Amari and the Night Brothers (Supernatural Investigations #1) by B. B. Alston.
Balzer & Bray, HarperCollins, New York, 2021.
MG fantasy, 410 pages.
Not yet leveled
NOTE: I received a free Advance Reader Edition of this book from a publicist. The artwork and other details were not finalized yet.
Amari is floundering at school and home without her brother Quinton who has been missing, presumed dead, for the past year. Since he disappeared without a trace, even her mother is starting to believe he was mixed up in something criminal – not unusual for their neighborhood, but definitely unexpected for her prodigy older sibling. Amari is determined to find him without any clear idea how to do so when she starts seeing odd things, then finds a ticking briefcase with an invitation that will change her life.
The tagline for this is “Harry Potter meets Men in Black with #blackgirlmagic.” That’s a weighty blurb to live up to, but Alston generally delivers. Potter for the magical (summer) school and hidden world alongside our own mundane reality. Men in Black for the investigations, competition, technology, and… hidden world alongside our own mundane reality.
A decade ago, students were much more specific in their genre requests. They liked fantasy or they liked science fiction and usually they didn’t like the other one. These days I have been seeing more and more genre-bending, -blending, or -blurring stories, especially in the middle grade market. Are young readers these days more open to multi-genre novels? I have long loved both, so it didn’t much matter to me which side this story ended up on.
I’ve written before about how important it is to see microaggressions appropriately portrayed in middle grade fiction, and that was an excellent aspect of this novel. Alston takes the popular fantasy trope of a “chosen one” and wonders – what if the chosen one was still Black and poor and feeling like an outsider? How would someone navigate those different realities – being different and exceptional and special, but doubly despised for being those things while also a different race or class or background than most around her?
Starting this story at a fancy private school was wise, because it gives the reader another familiar background from which to consider, and with which to contrast, Amari’s reality-enlarging experiences at the Bureau. Between Amari’s family, school, neighborhood, and magical summer internship there is a large cast of characters, but 400 pages also gives Alston room to develop a variety of interactions and settings. Being widely read also probably gave me an advantage here as many characters’ names or titles drew on a wide array of fantastical, cultural, or literary touchstones. One character that did mildly irritate me was Agent Fiona – her accent felt over done.
With so many characters, there’s sure to be some for anyone to love, and for me that was Elsie, about whom I won’t say much to avoid spoilers. The Sasquatch Knight was another favorite. The various talking elevators were also delightful, and I especially empathized with Amari’s mom, although that probably wasn’t the point here – between Riordan and Alston, I sometimes have nightmares now about sending my kids off to seemingly innocent summer camps.
This is a twisty book, and like most MG a few plot turns I saw coming, but impressively there was at least one I didn’t expect. As one would hope from the first volume in a planned series, Alston gives us answers to the main storyline while simultaneously raising many new questions to be explored later. Amari and the Night Brothers is realistic without straying too far from MG. The stakes might be high, but the general tone is hopeful.
This novel is perhaps technically a science fantasy – the Bureau relies on cutting edge technology and accepts scientific principles alongside magic, fortune-telling and mythical creatures. However, I felt this volume at least was strongly in the fantasy genre, and should appeal to fantasy readers who don’t like sci-fi, as long as they can handle some tech and a scientist or two mixed up in their magic. Alston’s natural development of this blend throughout the story was one of my favorite parts of the worldbuilding. The Sky Sprints and Stun Sticks were pitch perfect and I wish they were real.
As this is compared to Harry Potter, I do wonder if the next book can avoid the notorious second book slump, but a planned film adaption is likely to make this series also popular in both school and public libraries. Recommended.