Category Archives: Fantasy
Goodreads: Ever After High: The Storybook of Legends
Series: Ever After High #1
Published: October 1, 2013
At Ever After High, an enchanting boarding school, the children of fairytale legends prepare themselves to fulfill their destinies as the next generation of Snow Whites, Prince Charmings and Evil Queens…whether they want to or not. Each year on Legacy Day, students sign the Storybook of Legends to seal their scripted fates. For generations, the Village of Book End has whispered that refusing to sign means The End-both for a story and for a life.
As the daughter of the Evil Queen, Raven Queen’s destiny is to follow in her mother’s wicked footsteps, but evil is so not Raven’s style. She’s starting to wonder, what if she rewrote her own story? The royal Apple White, daughter of the Fairest of Them All, has a happy ever after planned for herself, but it depends upon Raven feeding her a poison apple in their future.
What if Raven doesn’t sign the Storybook of Legends? It could mean a happily never after for them both.
This review has to begin by addressing the elephant in the room: The premise of The Storybook of Legends makes absolutely no sense—and the problem is not one that can be fixed, bar rewriting the entire book with a new plot. In Hale’s fairy tale world, each new generation of characters must relive their parents’ stories. Apple White will become the next Snow White, eat an apple, fall asleep, fall in love, etc. Ashlynn Ella will become the next Cinderella, work hard, go to a ball, meet her prince, lose her shoe, etc. And so on. This social structure raises a lot of questions.
For one, why are all these characters in high school together? Holly O’Hair (Rapunzel) should have been kidnapped as a baby and raised in a tower. Ashlynn (Cinderella) should have had a terrible childhood with an evil stepmother. Briar (Sleeping) Beauty should be hidden away from spinning wheels. And so on. These fairy tale characters have already missed half of their stories! Other complications arise, however. Apple White and Raven Queen are supposed to be Snow White and the Evil Queen, which means Raven should be Apple’s stepmother. She is not. This is actually mentioned in the book and the characters shrug it off, saying, “There must be slight variations in the story.”
Yet other characters have similar relationship problems. For instance, Ashlynn Ella’s parents are Cinderella and Prince Charming—yet Ashlynn is supposed to marry Prince Charming. But would not her brother, if she had one, be Prince Charming? Whom, then, does she marry? And, since her mother Cinderella is still alive, must she suddenly die so that Ashlynn’s father can remarry an evil stepmother? And then does her family suddenly lose their fortune and royal status so Ashlynn can live as a mistreated commoner girl? The questions can go on and on and on, for each and every one of the characters. Saying that the stories must change a bit with each general of fairy tale characters is far from an adequate explanation.
Nonsensical premise aside (and we must put it aside to get anywhere with this book), The Storybook of Legends is a pretty entertaining read. It is more commercial, or perhaps gimmicky, than Hale’s typical stories, filled with cheesy modern references to musicians (Taylor Quick), and brands and with silly fairy tale puns. The characters have their own fantasy slang, such as telling each other they look “fairy nice,” apparently an attempt to make the book sound hip.
The story’s strongest point, however, is probably the characters. Though Hale is working with fairy tale “types” and with somewhat predetermined personalities, she manages to make each person come alive. Even the characters truly invested in living out their well-known destinies have unique hopes, dreams, and quirks. Apple White is determined to be the best queen she can, yet experiences moments of self-doubt. Briar Beauty wants to live life to the fullest, since she is going to spend a lot of time sleeping. Dexter Charming wishes to be as brave and, well, charming as his older brother. Hale’s star character, however, is Madeline Hatter, a slightly mad girl who speaks in Riddlish yet has the world’s biggest heart and a lot of wisdom. For me, her charisma helps her outshine even protagonist Raven Queen.
The main storyline, following Raven as she decides whether or not to sign the Storybook of Legends and seal her destiny as the world’s most evil queen, is an engaging little adventure. Raven gets into a number of escapades, some related to discovering her destiny, some just to get her through the daily trials of high school. Readers spend as much time with Raven trying to navigate friendships and classes and they do navigating magical perils. In the end, the plot does not get quite as far as readers might wish, instead saving the things that I, at least, really wanted to know for future books in the series. The Storybook of Legends just gives readers a taste, introducing characters and the main problem, without really solving it. Truthfully, I would have liked to see a tighter plot, with everything answered and tied up in a standalone, rather than an entire Ever After High series.
