Review: Amari and the Night Brothers

“Still, I’m pretty surprised at how easily moving in the Sky Sprints comes for me. After about an hour, I’m keeping pace with the legacy kids as we race along the walls and take turns avoiding the obstacles…” page 171

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.

Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston.

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?

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Review: School for Good & Evil

“She had mocked the children as batty and delusional. But in the end, they had known what she didn’t – that the line between stories and real life is very thin indeed.” page 72

The School for Good and Evil (#1) by Soman Chainani, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.
HarperCollins, New York, 2013.
Fantasy novel, 488 pages.
Lexile: 830L .
AR Level: 5.2 (worth 16.0 points) .

Sophie cannot wait to be stolen from her village and attend the mysterious School of Good and Evil. She’s been doing everything she possibly can to prepare – an intensive beauty regime, rigorous fashion design, and of course good deeds such as befriending the town witch. Agatha has no interest in getting kidnapped, but when her best friend is taken, she just has to intervene. But then Agatha finds herself on the Good side, and Sophie is attending Evil classes…

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.

Not sure how I missed this series for so long. Perhaps since all the main characters are so clearly white, I overlooked that the author is Indian American. But these have been fairly popular.

Chainani’s plotting and characterization, as well as his detailed fairy-tale-based world, truly impressed me. For the last few years, I have been reading a LOT of fantasy novels for young people while working on my first diverse fantasy booklist. Particularly in middle grade fantasy, by now I can often guess what is coming next. This book was gripping because Chainani managed to continually take the plot and characters in new directions while still keeping the developments believable.

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Review: The Farthest Shore

“I do not like waste and destruction. I do not want an enemy. If I must have an enemy, I do not want to seek him, and find him, and meet him. … If one must hunt, the prize should be a treasure, not a detestable thing.” page 113

The Farthest Shore (Earthsea Cycle #3) by Ursula K. LeGuin.
My edition Aladdin Paperbacks, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001.
Fantasy, 260 pages.
Lexile: 920L .
AR Level: 6.1 (worth 10.0 points) .
NOTES: Please see review for age appropriateness. See my other posts under the Earthsea tag for more information on this series.

Arren travels with his idol Ged to solve the mystery of why magic is slowly disappearing from the islands of Earthsea.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore won the National Book Award for children’s books in 1973 and is still in print today.

The Farthest Shore is not without problems. Female characters continue to be minor or even unnamed. One secondary character suffers from mental illness and I had so many thoughts on that subplot they might not all fit in this post.

Parents and teachers should be aware of several aspects before handing this to a child. First, Arren has a crush on Ged. I read this as the sort of schoolchild hero worship that many children experience during puberty, but other readers have seen an unrequited romantic love. The text supports either interpretation. Ged absolutely does not have romantic or sexual feelings towards Arren, and their slightly forced companionship grows into mutual respect and esteem as events progress.

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Review: Dragon Egg Princess

“In the middle sat an elegant woman with a medium brown complexion who appeared ageless and formidable. She held a large ivory staff decorated with leaves and flowers in one hand. There was no doubt in Jiho’s mind that this woman was in charge.” page 109

The Dragon Egg Princess by Ellen Oh.
HaperCollins, New York, 2020.
MG fantasy, 248 pages.
Not yet leveled.

Jiho Park is an anomaly in his highly magical kingdom – part of a family not affected by magic, which makes him destined to become a ranger protecting the Kidahara.  But he wants nothing to with the forest and the magical creatures it protects and instead is intrigued by the foreigners from technologically advanced lands trying to tear down the forest in the middle of Joson.  Meanwhile, two girls whose lives have been heavily affected by magic both have their own agendas – and when all three cross paths, the whole kingdom might be affected, for better or worse.

The Dragon Egg Princess
The Dragon Egg Princess by Ellen Oh.

I wanted to love this so much – bought the hardcover, so yes I fully invested in this story.  Sadly, it underwhelmed me on many points despite the appealing blubs from several authors I trust and the fabulous cover.  Let me just take a minute to mention that I completely support Oh’s mission, her work on WNDB, and even her excellent anthologies, and continue to do so despite really not liking this book.

