“Dante nodded, and Pao immediately felt bad for using her phony posh voice. Emma never sounded like that. That was her life, the same way this ones was Pao’s. It just felt strange that they were so far apart sometimes, like Emma was in a world Pao couldn’t reach.” page 24
Paola Santiago and the River of Tears (Paola Santiago #1) by Tehlor Kay Mejia. Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 354 pages. Lexile: 840L . AR Level: 5.9 (worth 15.0 points) .
Paola loves space and finds her mother’s fantastical beliefs embarrassing – there’s no scientific reason why she and her friends shouldn’t meet up near the Gila River. But then Emma never arrives at their rendezvous, so Paola teams up with their best friend Dante to mount a rescue that involves little science or logic, and a whole lot of mythology.
I’ve been wanting to read more Latine MG fantasy novels, and Mejia certainly delivered with this series starter. Paola is a practical dreamer who wants to be a scientist but knows it’s going to take hard work to get there. She has two best friends; Dante lives in the apartment above her with his abuela, and Emma joined their circle when she moved to the area from Colorado a few years ago. Although we hear a lot about Emma and Pao even talks to her parents, Emma herself is not present – it’s her disappearance that leads her friends into the magical world.
“Aru held her breath as the familiar weightless sensation of the portals swept through her.” page 50
Aru Shah and the Tree of Wishes (Pandava #3) by Roshani Chokshi. Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2020. MG fantasy, 386 pages including back matter. Lexile: 760L . AR Level: 5.4 (worth 13.0 points) . NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for previous books in the series.
Aru and company manage to flub their mission to protect two targets and receive a prophecy, only to find that the targets are twin sisters and their last remaining Pandava siblings. Moreover, the prophecy has a line about one sister being untrue which has everyone second guessing each other and allows the Sleeper to sow dissension among the group. Aru believes the only way to fix this mess is to find Kalpavriksha, the wish-granting tree from the Ocean of Milk. She’ll need her allies both old and new to surmount this new quest!
I was not prepared for this to include foster children. Granted, some aspects of care are different in the magical world of the Pandavas, but that still was something I hadn’t seen in other reviews before reading this for myself. While it didn’t quite match with the logistical details of real-life foster care, the emotional aspects rang true, and I was willing to forgive some magical hand-waving here. In particular, the backstory about Nikita’s love for fashion and their parents leaving them in care to protect them were especially moving.
The twins are Guyanese – open for a wide variation in appearance, but they are described as Black and blue-eyed. The official illustrations are lighter than I’d imagined from the text. Nikita has plant-based powers, while prophetess Sheela is simpler and more sensitive. The girls are only ten, so even when officially recognized by their godly ‘fathers,’ they don’t receive weapons. Instead each gets a choker necklace (Sheela a silver star, Nikita a green heart) which serves as a tracking device and placeholder. Chokshi’s attempts to include such a wide variety of representation for Indian-Americans with various cultural backgrounds and family situations are welcome and well-done.
“The far wall of the glade exploded in a shower of broken branches and fetterlings. More butterflies took to the air as the largest fetterling I could’ve ever imagined tried to squeeze through a gap like a T. rex.” page 181
Tristan Strong’s lost his first big match as a boxer and is sent to stay with his grandparents in Alabama. His deceased friend Eddie’s journal, with a mysterious glow only he can see, keeps ending up in his bag although he didn’t pack it. When a strange thief tries to steal the book, Tristan fights back… even if it means disturbing a bottle tree, unleashing an ancient evil, and falling into the land of Alke.
Confession: I liked this book very much, but didn’t love it, and can’t quite figure out why. Perhaps I’m burnt out on MG fantasy? Over the past three years, I’ve read more than a hundred, so MG fantasy has taken up a larger than normal portion of my free reading lately. So many aspects I loved, somehow didn’t quite coalesce for me. Three times I put this down to finish reading another book that felt more compelling. Yet at the same time, I kept coming back and wanting to finish. I’ll definitely get the next book in the series.
Mbalia’s worldbuilding is excellent. His villains in particular strike the perfect balance for middle grade – the stuff of nightmares but not invincible, firmly grounded in myth, history, and real fears, and many with complex backstory or growth patterns. I loved the endpaper maps of Alke and want a poster for my wall!
Also, I appreciated that he didn’t follow the RRP template. This far in to the imprint, plus reading widely in the genre, there is definitely a difference between those who write a Riordan-style series with different cultural trappings, and authors with their own unique ideas. Both are important but the latter tend to have more longevity.
“Cautiously, I nudged both of them with Charm. If they detected that I was a fox and ratted me out, I’d be toast.” page 93
Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee. Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2019, my edition 2020. MG speculative fiction, 312 pages. Lexile: 780L . AR Level: 5.9 (worth 13.0 points) .
Min Kim is stuck on the un-terraformed planet of Jinju with her family, pretending to be human, performing an endless cycle of dreary chores, and waiting for the day she turns 15 and can join her brother in the Space Forces and finally see the world. Then a stranger arrives saying Jun is a deserter who left to search for the fabled Dragon Pearl, which 200 years ago was supposed to transform Jinju.
My absolute favorite part of this entire story is that it’s assumed that space will be dominated by Asian culture, in the way that so very many speculative fiction authors have constantly assumed white dominance. Lee never explains away the setting, although he does keep it readable for all. I loved details like not looking a superior directly in the eye and larger worldbuilding aspects, like how important gi and meridians are in ship design and maintenance.
“Aru knew that not all parents stick around – not all can, for whatever reason. It isn’t the kid’s fault, and sometimes it isn’t even the parent’s, either.” page 306
Aru Shah and the Song of Death (Pandava Series #2) by Roshani Chokshi.
Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2019.
MG fantasy, 381 pages including glossary.
Lexile: 700L .
AR Level: 5.1 (worth 13.0 points) .
NOTE: This review contains spoilers for the previous book.
Aru Shah and her friend Mini are back – and need to clear Aru’s name quick after a thief wearing her form stole the god of love’s bow and arrows. In order to stop the thief’s horde of heartless zombies, they’ll have to team up with extra-strength Brynne and that unusual guy from across the street.
This installment of the Pandava series introduces two new characters, sidelines some who were main players in the first book (mostly Boo) and involves a lot of courtly intrigue.
The underworld apparently operates under the idea of guilty until proven innocent, so even though there’s a picture proving that a malicious doppelganger stole the bow and arrows, not Aru, she still has to quest to clear her name by finding the real thief and retrieving the stolen goods. Plus some of the people they’re battling have the favors of the gods, and Aru and friends don’t get extra help while they’re considered criminals.
“Words did have power. When she said the word Pandava, all the feelings that came from discovering who she really was uncoiled like a spring jumping to life.” p. 33
Aru Shah and the End of Time (Pandava Series #1) by Roshani Chokshi.
Rick Riordan Presents, Disney Hyperion, New York, 2018.
MG fantasy, 356 pages including glossary.
Lexile: 630L .
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 12.0 points) .
Aru didn’t mean to bring about the end of the universe. She was just trying to impress the so-called friends who caught her in a lie. But then it also turns out that she’s been learning all those old folktales from her mom for a reason.
I’m constantly shocked when I go to look up my review for this book and then realize that I’ve never yet reviewed it, although I’ve been referencing it since this May 2018 review. We’ve actually read it several times already too. Clearly it’s past time that I review this novel!
Aru Shah was the story that kicked off the much-anticipated Riordan Presents imprint, so it got a lot of buzz. The first volume was well-received and by this time the third has been announced. Beyond the obvious critical reviews, our family has also highly enjoyed reading Aru’s adventures.