All that said, The Storybook of Legends is still fun, creative, and cute. Shannon Hale has written better books, but for a book trying to sell a series of Mattel dolls, it really is quality stuff. I would recommend it for readers who enjoy light fairy tale retellings and fantasy books with a modern touch.
Goodreads: The Drowned Vault
Series: Ashtown Burials #2
A year ago Cyrus Smith lost the Dragon’s Tooth to the ruthless Dr. Phoenix–a man who dreams of resurrecting the dead and redefining what it means to be human. The tooth, however, while it can be used to raise the dead, is also the one thing that can kill the transmortals–men and women who would otherwise live forever. Now the transmortals, led by Gilgamesh of Uruk, are at the doors of Ashtown demanding the deaths of Cyrus and his sister Antigone, and the severing of the ancient treaties that keep their powers in check. With two enemies without and traitors within, the Smiths and their Keeper may have only one chance of staying alive–an alliance with one of the Order’s most notorious prisoners.
The Drowned Vault brings a new maturity to the Ashtown Burials series. The first book necessarily bore the weight of having to introduce readers to a new world full of new characters and new rules. Cyrus and Antigone were new, too, and though Dr. Phoenix and his monsters threatened the Order of Brendan, no one expected them to help; their job then was to pass their training and gain acceptance in the Order. Now, however, the pieces on the board have been set and the young Smiths, as full members of the O of B, have taken their place among them. They have entered an adult world and no one can shelter them from the dangers that await.
The Drowned Vault is a middle-grade book, but N. D. Wilson never uses that as an excuse to gloss over the darkness that exists in the world. The villains in this story will not stay their hands because they deal with children and they cannot be defeated by any cutesy high jinks or even by any roundabout methods that will allow the protagonists to feel some sort of mental distance from their actions. The characters engage in real, bloody battles with full knowledge that they are responsible for any attacks they make, any lives they take. The Smiths also increasingly come to realize that to triumph over darkness, they will be required to make sacrifices. Their own start out comparatively small–torn feet, bullet wounds, the costs of war that other books sometimes ignore. As they progress, however, they see the kinds of sacrifices others have made to stem the tide of evil, sacrifices that did not merely leave physical scars, but also emotional, mental, and spiritual ones. They also come to learn that even when facing obvious evil, there may be no right course to choose when combating it.
All this leads up to a finale in which the Smiths must face their own greatest sacrifice. This time at least they have no doubt about the right choice, but that does not make the choice easy and that does not mean they will choose it. Their family is at stake and there is perhaps nothing on earth more important to the Smiths than their family. The crisis comes at a moment of intense confusion–readers want action at the end of a book, right?– but Wilson inserts into the chaos a quiet image of everything the Smiths have to gain and everything they have to lose: a black hand on top of a white hand. In that image, the shared humanity of the characters comes together–all their love and hopes and dreams– contrasting with the warped sense of humanity envisioned by Dr. Phoenix. It is a moment of rare depth, at least for children’s books.
The Ashtown Burials series has continued to surprise me with its moving depictions of love, loss, and sacrifice. Other books talk about the power of love or about the importance of doing the right thing, but few so powerfully illustrate just what either of those things means. In this world, love is not simply fuzzy feelings and doing the right thing will not result in a gold star or public recognition. In this world, both love and doing right are a conscious choice to give of one’s self and to accept the bad with the good, whether or not anyone knows or cares. The Drowned Vault may be set in a world where Greek legends walk the streets and dragons are rumored to exist, but it feels more real than many a contemporary novel.
Goodreads: The Runaway King
Series: The Ascendance Trilogy #2
Published: March 1, 2013
A kingdom teetering on the brink of destruction. A king gone missing. Who will survive? Find out in the highly anticipated sequel to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s blockbuster THE FALSE PRINCE!
Just weeks after Jaron has taken the throne, an assassination attempt forces him into a deadly situation. Rumors of a coming war are winding their way between the castle walls, and Jaron feels the pressure quietly mounting within Carthya. Soon, it becomes clear that deserting the kingdom may be his only hope of saving it. But the further Jaron is forced to run from his identity, the more he wonders if it is possible to go too far. Will he ever be able to return home again? Or will he have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his kingdom?
The stunning second installment of The Ascendance Trilogy takes readers on a roller-coaster ride of treason and murder, thrills and peril, as they journey with the Runaway King!
