Long Live the Queen by Gerry Swallow

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Long Live the Queen
Series: Magnificent Tales of Misadventure #2
Source: Library
Publication Date: January 2017

SUMMARY

By holding her breath, twelve-year-old Elspeth can return to the land of New Winkieland where she recently overthrew the old ruler, met her biological parents, and left her favorite doll Farrah.  Because in New Winkieland, everything is alive, even the sticks.  Farrah now rules alongside Wee Willie Winkie as queen, but has been kidnapped.  Can Elspeth and her friends save Queen Farrah in time?

Review

Fairy tale retellings are very popular, but Gerry Swallow forges a new path with retellings of nursery rhymes.  In the land of New Winkieland, Jack and Jill (who went up the hill) are Elspeth’s parents, Wee Willie Winkie rules as king, and the Cheese (who stood alone) is a police detective.  Not only that, but everything is alive.  One of Elspeth’s friends is Gene–a stick.  With a premise this wild, surely the story must be good.

However, while the story is solid, the book ultimately lacks charm because few of the characters are very likeable.  Elspeth is a little boring, mostly concerned with how much others rely on her, a child, to be a hero.  The king lacks conviction, charisma, and strength.  Many of the characters are simply annoying and constantly bickering.  It is difficult to invest one’s self in any of their struggles when they can barely support each other.

And I have another gripe–the lack of real commentary on some issues with the major plot point (spoilers ahead.)  To rescue the queen, the king and Co. decide to release the old tyrant in return for half of his hidden loot.  They will use this to pay the ransom for the queen.  Of course, there are problems with this.  One can’t simply release a terrible  villain upon the world in return for money.  I don’t really care that the queen has been kidnapped.  Surely the king ought to have people who can deal with this in a more intelligent matter.  But the issues with this are contained in a single complaint from a villager–a complaint that the rules never apply to the rich.  This is an excellent point, and one that should have gotten more play.

On the whole, the book is solid and I enjoyed it.   It is a sequel but manages to stand on its own.  Still, I don’t anticipate reading the first book anytime soon.

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine (Review 2)

INFORMATION

Goodreads: The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre
Series: The Two Princesses of Bamarre 0.5
Source: Gift
Published: May 2, 2017

Summary

Perry has believed her entire life that she is one of the Lakti, a fearless and proud people who value military strength and glory in war.  Then she learns that she is really one of the Bamarre, the people who now serve the Lakti.  A fairy appears to Perry informing her that she must free her people.  But can Perry leave all she has ever known and join a people she has always thought inferior?

Review (with Spoiilers Galore!)

Like Briana, I have always considered The Two Princesses of Bamarre my favorite Gail Carson Levine book.  So I awaited the release of the prequel with great excitement.  However, though I enjoyed the book, I could not help but laugh a little at the story.  It simply makes no sense!

This is a middle-grade, so apparently Levine wants to keep the violence to a minimum even though the Lakti are at war and Perry wants to start a Bamarre revolt.   I do not agree that middle school children cannot handle pain or sadness in their stories–I am sure many experience it in their own lives.  Authors such as N. D. Wilson have written stories that balance the reality of balance with the knowledge that they are writing for children.  However, Levine follows the strategy of Jessica Day George (see Tuesdays in the Castle) by having her revolt start out small, with actions that are more akin to pranks than anything else.  Too much salt in the porridge.  Sewing a dress too tight.  Only in one village, mind you, not even the entire country.  But the protagonists hope that they can get other villages to pull some pranks, too.

In time, these pranks grow more serious.  Some Bamarre begin, for instance, to pull up the crops instead of the weeds (no word on whether that will cause the Bamarre to starve, too).  By the end, houses are being burned.  However, the end goal of all these measures is also a little…unrealistic.  The Bamarre, tired of being enslaved in their own country, wish for permission to go to the country their Lakti overlords left.  Because of the monsters.  No, no Bamarre can fight these.  The enslaved Bamarre are hardly trained to be warriors.  But will that stop them from dreaming of freedom amongst the ogres and dragons?  No.  Does the knowledge that a handful of trained warriors had two deaths in their party and saw just about everyone else wounded in the space of a few hours, when they dared to cross into monster territory give any of the Bamarre pause?  No again.

