inside a book.”

That’s quite a lot for a book to live up to (MWT! Philip Pullman! Original! Compelling!) but you want to know something? She was right. So very, very right.

In 1799, something happened, and the whole world shifted. It came to be known as the Great Disruption, and what it did was cause different parts of the globe to be in different time periods. Europe was stuck in the middle ages, the Northwest Territory in a prehistoric ice age. What we know as the 13 colonies stayed in linear time, for the most part, though they never developed much farther than that. Past the Mississippi River and into Mexico is what is known as the Baldlands, a hodgepodge of raiders and outlaws, except for three cities which are known as the Triple Era, with people and creatures spanning 3000 years in the same place.

Pretty cool, no?

It’s no wonder that in this world explorers and map-makers are held in the highest esteem. And Sophie Tam’s uncle, Shadrack Elli, is one of the best. He’s been raising his niece ever since her parents — also explorers — disappeared. She’s learned to live without knowing about her parents, and she’s learned how to read the maps that Shadrack makes. So when he’s kidnapped, she’s really the only person who can save him.

The world is brilliant, and the use of maps and magic (of sorts, though kind of not really “magic” as you’re thinking about it; it’s more future techonology) are refreshingly unique. But, once the plot starts going (which, admittedly takes a while), it picks up and becomes one of those books you can’t put down. I was thrilled with the world, with Sophie and her friend Theo and their increasingly intense and urgent adventure. I thought that Grove captured an interesting balance between the older people — like Shadrack — and their expertise and the younger ones — like Sophie — who were able to see things in a new and different light. I loved the use of time and Ages and invented words; I haven’t seen this kind of  creativity in naming things since Harry Potter. I also loved that the “bad guy” wasn’t wholly evil. That while they did some morally questionable things, it wasn’t a pure black and white thing. There’s layers here: yes, it’s a middle grade fantasy adventure, but it’s also so much more.

I can’t wait for the sequel.

Exile

by Shannon Messenger
ages: 9+
First sentence: “Sophie’s hands shook as she lifted the tiny green bottle.”
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Others in the series: Keeper of the Lost Cities
Review copy snagged off the review shelves at my place of employment.

First off: kids like this series. So, take everything I say about it with a HUGE grain of (adult) salt. Also: spoilers for the first one. Obviously.

Sophie is still living with the elves. She’s still multitalented, which many of her age-mates find annoying. She’s still trying to get used to living with her adopted family. And she’s still trying to figure out who the Black Swan are, and why they created her.

It’s a lot for a 12-year-old to handle.

Especially since she found a rare alicorn — part unicorn, part Pegasus — in the woods and brought it home. It could “reset the timeline” (no, I have no idea what that means), and so Sophie’s been given charge (reluctantly) by the Council to tame and train the alicorn. Which, of course, she forms a bond with.

Much like the first one, this one was TOO long. Sure, there was a lot of white space and the text is big, but at 570 pages, I was exhausted before I was halfway through. And, much like the last one, I feel like Messenger has a good story in here. This time, though, she needed an EDITOR to hack her stuff down to 250 pages. (Especially all of Sophie’s anxiety moments. ENOUGH ALREADY.) I did like some of the characters — Keefe, especially– and I thought Messenger tied up the story nicely while leaving some threads for the next book.

(Can I hope for that one to be shorter??)

But, as I said at the first, kids do seem to like this series. It’s good for those who aren’t old enough for Harry Potter or want more like that. But it’s just not doing it for me.