With The Runaway King, Nielsen writes a magnificent follow-up to bestseller The False Prince, reintroducing readers to all their favorite characters and intrigues. Sage passes through an initial period of anger, but once he gets a grip on his emotions, he is as clever as ever—something many writers find difficult to maintain over a series. He is joined by gutsy Imogen, old enemy Roden, and a few unexpected new friends.
In addition to creating an evolving cast, Nielsen keeps the story fresh by moving the plot out of Carthya—straight into a pirate camp. Sage and his friends have two new cultures to learn, that of rival kingdom Avenia and that of the pirates’ of Tarblade Bay. How well they can adapt and blend in will determine how long they can keep their lives. One suspects they must succeed (That’s what happens in modern children’s books, right? The good guys win?), but Nielsen still keeps readers on the edges of their seats, introducing plot twist as plot twist.
Sage’s exploits in The Runaway King are as physically demanding as they are mentally. Outwitting pirates often means backing them into a duel. Sage exhibits remarkable strength and endurance through his ordeals, demonstrating his mind and body are as quick as his tongue—characteristics that will serve him well as the king he is meant to become.
Through all the action, The Runaway King promotes some great moral messages about doing what is right, maintaining loyalty, and sacrificing oneself when necessary. The book is not preachy, however; ethical actions are simply something that permeate Sage’s worldview and thus the story. The Runaway King tells readers that doing the right thing is tough, but it is worthwhile.
The Runaway King is a fast-paced middle grade adventure that will please fans of The False Prince with its wit, charm, and thoughtfulness.
Teaser Quote: “Afraid didn’t even begin to describe the terror I felt. Pinched behind me, my hands still shook. But I was angry with myself too. Because for all my good intentions, it was obvious that I had been wrong to come here. There were so many who would pay for my mistakes” (250-251).
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Goodreads: The Dark Is Rising
Series: The Dark Is Rising Sequence #2
On his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton learns that he is the last of the Old Ones, an ancient group dedicated to fighting the Dark. He is the Sign-Seeker, the one destined to bring together the symbols of power that will help the Old Ones in the final battle. But the Dark is rising.
The Dark Is Rising is a solid fantasy adventure that will keep readers flipping pages long after their bedtimes. It possesses a likeable hero refreshingly grounded in a loving family life; a magical quest full of mystery and danger; and, of course, an epic struggle of good and evil. Throw in a little legend and myth, and you have a story that seems guaranteed to succeed.
The characters really stood out in this installment of the series. Whereas the Drew children (protagonists of the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone) seemed like typical children, nice but not particularly noteworthy, Will comes alive as a character in his own right–due, interestingly enough, to his relationships with others. He is one of nine of children and his home is constantly bustling with activity, yet he never gets lost in the chaos. His family loves each other and looks out for each other, so that no matter what happens in the plot, readers have a sense of its far-reaching consequences; this book is not just about darkness overcoming the world, but about darkness hurting the people you love.
Though the siblings are obviously not as involved in the action to the extent Will is, Cooper still manages to sketch out a personality for each of them–and she does not do it the typical way, which is to give each some sort of distinguishing characteristic or notable talents, so that they almost seem like caricature. Yes, Paul likes music, but the rest of the family does, too. And he is so more than that. He is also perceptive and kind, and he has a way of knowing when people need to be alone or do not want to talk. Likewise, though Mary could have just been that annoying older sister, she is shown to be caring in her own way. The entire family is always faintly alive in the background.
The plot arguably contains a lot more action than Over Sea, Under Stone, yet I would argue it is not as strong. Will’s status as one of the Old Ones means that the Dark cannot actually harm him (though it can attack his family). Thus, a lot of the sense of danger is lost. Furthermore, the entire plot hinges around a quest that was predetermined in days gone by, thereby destroying any suspense. We all know from the beginning that Will will succeed, thanks to all his mentors who repeatedly emphasize to the boy that thus it is ordained and he need not fear. After all, though he is ostensibly seeking the six Signs, the other Old Ones know where they are; this is not Harry seeking the Horcruxes. All Will really has to do is walk up to them and collect them. A lot of fancy magic gets involved and one wonders why–perhaps the Old Ones just like to do things in style. Actually, one wonders why Will had to do this at all. Yes, magic has its own rules and the Old Ones surely know something the readers do not, but all the stuff about things happening “in their time” eventually starts sounding like an excuse to cover up a lack of any real logic.
