Category Archives: Fantasy
Goodreads: The Mostly True Story of Jack
Summary: All his life, people have ignored Jack. Their eyes glance over him as if he is invisible, they forget to speak to him, and they never notice when his image disappears from photographs. When he visits his aunt and uncle in Hazelwood, Iowa, then, Jack is surprised to discover that others take an interest in him. He makes new friends, encounters the neighborhood bully and—strangest of all—finds himself the enemy of the richest man in town. Only by uncovering the secret of his past will Jack learn the truth about the happenings in Hazelwood—but the locals talk about magic, and Jack can never believe in anything as ridiculous as that.
Review: The Mostly True Story of Jack has an intriguing premise: an overlooked boy, a town full of magic, and an ancient curse about to awake. It possesses all the components for a satisfying, if not completely original, middle-grade fantasy. The book tries, however, to present itself as more profound than it is. Standard fantasy fare mixes with random cryptic statements about truth and stories, and the result is a book that both explains too much and too little. More than anything else, the book is confusing.
The beginning of the book promises an exciting adventure story perhaps in the vein of Harry Potter or 100 Cupboards—a boy who has never experienced much love finds himself in a new place, the center of attention, and about to discover a world full of magic. The possibilities seem endless. Unfortunately, Jack lacks the intellectual curiosity that would allow him to take advantage of this situation and the story quickly falls flat. Jack fails to see obvious clues that line up in front of him, cannot get anyone to answer his questions even though they all obviously expect him to do something cool with magic and soon, and continues to ignore all the magic in front of him so that he mostly presents himself as stubborn and annoying.
Granted, a realistic view of affairs might suggest a boy would not gleefully hand himself over to the possibility of magic, but his hesitance would have been easily overcome if the other characters had not had some inexplicable aversion to telling him what they all already know anyway. Their refusal to speak to him about the happenings in town does not seem realistic, but merely a ploy to lengthen the suspense for readers. Readers will probably get the gist of the “mystery” anyway, so this tactic mostly makes the characters seem a little superior and obnoxious.
Perhaps as a result of their strange silence, I never connected emotionally with the majority of the characters. They seem a little flat, a little too stock, all the way from the bully with a backstory to the magician who sold his soul like Faustus. Jack’s uncle the quirky professor has potential, but Jack likes to avoid him for some reason, so he does not enter the story as much as I would have liked. Jack’s three new friends comprise the other interesting characters—they seem like friends I would like to have—but one of them, Wendy, gets most of the attention. I can only assume she satisfies the requirement for a smart, independent, and slightly aggressive female and thus needs to be featured more than the other males.
[Spoiler Warning] Wendy regrettably also ends up fulfilling the apparently necessary role of love interest in the story. If anything, I saw a romance budding between her and her long-time friend Anders, who has the intelligence to hold her hand in order to cover up some scars she incurred in a questionable activity. I thought it was a cute gesture, perhaps conveying more than Wendy supposed. However, poor Anders cannot hold out against the interest of the main protagonist. Jack develops feelings for Wendy seemingly out of thin air and she appears to reciprocate them. Alas for Anders.
The story might have risen above the problems of characterization if the plot had had enough suspense and action to keep the interest of readers, but unfortunately the rules of this particular magical world do not seem wholly developed and the events were thus somewhat hard to follow. Some explanations for events were given, but sometimes they seemed vague and sometimes they seemed irrelevant. In the end, everything was supposed to come together because of some insight about how everyone has good and evil within them, but this development sprang forth suddenly and did not mesh with much of anything that had come before.
I enjoyed reading The Mostly True Story of Jack, but I assumed as I was reading that the relevance of the title would reveal itself and that events would somehow come together to create a satisfying conclusion. That never happened. I can only hope that one day a sequel will appear explaining everything.
Goodreads: Liesl & Po
Summary: Liesl lives in the attic, locked away from the world by her cruel stepmother. Then one day a ghost named Po appears in her room, drawn to her without quite knowing why. Liesl hopes that Po can get a message to her father on the Other Side, but placing his soul at rest will require more than a few comforting words. Along with Po and an alchemist’s apprentice, Liesl will dare to break free from the attic and bring light back to a darkened world.
