Review: The Savage Fortress

“The air turned foggy, and Ash’s sweat turned to ice. He sank to the ground, his body wracked with pain.” page 164

The Savage Fortress (Ash Mistry #1) by Sarwat Chadda.
Arthur A. Levine, Scholastic, New York, 2012.
MG fantasy, 292 pages.
Lexile:  660L  .
AR Level:  4.6 (worth 10.0 points)  .

Ash Mistry is the pudgy video-game-loving Indian mythology nerd we never realized we needed to save the world.  Spending the summer with his sister visiting his aunt and uncle, he gets caught up in a strange archaeological dig, which leads to even stranger events.

Ash Mistry The Savage Fortress resized

This past year, two debut MG fantasy series drawing from Indian culture have gotten a lot of buzz – Aru Shah in the Rick Riordan imprint, and Scholastic’s Kiranmala Chronicles.  But those series are only releasing about one per year, so what’s a fantasy lover to do in the meantime?  Binge this already-completed trilogy, of course!

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Review: Whichwood

“Their heavy suspicion made them appear an unwelcoming lot, but this was only partly true. The truth was that they were a lively, cultured sort of people – when you got to know them – who felt they had a great deal to be afraid of; it was this last bit – this certainty of fear – that helped substantiate the paranoia that demanded their isolation.” page 81

Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi.
Dutton Children’s, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.
MG fantasy, 360 pages.
Lexile:  1080L  .
AR Level:  7.5 (worth 11.0 points)  .
NOTE: This is a direct sequel to Furthermore, although it focuses on a new character.

Laylee’s mother has died (but still haunts the house) and in his grief, her father left her alone as the final mordeshoor in the magical land called Whichwood.  At thirteen, she is overburdened by unceasing demands of the living and the dead, struggling to survive with the pittance given her and care for all the dead while desperately ill herself.

Whichwood cover

I definitely enjoyed this book just as much as the first, maybe even more.  Furthermore was a magical romp, a playful but also very serious journey through an ever-changing fantastical landscape.  Whichwood takes place almost entirely in one place, and while highly magical, it’s an orderly magical place similar to Ferenwood, so the reader has some time to get fir bearings and delve into the culture and peculiarities of Whichwood.

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Review: Furthermore

Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi.
Dutton Children’s Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
MG fantasy, 404 pages.
Lexile:  840L  .
AR Level:  5.5 (worth 12.0 points)  .

Alice Alexis Queensmeadow lives in the rather dull (at least by her standards) town of Ferenwood.  She doesn’t quite fit in, partly because she is nearly colorless, and partly because of her quirky, temperamental personality.

Furthermore resized

Mafi has an unusual writing style – you are likely to either love or hate it, and it’s difficult to describe, so I’d highly suggest reading an excerpt from this book to see if her method will be a good fit for you.  Much like her unique setting and eccentric protagonist, she writes with a blend of humor, sarcasm, drama, and pragmatic melancholy.  Even on the chapters that proceed the main adventure and are mostly worldbuilding, really, everything moves at a breakneck pace.

In the hands of another writer, any one of the many places and magics that Mafi describes could be its own story, but much like Alice in Wonderland, this Alice is focused on meeting her goals.  Her beloved Father is missing, former classmate Oliver is a thorn in her side, and her mother is cold and dismissive.

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Reivew: Hoodoo

“It felt like the world was spinning and I was hanging on, hoping I wouldn’t get thrown off and fall into darkness.” page 155

Hoodoo by Ronald L. Smith.
Clarion books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2015.
MG historical fantasy/horror, 214 pages.
Lexile:  600L  .
AR Level:  4.2 (worth 6.0 points)  .

In small-town 1930s Alabama, Hoodoo Hatcher is an unmagical twelve year old born into a folk magic family.  It’s embarrassing enough to not be able to do a simple spell when your name is Hoodoo, but it could be downright dangerous when the Stranger comes to town looking for a boy with that name.