I plan to continue the series, but I hope that Cooper allows her heroes to face real dangers and make real sacrifices. Everything in this book was just a little too neat for me to believe that the world was ever in any real danger.
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Goodreads: The Twistrose Key
Published: October 22, 2013
A striking middle-grade debut in the tradition of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Golden Compass
When a mysterious parcel arrives at her family’s new home, eleven-year-old Lin Rosenquist has a curious feeling she’s meant to discover what’s inside.
Much to Lin’s surprise, the ornate key contained in the parcel unlocks a spellbinding world called Sylver, hidden behind the cellar door. Sylver is an enchanting land of eternal winter, inhabited by animals that shared a special connection with children in the real world, either as beloved pets or tamed wild animals. In death, they are delivered to Sylver, where they take on a curiously human-like form and still watch over the children they cherish. While Lin is overjoyed to be reunited with her beloved pet, Rufus, she soon learns that the magic of the Petlings and Wilders is failing, and snow trolls want to claim Sylver for themselves. Lin must discover a way to stop them and save this enchanted world.
Full of charm, suspense, and heartfelt emotion, this memorable classic in the making will leave readers breathless.
The Twistrose Key promises a lot, and I was attracted the moment I heard of it. The official summary boasts, “Exhilarating suspense and unforgettable characters await the readers of this magical adventure, destined to become a classic.” A classic magical middle-grade adventure? I thought. It’s about time someone wrote a book that can stand alongside The Chronicles of Narnia. Count me in!
Unfortunately, for the first 100 pages—nearly one third of the book—I felt I was reading Narnia (see specific comparison quotes below). From the main character’s chance meeting with a talking creature in a snowy magical world to the way time works in Sylver, it is clear Almhjell is heavily inspired by Lewis. While taking some seeds from Narnia would not be amiss in a fantasy, attempting a rewrite of Lucy Pevensie’s iconic meeting with Mr. Tumnus in a frozen wood is bold—and in most cases destined for failure.
Once all the background information on the world of Sylver and Lin’s quest there is set up, the book does become more original. It also becomes more fast-paced. Protagonists Rufus and Lin travel more widely, they encounter more powerful magic, and they uncover a number of titillating secrets. They decipher prophecies, they escape from traps, and they battle a horde of trolls. It’s quite exciting, really, and made all the better by the bond between Rufus and Lin. They are fantastic traveling companions, determined to stick by each other through whatever adventures befall them.
The story also gets progressively darker, which is a major departure from Narnia in itself. Lin suffers various injuries, with appropriate gushing of blood, and seems in real danger of dying at several points. The descriptions of what happens to some of the bad guys in the tale are also pretty grisly. This edgy take on children’s fantasy will appeal immensely to modern audiences.
However, Almhjell strikes a great balance by including childlike moments and activities that lighten the tone of the novel. Lin refuses to remove the grubby old cardigan her grandmother knit her and that Rufus used to live in. She recalls her times playing troll-hunters with her friend at home when she must fight real trolls. She thinks how disappointed her parents will be if she fails in her quest and never returns home. Lin, though a Twistrose, is still a little girl—and a delightful one at that. A well-written and believable child heroine.
The Twistrose Key certainly has its flaws. Its beginning is very derivative, and when it is not being derivative it can be confusing. (Lin’s quest, in particular, is not clearly defined when introduced.) However, if readers are willing to stick out the story until the point Rufus and Lin leave Sylveros, they will find a real adventure awaiting—one that has action, but also charm, one that takes readers to magical places, but also explores real questions like the nature of friendship and courage. I am not as in love with The Twistrose Key as I had sincerely hoped, but it is a pleasant read for fans of the genre.
Are you sure we’re not in Narnia?
This section includes a side-by-side comparison of quotes The Twistrose Key and The Chronicles of Narnia, in order to highlight the similarities. The quotes, of course, count as spoilers for those who prefer to go into books blind.
“There was no cellar, and no riverbank, either. Instead she looked out on a desolate, frozen mountain valley, where winter twilight painted the snow blue, and stern peaks rose into the sky. A creature crouched in the snow before her, facing away, but so close that she could smell it: a musky scent” (Twistrose 9).