The setting had a unique feel.  The land of Josen, the Kidahara forest, the permeation of magic in the kingdom, everything had a twist to it somewhere.  But on the other hand it had some steampunk or even science fantasy elements, as some of the other kingdoms have no magic but focus instead on technology.  The one other region with magic was also different, so a lot was packed into this book.

Worldbuilding was clearly a major focus of Oh’s, and she has a fairly detailed mythology likely to appeal to young fans of speculative fiction.  While this book focuses on Joson, based in Korean mythology, Shane and Calvin are from another country called Bellprix and mention vampires, werewolves, and zombies.  I only wish that more of the essential information about this world had been organically included in the action or dialogue, instead of being infodumped .

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40+ Diverse Middle Grade Fantasy Novels

Lately I’ve seen several of those “What to Read After Harry Potter” type booklists*, mostly aimed at parents of middle grade readers who zoomed through that intense seven book series and are now voracious readers who aren’t quite ready for the heavier content in YA fantasy novels yet.

However, scanning through list after list, I quickly noticed few of those lists had even a single book with a character of color, let alone diverse authors.  In some ways, that makes sense.  While we’ve seen some improvements in children’s literature lately, genre fiction can be slower to change, and the “classics” haven’t caught up to new tastes in reading.  But there ARE amazing diverse fantasy novels, many by #ownvoices authors, some that have been around for decades, and I was incredibly sad that those weren’t better known.

So this is one librarian mama’s list of diverse fantasy novels.**  I considered these to be appropriate for middle grade readers, so generally not too much romance or graphic violence, but please click on the title of any book to read my full review including length, reading level, and age appropriateness – a few do skew towards older or younger MG readers.

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Review: The Tombs of Atuan

“She was not accustomed to thinking about things changing, old ways dying and new ones arising. She did not find it comfortable to look at things in that light.” p 29

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle #2) by Ursula K. LeGuin.
My edition Aladdin Paperbacks, New York, 2001; originally published 1970.
Middle grade fantasy, 180 pages.
Lexile:  840L  .
AR Level:  5.9 (worth 7.0 points)  .
NOTE: Second book in the original Earthsea trilogy.

Young Tenar has become Arha, the Eaten One, servant to the highest powers of her land.  Solely in charge of rites to infrequently-worshiped deities, she is set apart, both the most powerful and powerless priestess.  Shortly after accepting her full powers,  she faces an unexpected challenge – a Havenorian wizard entered the sacred labyrinth and walks where none but her must tread.

Aladdin Fantasy Favorites promotion Tombs of Atuan cover resized
The Fantasy Favorites promotion is not a sticker, it’s printed directly on the cover of this book! But it did mean this copy of The Tombs of Atuan cost a mere dollar second hand.

All of the books in the original Earthsea trilogy are said to be variations on coming-of-age, and I’d have to agree.  Although set in the same world as A Wizard of Earthsea, Tombs of Atuan is told entirely from Tenar’s viewpoint, and it isn’t immediately clear how the two connect.  Back when I first started reading LeGuin, I read this before either of the other Earthsea books, which don’t seem to have been obviously numbered in most versions.

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Review: Wizard of Earthsea

“Just as he turned Ged saw a change in his face, a slurring and shifting of the features, as if for a moment something had changed him, used him, looking out through his eyes sidelong at Ged. Yet the next minute Ged saw him fullface, and he looked as usual, so that Ged told himself that what he had seen was his own fear, his own dread reflected in the other’s eyes.” page 104

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle #1) by Ursula K. LeGuin.
My copy Bantam books New York, 1977; originally published 1968.
Fantasy, 184 pages.  
Lexile:  1150L  .
AR Level:  6.7 (worth 9.0 points)  .
NOTE:  First book in a trilogy, later expanded to become a series.

The early life and first adventures of the wizard Ged, a future archmage of Earthsea.

 

The 1977 Bantam Book mass market paperback edition of LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea focuses heavily on one chapter involving a dragon for the cover art.

So much to unpack in this novel.  First, I’d like to point out the original publication date.  As I’ve mentioned before, my reviews of older books are based on somewhat different expectations than a newly released publication.