Hoodoo cover

Hoodoo is an incredibly unique book.  Which makes it memorable and interesting, but also a bit challenging to discuss.  How do you classify it?  Hoodoo is decidedly set in the past, and some elements are very evocative of the time and place.  But it’s also definitely a magical book.  The magical elements are not simply magical realism – spells have effects (although not flashy ones) and the existence and efficacy of hoodoo are generally accepted in the town.

There are many creepy aspects.  Astral projection occurs a few times, and messages and items are sent from beyond the grave.  Lives are in danger, people are possessed, cemeteries are dug up.  I find it challenging to classify MG horror since it’s so much less scary, but my sense is that this would mainly fall into horror, with aspects of historical and fantastical fiction that make it a good entry point for readers of those genres.

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Review: The Girl From Everywhere

“Though the distance from cabin to gangplank wasn’t more than twenty feet, I was protective of the ship. Slate had told me from a very young age not to talk to strangers about Navigation.” page 168

The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig.
Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2016.
Speculative fiction, 454 pages.
Lexile:  750L  .
AR Level:  5.2 (worth 13.0 points)  .
NOTE: This book is not suggested for MG readers despite the reading level.

Nix’s father is a Navigator who can travel to any place, real or imagined as long as he has a map for it, but he’s only obsessed with getting back to the one place he cannot reach – 1868 Honolulu, where Nix’s mother died.

The Girl From Everywhere cover

Now having read this book, I can finally fully appreciate why all of the reviews were so maddeningly vague.  This is, unfortunately, the type of book that you can’t discuss with any real depth unless you’ve read it, because to discuss anything interesting is to give away part of the action.

So I apologize in advance that you might find this review to also be maddeningly vague.  In a book where the majority of the setting and even the time frequently changes (and further changes amongst real and imagined places), the focus is rather on both the characterization and the action.  Both are fast-paced!

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Review: Starry River of the Sky

“Just like that, Rendi became the chore boy at the Inn of the Clear Sky. He was not used to doing chores, so when he found a broom in his hand, he had to watch Peiyi to learn how to sweep.” page 20

Starry River of the Sky by Grace Lin.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2014.
MG fantasy, 289 pages + extras.
Lexile:  810L  .
AR Level:  5.4 (worth 7.0 points) .

Runaway Rendi seems to be the only one who noticed that the moon is missing above the village of Clear Sky!  He’s aching for someone to visit this remote village so he can stow away and leave again, but while he’s stuck here, can he unravel the peculiarities of this very odd village?

Starry River of the Sky cover resized

I was very uncertain about how this read would go (the first book in this series was a 2017 favorite) but Grace Lin has delivered another superb MG fantasy.  One of the fascinating aspects of this series is that so far each book focuses on a different character and has an independent plot, although set in the same world.

The previous book was all about journeys.  Both the exciting physical journey that Min-li went on, and to a lesser degree, the emotional journey that her parents take as they are left at home without her.  In contrast, this book is remarkably stable.  The cast of characters is noticeably smaller (although used to full effect) and the setting limited – most scenes take place in one small town and its bizarre surroundings.

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Review: Un Lun Dun

“A tarpaulin bulged from the bus’s roof like an enormous fungus. It inflated into a huge balloon, tethered by ropes from the upper windows.” page 55

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville.
Del Rey, Random House, Inc., New York, 2007.
MG fantasy, 578 pages.
Not leveled.

Twelve-year-old Zanna and her best friend Deeba find a secret portal that takes them from their hometown of London to mysterious UnLunDun, where the giraffes are carnivorous and Zanna is the Chosen One with a special destiny… right?

UnLunDun resized

I don’t know why this book doesn’t get mentioned more often.  Perhaps because it is so long for a middle grade read, or because Mieville isn’t known for his children’s literature.  In fact, I suspect many people don’t even realize it’s a children’s book, especially other editions that have a different cover.  The cover needs to be somewhat vague, because this is a book of many twists and turns.

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