“And then she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off. Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air…She heard a pitter patter of feet coming towards her. And soon after that a very strange person stepped out from among the trees into the light of the lamp-post” (Narnia 113-114).
“When true danger rises, when the last hope is lost, it is said in Sylver that only a child of Earth can help” (56).
“When Adam’s flesh and Adam’s bone
Sits at Cair Paravel in throne,
The evil time will be over and done” (147).
“That’s right, girl. Time flows differently in Sylver…An hour here can be a day in your world, or a day can be a week, we never know” (49).
“If, I say, she [Lucy] had got into another world, I should not be at all surprised to find that the other world had a separate time of its own; so that however long you stayed there it would never take up any of our time” (132).
“The Observatory allows us to see our human children, but only for a time….”
“You mean because they died?”
“No. Because they aren’t children anymore” (344-345).
“’Oh, you two [Lucy and Edmund] are,’ said Peter. ‘At least, from what [Aslan] said, I’m pretty sure he means you to get back [to Narnia] some day. But not Su and me. He says we’re getting too old’” (417).
Almhjell, Tone. The Twistrose Key. New York: Penguin, 2013. Print.
Lewis, C. S. The Chronicles of Narnia. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Print.
Goodreads: The Dragon’s Tooth
Series: Ashtown Burials #1
Antigone and Cyrus Smith live in a dilapidated hotel with their older brother Daniel. No one ever checks in, until the night a strange man requests a specific room. By morning, the man has died, the hotel has burned to the ground, and Daniel has disappeared. Informed that the only way to save their brother is to join a mysterious order of explorers, Antigone and Cyrus find themselves racing against time to find the order and swear their loyalty. Not everyone in the order, however, welcomes the new initiates. Surrounded by enemies, the two will have to prove their skill and bravery if they want to reunite their family.
The Dragon’s Tooth is one of those rare middle grade books that constantly surprises, not only with its imagination and the vividness of its world, but also with its unexpected depth. Though the plot may sound not unfamiliar—young heroes find they belong to an ancient order—Wilson sets it apart from standard fantasy fare by grounding it in the nitty gritty of everyday life. His characters have real backgrounds, full of pain as well as mundanity, that shape who they are. They face real challenges that test not only their physical endurance but also their moral character. And when they fight, they bleed. Far from being fantasy wish fulfillment, The Dragon’s Tooth looks life in the face and admits to readers that sometimes life hurts. But that does not take away any of its wonder or enchantment.
Wilson does so much right with this book that writing a manageable review about it all seems almost impossible. Certain aspects, however, immediately stand out because they contrast with elements I often see in contemporary media. For example, I think many readers will find themselves pleased with the strong emphasis on family. The Smiths’ parents are, actually, missing, if you want to put it that way—their father died in an accident and their mother lies in a coma. However, Cyrus and Antigone are cared for by their twenty-year-old brother, who had to give up college to provide for them and who works hard to do so. All three have a special bond that they recognize as especially important as a result of losing their parents. Their actions throughout the book are dictated by their desire to remain together and to help each other. They furthermore remain devoted to their mother, whom they visit regularly.
The setting of The Dragon’s Tooth also stands out. The Smiths currently live in Wisconsin. That’s right—Midwestern America, where you probably thought nothing ever happened. Their lives, however, have a certain Americana charm. They live in a dilapidated motel with one of those old neon signs and they eat in one of those classic truck stop diners. It is a really beautiful choice because I do not think I have ever seen it done. Like Suzanne Collins, who evidently wrote The Underland Chronicles as a sort of urban Alice in Wonderland, Wilson takes an overlooked location and gives it the possibility of magic.
Magic, however, never comes without a price and The Dragon’s Tooth pulls no punches. From the very moment they accept the invitation to join the order of explorers, Antigone and Cyrus find themselves battling not only monsters and villains, but also the pettiness of fellow students and resentful adults. Their acceptance to the order comes with a stipulation that no one else has to meet. But the Smiths meet their challenges with grace (well, most of them). They lost their parents at a young age and they know life is seldom fair and that sometimes they have to fight.
The fighting Wilson shows is not pretty, either. While some middle grade books seem to think children cannot handle reality, The Dragon’s Tooth not only shows the real effects of violence (though not in a gruesome way—just acknowledging that people are going to have broken limbs or bruises or bloody gashes) but also introduces a villain who performs ghastly experiments on his victims in order to achieve something he perceives as greater than humanity. There are corpses in this book, as well as grieving survivors. But Wilson seems to trust his audience to handle it—like the Smiths, they may well have experienced suffering in their own lives.