And why should it, really? They’re being lead by a fifteen-year-old stronger and faster than anyone else.  She can shoot, fight with a sword, do anything you want her to, it would seem.  At one point she even possesses four magical items!  And her sister can chop off an ogre’s head with no training at all!  And her ten-year-old brother is just mowing monsters down!   He has no weapons training, either, unless he got a few weeks’  once he was drafted into the Lakti army.  I suppose if an untrained woman, a teenager, and a child can fight monsters with such ease, the rest of the Bamarre will be fine fighting monsters with no weapons?

The rest of the ending is just as bizarre.  The Lakti lose two monarchs in one day, with only a handful of witnesses, only two of whom who will presumably count as witnesses at all–the new monarch and a knight.  No one questions this, just as no one questions that the new princess ran away from home to live with monsters after being imprisoned for reasons that were never explained.  No one questions the new princess wanting to leave her throne to go back to live with monsters.  Lead by a ten-year-old and a child who is supposed to be king.  (It’s unclear if he’s going to rule or if someone will just declare themselves regent or what.)  In short, the politics are messy and confused, and I think Levine is just hoping middle school children won’t question it.

However, if you are willing to overlook how strange the plot is, the story really is very engrossing.  I read the book in one day, eager to learn how things would turn out and eager to learn more about the past of a country that always enchanted me.  Seeing characters and items mentioned in The Two Princesses of Bamarre was also fun.

In the end, however, I had to wonder why, if this was the story of Perry (and a little bit of her sister), the book ends with a celebratory poem in honor of Drualt.  It feels like the women are already being written out of history.  With a poem they made up themselves!  Drualt may be important to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, but that doesn’t meant that Perry’s fight should be overshadowed by Drualt’s future fame, all for the fun of an allusion.

I enjoyed reading this book a lot.  It’s entertaining and fun and the characters are delightful.  I want to go back to Bamarre again in another story.  But I do have to remember that sometimes middle-grade authors don’t seem overly concerned with the logic of politics!

Lodestar by Shannon Messenger

Information

Goodreads: Lodestar
Series: Keeper of the Lost Cities #5
Source: Library
Published: 2016

Summary

Sophie’s been betrayed, but she has to find a way to keep moving forward.  Time is running out before the Neverseen put their plan, the Lodestar Initiative, into action.  But exactly how far are Sophie and her friends willing to go to defeat the Neverseen?

Review

Did I mention that I am obsessed with the Keeper of the Lost Cities series?  It has nearly everything you could possibly want in a fantasy series: detailed world building, a fun magic system, sympathetic characters, fast-paced action, and a hint of mystery.  Also alicorns.  If you’re not already reading these books, you are missing out.

Lodestar picks up shortly after the startling events of the last book, immediately drawing readers back into the action and intrigue.  Alliances are shifting and Sophie wants to believe the best of everyone, but she’s not sure whom to trust.  But even as she seeks a way to end the Lodestar Initiative and save her friends, a peace summit is gathering to discuss the fate of the world.  So why are the elves preparing for war?  Somehow in the  midst of all this drama, however, Sophie still finds time to build relationships and to enjoy the special moments of being a teenager. If only she could avoid her father’s talk “about boys!”

Lodestar is a welcome installment to the Keeper of the Lost City series, one that will by turns catch your breath, make you laugh, and make you cry.  It’s too cruel that we have to wait until the end of the year for book six.

4 stars

Beyond the Doors by David Neilsen (ARC Review)

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Beyond the Doors
Series:  None
Source: ARC from author
Published: 2017

SUMMARY

After their house burns down in a mysterious fire, the Rothbaum children move in with an aunt they have never heard of .  But Aunt Gladys is more than a little strange.  Her house is filled with doors and her pantry only holds cereal.  Worse, Aunt Gladys seems to be doing some sort of… experiments.