Review: Liesl & Po will prove a familiar read to any lover of fantasy, fairy tales, or Victorian or Edwardian literature. Elements from all three genres combine to create a story that is comfortable, but not highly original. All the usual ingredients necessary for a quirky, light read set in a world based on our own, but with magic, and taking place in the late 1800s or early 1900s appear: a beautiful girl wronged by an evil stepmother, a bungling magician and his inept apprentice, an icy villain, and a host of other characters all exuberantly Dickensonian in their caricature-like personalities. A series of coincidences and comical chase scenes interspersed with heartwarming professions of friendship heightens the impression that the author read a lot of Dickens while the villain strongly resembles C. S. Lewis’s Jadis/White Witch. Suspense is not the book’s strong point.
Fans of similar books will enjoy Liesl & Po, and those who do not regularly read fantasy may find themselves engaged, if not surprised by any plot twists. However, despite the strong praise the book received upon its publication, I cannot in good conscience say that I find anything special about it. The characters are flat and the story predictable. The most original part of the book is probably the depiction of the Other Side, where souls go after death (at least for a time), but even this reminded me of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaues trilogy. I would recommend this as a comfort read on a rainy day, or as a gift book since the hardcover version is gorgeous and the pencil illustrations really beautiful.
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Goodreads: The Magician’s Nephew
Series: The Chronicles of Narnia #1
Summary: When Digory’s magician uncle trick him and his friend Polly into wearing his magic rings, the children find themselves in place they believe is the gateway to a number of new worlds. Wonder turns into worry, however, when they visit a dying world and unwittingly release an ancient evil that will follow them home to their world and then to the newly created Narnia.
When I first read The Magician’s Nephew in fourth grade, I was not impressed. After the excitement of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, this book seemed pretty tame. The main character was, first of all, a boy (Polly has always seemed a bit ancillary to me) and a lot less happens, in terms of action. Digory and Polly accidentally release a crazy sorceress and then, what? Watch a world get born. Half the time, the crazy sorceress is not even around; she is off ruining the lives of people who are not the main characters.
Re-reading has slowly changed my opinion. In the first place, I have grown to believe that watching a world come into being is interesting after all. There is the obvious enjoyment that readers learn a few fun facts from this book, such as where the lamppost and the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe originate, but there is also a more subtle pleasure to be had in watching Aslan bring Narnia to life. The connections between Aslan and God are fairly obvious here; he is the Creator, he is both terrifying and wonderful, and he knows everything about you. Watching Lewis’s imagining of how a Creator might operate is fascinating. The Magician’s Nephew, then, is a bit more about the experience of art and creation than about an exciting plot.
Nonetheless, the book does have entertaining moments. Digory’s Uncle Andrew is a schemer with no backbone to support his plans, and it gets him into some hilarious situations when he must interact with people of stronger personalities. Likewise, the Talking Animals Aslan creates get into lots of scrapes while exploring the new world around them. And, yes, there is the rampaging evil Sorceress. While these moments have never struck me as comprising the bulk of the book, they do add lots of life and fun.
Finally, this is Narnia and it is Christian allegory, so of course there are moral lessons. However, Lewis manages to incorporate them into the plot; it is Digory learning the lessons, and then the reader tangentially, so it never sounds preachy. As a child, I never felt Lewis was talking down to me or purposely trying to instruct me from his vantage as a wise adult, and I never get that sense from re-reading.
The Magician’s Nephew is a quieter book than some of the other Chronicles, but it is imaginative and ultimately charming. It also helps complete the circle of Narnia’s existence by presenting its origin, and I think portraying a world from start to finish is a beautiful concept for a series.
Goodreads: The Oracle Betrayed
Series: The Oracle Prophecies #1
Summary: The Speaker-of-the-God interprets the Oracle and relays divine messages to the people. Mirany, who also serves in the Temple, knows that the Speaker no longer hears the god and has plans to appoint her own king to rule. Joined by a drunken musician and an ambitious scribe, Mirany must find the god’s chosen successor to the throne before time runs out.
Review: The Oracle Betrayed provides a fast-paced adventure filled with mystery and just a little bit of magic. It perhaps has pretensions to being a bigger story than it is, particularly with its emphasis on the diverse cast of characters caught up in royal intrigue, but it remains an engaging story despite its failure fully to flesh out many of the personalities it introduces. Fans of Fisher and of fantasy alike will enjoy this introduction to what promises to be an exciting new world.
Though the book constantly switches perspectives, the story largely focuses on Mirany, a servant of the god newly promoted to Bearer-of-the-God. Her job largely consists of carrying the scorpions that may or may not be the physical presence of the deity her land worships. Despite this distinction, Mirany remains a shy, awkward girl who often feels homesick and cannot justify the special treatment she receives from the rest of the populace. Timid or quiet readers will immediately relate to her and appreciate the quiet strength she does not even know she possesses.