Finally, I just have to note that those who wish for more diversity in contemporary media will probably see this book as a good start. For one, it is full of strong female characters—strong as in confident, skilled, compassionate, and intelligent. Some of them are fighters and some of them are not; they do not have to fit into a certain type of mold to be considered strong. Furthermore, the Smiths’ mother comes from Brazil, so the protagonists have a mixed background, one that is celebrated when another character notes that Cyrus and Antigone have inherited their mother’s darker skin and hair—he calls this a “gift.” Another important character is described as having black skin. So, if we ever get a movie of this series, we can hopefully expect a very diverse cast, one that honors the spirit of the order of explorers, which is international in character and celebrates the skills and insights its varied members can bring.
Aside from the technical notes of how family, setting, and diversity are handled, The Dragon’s Tooth is an enthralling read in its own right. The characters are likable, the premise engaging, and the plot suspenseful. Action fills nearly every page, yet the book manages to balance the need for plot advancement with moments that illustrate the emotional growth of the characters. The characters, just as much as the magic of the world they live in, drive the book, making me eager not only to continue their story but also to reread the parts of their story I already know. And a book that bears rereading is truly a good book.
Goodreads: Over Sea, Under Stone
Series: The Dark Is Rising Sequence #1
While on vacation in Cornwall, Simon, Barney, and Jane Drew discover an ancient manuscript that points to the hiding place of the Holy of Grail of Arthurian legend. At first the children think their discovery a new type of game, but as they try to decode the puzzle, they find themselves in the middle of an ancient struggle between good and evil.
The first book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence follows in the footsteps of fantasy giants like E. Nesbit and C. S Lewis, introducing readers to a to a modern-day Britain both familiar and strange. Though the village of Trewissick seems like a typical holiday spot, the Drew children soon learn that the area has an intriguing past, all bound up with King Arthur and the legendary Holy Grail. That past comes alive when the same forces that fought Arthur return to claim the Grail.
The great charm of Over Sea, Under Stone comes not only from the collision of magic with the everyday world, but also from the normality of the Drew children. None of them possesses unbelievable intelligence or athleticism; none of them possesses some arcane skill that just so happens to be the one thing that will enable them to save the day. They are relatable and believable, and readers feel that, in the place of the Drew children, they, too, would have the ability to solve the mystery.
Over Sea, Under Stone makes magic in the everyday world seem not only possible, but even probable. Its deep sense of history reveals the layers that combine to make our present, and in the process inspires surprise and wonder. Sometimes the current glut of fantasy series on the market makes finding a good one seem impossible, but it is no mistake The Dark Is Rising sequence has turned into a genre classic.
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Goodreads: The Screaming Staircase
Series: Lockwood & Co. #1
Fifty years ago, the dead stopped staying dead. An entire industry has sprung up with the purpose of eradicating the ghosts that can not only drive people mad but also kill them. Only children, however, have the ability to see and hear the specters and only one agency works without any adult supervision—Lockwood & Co. As a result, the company has a poor reputation, but when a rich patron offers Lockwood one of the biggest cases in the nation, their future seems assured. That is, if they can survive the ghosts of the infamous Screaming Staircase.
The media seems a little oversaturated with the supernatural right now and I admit I wondered when I picked up The Screaming Staircase whether anyone really needed yet another story about professional ghost hunters. Jonathan Stroud’s name reassured me, however, and I went ahead and took the plunge. Now I’m only upset because I have to wait until next year for the sequel.
The Screaming Staircase is one of the most engrossing middle-grade books I have read in a long time. The story grabs readers from the start, introducing them to a modern-day Britain both familiar and strange. Strange, of course, because of the normality of ghosts walking about the living, but also because modern conveniences such as cell phones do not seem to exist. The blend reminds me a little of Harry Potter—readers can situate themselves in a world they recognize as their own, but increased danger arises from the lack of immediate access to information and to other people.
Lucy Carlyle, the narrator of the story, will no doubt charm readers, too. She is spunky and bold, but not deficient of common sense. She acts when she needs to, but also retreats when she needs to. Seeing someone make smart decisions in books can sometimes seem rare (especially when the supernatural is involved), so watching events unfold through her eyes proves a real treat. Her character is also a testament to Stroud’s skill—he does not need to rely on nonsensical choices to drive his plot.