Review

Beyond the Doors begins as a quirky middle-grade novel in which four children find themselves living with a strange aunt when a fire burns down their home and places their father in the hospital.  However, though living in a house that has no doors and can only be accessed by a drawbridge might seem at first to be innocuous, if a little odd, the children quickly learn that their new home is more dangerous than they imagined.  Their aunt is playing with forces that may be beyond her control and the boundaries she is attempting to cross are ones that are filled with horrors.  This is a deliciously creepy book filled with darkness and monsters.  And children will probably love every minute of it.

David Neilsen introduces his readers to a complex world in which memories can be preserved and accessed if a person knows what they are about.  However, rules here are a little different from what readers might expect.  Memory jumping can be costly.  A person can lose himself if he is not careful.  And, once a memory is accessed too many times, it starts to go…bad.  What once was an idyllic memory might turn into something horrible beyond imagination.  If readers thought Neilsen had used up his collection of terrors in Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom, they are in for a shock.

Darkness in middle grade can, of course, be a contentious point for some adult readers.  However, the popularity of writers such as R. L. Stine. Roald Dahl, and Shel Silverstein suggests that children are often attracted to the strange and the morbid.  If this book keeps readers up at night, I suspect it will only be because they do not want to put it down.

4 stars

Neverseen by Shannon Messenger

Information

Goodreads: Neverseen
Series: Keeper of the Lost Cities #4
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Sophie Foster and her friends have broken more laws than they can count.  Now they’re running from the Council and trying to find safety with the Black Swan.  But treachery lurks around them.  How can they move on from the ultimate betrayal?

Review

The stakes are getting higher in the fourth installment of the Keeper of Lost Cities series.  Having repeatedly defined the Council, Sophie and her friends now fear exile and are on the run.  The moment readers have been waiting for is about to arrive.  Finally we will meet the Black Swan.

Messenger does a brilliant job expanding her world in this new book.  Readers get to learn more about the hideouts of the Black Swan, meet gnomes and learn more about their ways, travel to Exilium, and get a taste of what ogre country looks like.  Finally readers’ curiosity begins to be satisfied, at least a little.  So many mysteries were opened at the start and now questions begin to get answered.

Though there is  much travelling, the momentum of the series carries forward full steam ahead as our heroes train for another big operation: the rescue of Prentice.  Danger lurks everywhere and new alliances will be formed even as old ones begin to crumble.  Some of the revelations are not particularly surprising.  Others add just the right amount of drama.

If you’ve travelled this far with Sophie and her friends, Neverseen is another engrossing installment in the series.  It may be around 700 pages, but it feels like far less.

5 stars

Witch Wars by Sibéal Pounder

INFORMATION

Goodreads: Witch Wars
Series: Witch Wars #1
Source: Gift
Publication Date: January 2016

SUMMARY

Tiga spends her days in the shed hiding from her mean guardian.  Then Fran the Fabulous Fairy appears and tells Tiga she’s a witch!  Below the pipes lies the world of Sinkville, where a competition called Witch Wars is about to start.  If Tiga wins, she can stay in Sinkville.  If she loses, she must return to live with her nasty guardian.  But how can a witch win a war without any spells?

Review

Witch Wars is a fun middle-grade fantasy that delights in its own quirkiness.  Though the premise may seem familiar–a neglected orphan is rescued by discovering her magical abilities–Pounder makes the story feel fresh and fun.  Filled with a cast of delightful characters and set in a world where anything can happen, Witch Wars is sure to make you want to return again and again to travel through Sinkville with Tiga and her friends.

The characters in Witch Wars really shine.  From Fran the Fabulous Fairy’s obsession with fame to Fluffanora’s ambivalence to winning Witch Wars to Tiga’s enthusiasm upon discovering the amazing clothes and food of Sinkville, each character comes alive, bringing heart and humor to the story.  Even the bad witches determined to cheat their way to the finish line are fun to read about.  And because the story is a middle grade, you can rest assured that Tiga’s nemeses will find their comeuppance in a quirky but satisfying ending.

Witch Wars is an exuberant story, one determined to make readers laugh.  If you’re looking for a quick but enchanting story, Pounder has you covered.

5 stars