Mirany’s growth as a character truly grounds the story. While Fisher hints at unexpected depth in the rest of the characters, even the revelations about their personalities seems stereotyped. Thus, the washed-out musician has more skill to him than meets the eye; the ambitious and cold-hearted youth really cares about his family; and the stuck-up rich girl has enough pride to give her morals. Anyone who reads fantasy on a regular basis will expect these developments. As a result, the draw of the story does not lie in the characters, but in the plot.
Fighting, treachery, intrigue, and theft abound in The Oracle Betrayed. Although technically Mirany and her allies have the power of the god on their side, the god does not guarantee positive outcomes (he does, after all, choose to manifest himself as a stinging deadly scorpion). Thus, enough suspense exists to keep the narrative fresh. I was particularly pleased to note that Fisher did not unnecessarily draw out the action, either. Her Relic Master series could have condensed the contents of four books into two or three; The Oracle Betrayed stops while it is still ahead.
Since I did receive some closure from this installment, I do not know that I will hasten out to the library for book two anytime soon. Still, The Oracle Betrayed proves a solid, if somewhat familiar, fantasy read.
Goodreads: In a Glass Grimmly
Series: A Tale Dark and Grimm #2
Summary: When a strange woman offers Jack and Jill the chance to gain their deepest desires, the two rashly accept her bargain: they will seek one of the world’s most powerful magical objects in exchange for the chance to be admired. The two face giants, goblins, and dangerous beasts on their quest, but discover that what they want they possessed all along. A companion book to A Tale Dark and Grimm.
Review: Gidwitz’s second novel works on the same premise as the first: that children can handle and even deserve the horrible, bloody versions of the original fairytales recorded by the Grimm brothers and others. In a Glass Grimmly masterfully blends texts including “The Frog Prince,” “Jack and Jill,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” always choosing to follow the more violent version (for example, Gidwitz notes that the princess in “The Frog Prince” originally threw the frog against the wall—she did not kiss him). Gidwitz seems to understand that children encounter the difficult and disturbing facts of life every day—bullying, negligent guardians, death—and need a literature that deals with these themes directly. The result is more likely to shock adults than children.
Gidwitz tempers the violence of his text through the insertion of a sarcastic narrative voice. The narrator frequently interrupts to comment on the story, to offer moral guidance, and, occasionally, to warn of impending bloodiness. The narrator serves to remind readers that this is ultimately a work of art, it is not really happening, and they can walk away if they feel the need. The narrator does poke fun at those unable to “handle” the story, egging children to continue reading on, but Gidwitz’s artistic choices suggest he really does acknowledge the sensitivity of some of his audience.
The structure, for example, prevents the story ever from becoming too over-the-top bloody, even for a book based largely on the shock factor of the Grimm brothers. The plot is episodic in nature and Gidwitz takes care to end each section on a fairly positive note. This imparts to the book a rhythmic feeling, in which the narrator approaches gory violence, then backs off when he feels he may be about to lose a traumatized audience.
Though the clever interweaving of old tales will prove a pleasurable experience for the devoted fairy tale fan, Gidwitz truly writes an original tale, one that can stand on its own even if one has never heard of most of his source material. (Interested fans can find a list of these sources at the end of the book.) Suspense and danger combine to form an exciting story that will keep readers up long after bedtime.
Published: September 2012
Goodreads: Secrets at Sea
Goodreads Summary: Helena is big-sister mouse to three younger siblings, living a snug and well-fed life within the ancient walls of the Cranston family home. When the Cranston humans decide to sail away to England to find a husband for one of their daughters, the Cranston mice stow away in the name of family solidarity. And so begins the scamper of their lives as Helena, her siblings, and their humans set sail on a life-changing voyage into the great world of titled humans . . . and titled mice, and surprise endings for all. The masterful Richard Peck brings all of his talents to this tale of two branches of an American family, set on the eve of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. There are plenty of laughs and thrills, and of course there’s a ship’s cat too. Will our Cranston heroes squeak by, or will they go entirely overboard?
Review: Secrets at Sea is a cute and whimsical tale, charmingly enhanced by the details of the illustrations. The story told is one of family and adventure, enlivened by run-ins with cats and snakes and the novelty of life on the dangerous sea. But the details of daily life are visible beyond the action in the pictures, where one may see the charming inventions scattered through a mouse’s home, such as a comb that serves as a ladder or the thimbles we are assured have myriad uses.