Lucy also provides the perfect counterpart to the more dashing and reckless Anthony Lockwood. Rich and slightly mysterious, he might seem like a character readers have met before. Stroud, however, makes Lockwood his own man. He proves likable and funny, a good person to have at your side while fighting ghosts, but also a good friend. I cannot be the only reader hoping for a future romance in this direction.
Rounding out Lockwood & Co. is the slightly overlooked George Cubbins. He does not normally fight ghosts, instead doing research for the group, so the book cover skims a little over his existence. The book, however, would not be the same without him. Slightly weird and slightly unkempt, George grounds the trio in real normalcy. He insists that the group share baked goods equally, provides the catalyst for everyday squabbles over things like the state of the bathroom, and yells at Lockwood when he makes stupid decisions. If anything makes the world of Lockwood & Co. seem real, it is George. He’s like that old roommate you’ve heard tell of.
Some readers, of course, might be hesitant to pick up a book focused on ghosts, especially one that posits their existence in the same world in which readers live. I admit that ghost stories scare me and I usually shy away from anything that looks like it will keep me up all night. However, I actually read The Screaming Staircase alone in my room with the main light off sometime after midnight. The difference for me between this book and something like Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw is the nature of the ghosts. They can drive people mad, but their main threat is physical, meaning that not only can you fight them and contain them but also that you can run from them.
The Screaming Staircase is a thrilling start to a new series sure to delight fans not only of Jonathan Stroud and but also of middle-grade fantasy and urban fantasy. Fast-paced and full of action, it draws readers into its richly-drawn world so tightly that they may not want to leave.
Goodreads: The Inquisitor’s Apprentice
Series: Inquisitor’s Apprentice #1
Published: October 2011
The day Sacha found out he could see witches was the worst day of his life. . . .
Being an Inquisitor is no job for a nice Jewish boy. But when Sacha Kessler learns he can see witches, he’s yanked out of everyday life on Hester Street and apprenticed to the New York Police Department’s star Inquisitor, Maximillian Wolf.
The Inquisitor’s mission is to stop magical crime. And New York at the beginning of the twentieth century is a magical melting pot where each ethnic group has its own brand of homegrown witchcraft and magical gangs rule the streets from Hell’s Kitchen to Chinatown.
Soon Sacha has teamed up with fellow apprentice Lily Astral, daughter of one of the city’s richest Wall Street Wizards—and a spoiled snob, if you ask Sacha. Their first job is to find out who’s trying to kill Thomas Edison.
Edison has invented a mechanical witch detector that could unleash the worst witch-hunt in American history. Every magician in town has a motive to kill him. But as the investigation unfolds, all the clues lead back to the Lower East Side. And Sacha soon realizes that his own family could be accused of murder!
The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is a story heavily built on atmosphere, taking full advantage of its setting in an alternate NYC in the early 1900s to mesmerize readers. Author Chris Moriarty clearly revels in guiding her audience through the streets of New York, explaining the history and population of each neighborhood that protagonist Sacha visits. Sacha, a “nice Jewish boy,” clearly has a heart for the city and its people as big as Moriarty’s, as he takes numerous opportunities to reflect on the ethnic tensions he encounters. Yet the stakes for danger are even higher in Sacha’s world than in ours because magic is running rampant—and each immigrant population has a different means of using it.
The combination of real history with fantastical aspects truly makes The Inquisitor’s Apprentice special. Readers get a compelling look into the life of a Jewish family living in a Lower East Side tenement in twentieth century New York, and will come away with an increased knowledge of Jewish culture and Yiddish vocabulary. Other historical aspects get fair page time, as well, as Sacha and fellow apprentice Lily meet characters from all countries and all walks of life. Yet layered over the fact is pure fiction, a world where magic is common and fairly cheap to buy, and where J. P. Morgan does not exist but J. P. Morgaunt does—and has an insidious plot to place all of New York’s magic under his control. Somehow, Moriarty weaves reality and imagination together, and things in her world just click.