This book was written for young adults at a time when that wasn’t even a category in most libraries, but it’s been variously marketed to MG or adult readers.  I had so much to say about how the majority of Earthsea covers utterly fail in their depiction of any main character that it’s a separate post. Here I’ll simply say that if you happen to pick up a copy that avoids depicting the main character’s race by putting a dragon on the cover instead, don’t expect a dragon story. As the title indicates, this story follows a wizard as his magical gifts and personal life develop, and the dragon plays only a small role.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the story of a young boy with a strong magical gift who leaves his rather pastoral homeland of Gont in stages to move ever onward, convinced by his natural talent and strong will that he will never meet a problem he can’t solve. Of course, he eventually meets his match and ends up literally and emotionally scarred and driven to correct his mistake – but having waited longer than others to find his boundaries, the corresponding payment is also higher.

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Review: The Serpent’s Secret

“There are only so many years you can fool your friends – or yourself – into thinking you are a real Indian princess, banished from your fairy tale and hiding out in a suburban split-level in northern New Jersey. No matter what your crazy parents insist.” page 3

The Serpent’s Secret (Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1) by Sayantani Dasgupta, illustrated by Vivienne To.
Scholastic, New York, 2018.
MG fantasy, 358 pages.
Lexile: 730L .
AR Level: 5.2 (worth 10.0 points) .

Kiranmala is so over her parents’ stories and dressing up like “a real Indian princess” for every birthday – they’re already overprotective and weird, do they have to keep lying about a magical land too? Then they go missing, and a rakkhosh shows up at her house closely followed by two princes. Kiranmala will have to draw on every bit of help, magic, and story to figure out how to save her parents, herself, and maybe a few others too.

Kiranmala and the Kingdom Beyond #1: The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani Dasgupta, illustrated by Vivienne To.

Dasgupta focuses on Bengali stories as her main inspiration, and it definitely gives the fantasy a fresh slant. But the writing truly brings two places to life – The Kingdom Beyond Seven Oceans and Thirteen Rivers and Kiranmala’s home in Parsippany, New Jersey – and while most of the magic happens in the Kingdom, Dasgupta manages to make New Jersey surprisingly compelling.

In particular, I was very impressed with the mix of science into the story. Science fiction and fantasy are distinct genres (along with horror and the less popular science fantasy) under the speculative fiction umbrella. Although a lot of people enjoy both, many readers don’t like to mix these two, especially in the MG range. Dasgupta takes an interesting approach – magic is fully magical and has its own internal logic, but science is also real and has parallels and applications within the story. Kiranmala discusses how astronomy and physics relate to her quest without ever losing the magic, thanks to a deft narrative hand.

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Review: Lalani of the Distant Sea

“But maybe her mother was right, and everything would be okay. It wasn’t a given that she would get mender’s disease. // Then again, it wasn’t a given that she wouldn’t.” page 69

Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly, illustrated by Lian Cho.
Greenwillow Books, HarperCollins, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 390 pages.
Lexile:  600L   .
AR Level:  4.4 (worth 7.0 points)  .

Sanlagita is a cursed isle, with harsh conditions and strict predetermined roles.  The only festival left is Sailing Day, a time of fear as the strongest Sanlagitans are sent to certain death.  But now a drought is changing things on the island for the worse.

Lalani of the Distant Sea
Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly, illustrated by Lian Cho.

This book reminded me of nothing so much as Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.  Although the story and flavor are quite different, Kelly also uses the device of stories within a longer story to great effect.  The stories are short and set off from the main text by the use of a different font and a decorative border around the margins.

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Rant About #coverfail in Earthsea

A thousand words (and some pictures) about depictions of Earthsea and the importance of cover art that better reflects diverse fantasy novels.

I was planning to cover this topic as part of my forthcoming review of A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the Earthsea Cycle (formerly trilogy) but could not cut it down to any reasonable length, and the same topic applies to many other books, including the rest of that series.

Ruth Robbins Wizard of Earthsea first cover
The first cover of A Wizard of Earthsea was illustrated by Ruth Robbins.

The first Earthsea book was published in 1968 and in the intervening 50 years, they’ve come to be seen as something of a classic of fantasy literature, frequently compared to Tolkien or the Chronicles of Narnia.  They are not without failings (which I’ll try to address in my reviews), but the Earthsea books do have one major difference to many commonly known “classic” works of fantasy – the vast majority of LeGuin’s Earthsea characters are NOT white.

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