All these things—the big and the little—are told through the voice of the caring if sometimes overbearing oldest sister Helena. She has been responsible for the family since her mother and older sisters met a tragic end in a rain barrel, but such are the realities of life. Mice, we learn, are always running out of time. And Helena does a good job as a leader. She is the perfect narrator because she is the one who tries to see and be in control of everything, even if such a goal is impossible.
This book is full of secrets, surprises, and pure cuteness. A must-read for anyone who likes mice or just a good story about looking out for those you care about.
Goodreads: The Wide-Awake Princess
Series: Wide-Awake Princess #1
Summary: Princess Annie’s older sister Gwen was cursed at her christening to prick on finger on a spindle on her sixteenth birthday and sleep for one hundred years. So when Annie was born, there was only one fairy, and she gave Annie the gift of being unable to be touched by magic. When Gwen falls into her enchanted sleep, the rest of the castle household surprisingly sleeps, as well, and only Annie is left awake. Determined to see her family again, Annie embarks on quest to find Gwen’s true love so he can break the spell. But first, she needs to figure out who her true love is.
Review: The Wide-Awake Princess is a cute, creative tale that turns a number of fairy-tales on their heads. To start, Annie is not Sleeping Beauty, but her ordinary sister, “blessed” to never have the benefits of magically-enhanced beauty, or embroidery, or poetry. Of course, the reader soon discovers that Annie is remarkable in her own way; all her talents have been earned through hard work, and she has the biggest heart in the kingdom.
Other fairy tales do make small cameos. For example, Annie wanders into the home of the witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” though her personality is not what one might expect. Spotting these little extras thrown into the story is a lot of fun.
The plot line is structured similarly to that in Baker’s The Frog Princess. Annie goes on a fairly straightforward quest, there and back again, and various obstacles arise in her path. Just when one is ready for her to return home with an eligible prince for Gwen, something stops her. Just when all seems lost, something pretty convenient happens. Although precisely what will happen tends to be unpredictable, there is a definite pattern to the types of events that do. Nonetheless, the pattern reads more smoothly than in The Frog Princess.
Still, Annie—and the companion she finds to help her on her quest—are endearing characters, and the variety of princes they meet is hugely entertaining. Although Annie, in a fit of pique, accuses all magically-enhanced princes of being the same, it is clear they are not. A great cast of characters in a fun setting makes The Wide-Awake Princess an enjoyable read.
Footnote: Apparently Rapunzel is a bit of player, and one of her lovers is a married man. One of the princes Annie finds is an alcoholic. Are these not strange themes for a middle-grade book? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Published: 2012 (Bloomsbury Children’s)
Goodreads: A Face Like Glass
Summary: Beneath the earth in Caverna, the people practice True Crafts, making Jellies that taste like music, Wines that can alter memory, and Perfumes that ensnare the mind. The one thing the people cannot do is naturally change their facial expressions, and so Facemaking is also a Craft. When a Cheesemaster finds a young girl in his tunnels whose face changes with her emotions, a girl clearly from outside but with no memory of her past, he calls her Neverfell and hides her. He knows the Court would use her face and her inability to lie if they ever found her. After she runs from his tunnels, this is exactly what happens. Neverfell is swept into a world of intrigue, with courtiers plotting against her each and against her because someone is afraid she will finally regain her memories and ruin a plan seven years in the making.
Review: A Face Like Glass is a strong, imaginative fantasy that strives to bring the readers into the magiv of the world that Hardinge has created. This is a book that is as much about the experience and the atmosphere as it is about the characters or the plot; readers are to sit and marvel at the strangeness that is Caverna—an underground place where nothing and no one is what they seem. Imagine a book that is in intention somewhat like The Night Circus, although closer to traditional high fantasy.
Yet there is a plot here, and it is one of Court Intrigue. Readers who like Grave Mercy or The False Prince will be equally gripped. The courtiers’ plans may not be as convoluted or complex as it other books, but this is just a logical result of the world-building. In a society where using the wrong fork at a banquet can get one executed, plots do not always have to be complicated. Yet surprises are brought by the one outsider working against the Court in general, who has decided to use True Wine to erase and reinstate his memories, so that even he himself has no idea what his next move will be.
The pacing of all these plots is a little on the slow side. The bulk of the book is spent in setting up Caverna and all her quirks, so the schemes directly involving Neverfell and her mysterious past start moving late. It takes Neverfell, who is understandably yet occasionally annoyingly naïve, an equally long time to undergo some true character development and get some backbone and commonsense. Around page 350, she starts to realize that not everyone she meets in her life is her friend. She is a fantastic choice of protagonist for what Hardinge is trying to do in A Face Like Glass, but she is unlikely to make many “Book BFF” lists due to her unrelatability.