The plot has admirable potential, as Sacha must navigate the unfamiliar trials of being an Inquisitor’s apprentice. Generally, an Inquisitor’s job is to find and stop illegal uses of magic, but Sacha is apprenticed to the legendary Inquisitor Wolf, who solves the most complicated and dangerous cases. In this story, Wolf and his team are tracking a dybbuk (an evil Jewish spirit that will possess the living) they believe to be plotting the murder of Thomas Edison himself.
Now, dybbuks are scary creatures, and the one in The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is no exception. Moriarty skillfully sets up shadowy scenes and sudden noises, and she hints at the worst. Many readers will be shivering in their socks, even in spite of the reassurance that dybbuks appear to be assigned to and stalk only one specific person. (i.e. Thomas Edison’s dybbuk wants to possess and/or kill him, but it has absolutely no interest in you). Unfortunately, the novel’s slow pacing disperses some of the excitement and horror that seems inherent in a plot line of this nature. By the end of the story, dybbuks are like old news, so it is disappointing that book 2 is clearly poised to continue the dybbuk plot, albeit with higher stakes for Sacha.
Overall, The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is a solid middle grade fantasy with a unique old-time feel. Moriarty blends culture and fantasy to create a world that truly breathes, through which her characters romp on excellent adventures. Though I might not be too interested in reading further about Sacha and his dybbuk problems, I would definitely pick up more books from Moriarty to see where her imagination takes readers next.
Content Note: I found The Inquisitor’s Apprentice in the children’s section of my library, but the story contains some content I would not necessarily recommend for young readers. For example, it hints at an affair between two of the main characters, and the two apprentices visit Coney Island, where exotic performances of every kind are advertised.
Goodreads: The Ruby Key
Series: Moon and Sun #1
Published: May 1, 2008
Human and Nightlings are never to meet, but when Genna and her brother Dan venture into the old forest at night, they encounter a Nightling slave who reveals a terrifying secret: Genna and Dan’s village chieftain has made a dangerous deal with Letrin, ruler of the Nightlings, offering the lives of his people in exchange for his own immortality.
To save the villagers and themselves, Genna and Dan strike their own bargain with the Nightling lord, but the stakes are even higher. Now, the siblings must embark upon a journey along the Moonroads, and bring back the key to Letrin’s downfall.
Holly Lisle’s The Ruby Key is the type of fun middle grade adventure that would have just hit the spot for me as a younger reader. Genna and her brother Dan must set off on a perilous quest to save their home from the deadly bargain the village chief has made with the king of the nightlings. All the hope for the future is in their hands. Yet so is the power to save their people. Their quest is demanding, yet the reader knows that Genna and Dan are smart and strong enough to handle it.
When I was a child, I would have thought no story could be better. I loved watching characters my age accomplish extraordinary things despite the odds. Seeing that children have talents and control over the insanity of life was inspirational in any circumstance. Adults readers may be happy to know, however, that children take the lead in The Ruby Key not because no one older is qualified or interested, but because no one besides Genna and Dan even know the village is in danger. They admirably take charge of the situation that is handed to them.
As an older reader, I find myself slightly more critical of novels, and I did find a few flaws with The Ruby Key. The story starts strong, fast-paced and immersing readers into Lisle’s fantasy world where humans and nightlings lead a tenuous coexistence. Genna and Dan are dropped straight into a problem, and they take proactive steps to solve it. Their adventures begin lagging in the middle of the book, however, as the plot becomes episodic. The character bounce around from location to location, encountering oddities but accomplishing nothing that furthers the plot. I was itching for more action.
About the same time, the characters, too, began losing some of my sympathy. Perhaps being on a dangerous journey simply makes people grumpy. Whatever the explanation, they become unusually illogical and belligerent. At one point, Genna’s companions berate her for tripping as they were running from a predator. Apparently she was being a selfish brat, almost getting eaten and putting their mission in jeopardy like that: “‘You should have kept with us,’ Dan told me. ‘If you die, how are we going to help Mama? I can’t see the roads yet! The kai-lord made his agreement with you. If you died, we would be left with nothing.’” Really? Do they think she was trying to die?
Once The Ruby Key gets past the bumpy middle, however, the plot becomes as exciting and complex as it is at the start. The climax features an epic facedown between Genna and her companions and the evil kai-lord, and everyone learns a lot of new things about their pasts and their own special powers. The story ends on a satisfactory note, wrapping up most of the loose ends but leaving just enough promise for an even more intense sequel. A good pick for lovers of fantasy and adventures.