Interesting themes of the book include how to see the world as if it is constantly new instead of being blinded by familiarity, how to prevent/begin a revolution among the working class, and whether it is more worthwhile to see beauty or to own beauty. The questions are slipped lightly into the book and are not heavy-handed lessons. Think of Lauren Oliver’s books and how memorable quotes or ideas are scattered quietly throughout the pages.
A must-read for strong fans of fantasy. (Meaning if you love fantasy, you will love this book, but you have to be interested in magical world-building because the plot alone does not carry the book.)
Published: May 2012 (UK)
Goodreads: The Spindlers
Source: ARC from Goodreads giveaway
Summary: When Liza’s brother Patrick starts behaving differently, her frazzled parents notice nothing. But Liza knows that the stories her old babysitter used to tell, the ones about the spider-like spindlers who steal children’s souls, are true, and that it is up to her to go Below and rescue Patrick’s soul before it is gone forever.
Review: The Spindlers is a cute, fun story but certainly not Oliver’s best or most original. The jacket copy mentions hints of Alice in Wonderland and Coraline in the text, but there is also clear inspiration taken from Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as from C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Though the story does have its own creative touches, it often reads like an amalgamation of repurposed fantasy elements.
Most of the story is based in the fantasy, rather than in the characters or plot. The sense is that the book is saying, “Look at this magical place with its interesting geography and its weird creatures!” more than it is saying anything else—which makes it more of a flaw that the weird creatures are not particularly fascinating or remarkable. And even after all the description, Below is still an ambiguous, poorly defined place. It is not even clear until pretty far in that Below has no sunshine. Whether this means the place is like a dark tunnel with a dirt roof is hard to say. Liza certainly experiences no claustrophobia.
The best part may be Liza’s determined bravery in wanting to rescue her brother’s soul. She carries on a like a true solider, facing danger after danger just to do what is right for someone she loves. It would have been better for the readers, however, if the “real” Patrick had been introduced before this mission. Instead, we see first the “wrong” Patrick. This makes it difficult to care very strongly about Patrick as an individual, instead of merely hoping for his soul’s safe return simply because, as decent human beings, we would hope for anyone’s soul to be safe.
Oliver’s writing does flow nicely, but it may be more “beautiful” (whatever that subjectively means) in her teen books. There are also fewer notable quotations. Only one leaped out at me: “That was what her parents did not understand—and had never understood—about stories. Liza told herself stories as though she was weaving and knotting an endless rope. Then, no matter how dark or terrible the pit she found herself in, she could pull herself out, inch by inch and hand over hand, on the long rope of stories” (ARC 108).
The Spindlers was just nice. I gave it a solid three stars on Goodreads, but Oliver has written better books, and there are books by other middle-grade authors that have done what Oliver is trying to do here better. The story gives off the general impression that it was written too quickly, without the time necessary to develop it into a truly creative and thought-provoking book. Although it is decent, it is a disappointment in light of Oliver’s other work.
Publication Date: October 2, 2012
Goodreads: Ella Enchanted
Summary: At birth Ella was cursed by the fairy Lucinda with the gift of obedience. She has to follow any order given by anybody, even if she receives a command that endangers her or others. Determined to gain her freedom, Ella sets out on a journey to find Lucinda and beg her to take back her gift. Rescue, however, may come from a more unexpected quarter. A Newbery Honor book.
Review: Ella Enchanted stands out among retellings of “Cinderella” both for its original premise and its fully-realized world. Levine takes the question of why Cinderella would submit to so much abuse from her step-relatives and answers it by suggesting that perhaps she literally had no choice. From there, the book explores the nature of free will and the gift of choice. The resulting drama plays out across a richly detailed world peopled with unforgettable characters from the ogres who can seduce their victims to cook themselves to the giants who prove friendlier than readers might expect. Readers will find themselves, like Ella, enchanted.
Much of the book’s charm stems from Levine’s quirky and wry sense of humor. Though Ella suffers under the rule of her step-relatives and from the neglect of her father, Levine manages to make these characters as funny as they are odious. Their obsessions with wealth, power, looks, and status set them up as the objects of various jokes, making the subtle point that a person can never gain respect by focusing on these false idols. Instead, the book celebrates virtues such as love, loyalty, honesty, and generosity, all so naturally that Levine never seems to be moralizing.
With its spirited heroine, intriguing premise, and heart-wrenching emotion, Ella Enchanted proves a timeless tale that bears repeated readings. It has rightfully taken a place among the classics of children’s literature.
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