Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales by Soman Chainani (Spoilers)

Beasts and Beauty

Information

Goodreads: Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales
Series: None
Age Category: Marketed as Middle Grade; More Suitable as YA
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

You think you know these stories, don’t you?

You are wrong.

You don’t know them at all.

Twelve tales, twelve dangerous tales of mystery, magic, and rebellious hearts. Each twists like a spindle to reveal truths full of warning and triumph, truths that capture hearts long kept tame and set them free, truths that explore life . . . and death.

A prince has a surprising awakening . . .                           

A beauty fights like a beast . . .

A boy refuses to become prey . . .

A path to happiness is lost. . . . then found again.

New York Times bestselling author Soman Chainani respins old stories into fresh fairy tales for a new era and creates a world like no other. These stories know you. They understand you. They reflect you. They are tales for our times. So read on, if you dare.

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Review

Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales promises readers that these are stories “for a new era” and that they “understand you” and “reflect you.” The question while reading, however, is whether making the characters diverse and gender swapping some of the characters is enough to make them fully new. In many of the stories, negative gender stereotypes against women remain. And in many of the stories, there is no modernized “enlightened” moral. Rather, the “heroes” in several of the tales become the villains. It is unclear whether readers are supposed to cheer them on for taking on the role of their enemies– or not.

Ultimately, the book does a wonderful job in being dark, gritty, and somewhat depressing. Virtue does not really triumph over evil in this volume because none of the characters are that virtuous to begin with. And most of the endings are more bitter than sweet, with princesses finding themselves unloved by their husbands and many of the fairy tale characters getting divorced. Presumably this makes the stories more realistic. But most people do not read fairy tales for the realism.

Further, the content of the book really veers more towards adult or YA fiction, making this a really odd choice for the middle grade audience. Yes, tales such as “Bluebeard” have always had violence in them. But it does seem like the stories are crossing some sort of invisible line here over from MG to YA when there are (positive? neutral?) depictions of cannibalism, “happy” endings with the prince marrying two girls at once, and a lot of uncomfortable sexual overtones throughout the book. Usually this type of content is considered mature, and I am not sure what to make of a publisher marketing this content to educators, parents, and children who are likely unaware that it is in this book. Frankly, it does feel like a violation of trust because many people use age categories to find content that is developmentally appropriate for children–and this, by most people’s standards, is not probably not for the average 8-12 year old.

Below, I give my thoughts on a few of the selections from the book. To fully review the tales, however, I do spoil the endings and as well as any notable deviations from the original stories. Read on only if you do not mind being spoiled!

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“Bluebeard”

Not too original for a retelling. Instead of marrying and murdering girls, the titular character buys orphan boys. It’s unclear exactly what he does with them, but there does seem to be a creepy sexual undertone to this story, as with many. The story is not too remarkable, however, since the main feature is the gender swap.

“Cinderella”

I admit I had no idea what to make of this one. The original twist is that Prince Charming actually fell in love with a different girl–not Cinderella–who ends up being turned into a mouse by a witch. Now the mouse lives with Cinderella and is using Cinderella (by lying to her) in order to get into the castle for the ball. The mouse has a lot to say about the evil stepsisters, in a way that links their evilness with their ugliness. There is no clear messaging that this is wrong or that the mouse is just nasty and jealous, and probably should not be criticizing other women about their looks the way she does.

Normally, I would suggest that a book does not need a clear moral message from the narrator, but this is a fairy tale. More than that, it is a retold fairy tale in a book touting how wonderful it is that we have these updated stories that are presumably supposed to align with contemporary values. So why the woman-on-woman hate?

Additionally, the ending was unusual, to say the least. The prince ends up marrying both Cinderella and the other girl (yes, bigamy). I have to admit that I was not aware that this is something most contemporary readers would celebrate as a happy and appropriate ending.

“Hansel and Gretel”

The big twist here is that, instead of the witch trying to eat Hansel and Gretel, Hansel and Gretel team up with the witch to (apparently) eat their evil stepmother. Usually fairy tales try to have morals about how being virtuous will bring good things to a person. Are Hansel and Gretel actually the good characters here, though? Why do they get a happy ending for engaging in cannibalism? Is the point of this story something about how darkness is within us all and no one is really that good? Is that the modern twist–a belief that the world holds no light? Or are readers supposed to cheer on Hansel and Gretel for becoming like the witch readers are used to hating because, you know, killing and eating people is wrong? It’s all very unclear, but neither option seems like a good one.

“Jack and the Beanstalk”

This retelling shows how ineffective merely writing a gender-swapped ogre is in any attempt to make old stories feel less sexist. Negative gender stereotypes about women still abound here. They have, in fact, been added to the story! The ogre becomes a female who henpecks her husband. Jack’s mother, meanwhile, is understandably stressed and bitter because she married a lazy man who squandered all their wealth, and then got himself killed, and now her son seems to be following in his dad’s footsteps. Somehow, however, Jack’s mother becomes the villain because Jack thinks she’s a nag. So evidently she needs to suffer so that Jack can go and be happy with a new family. Ouch.

“The Little Mermaid”

This one is one of the less imaginative retellings, largely because it is not really a story. It reads like a Tumblr-esque critique of the Disney film, with the sea witch merely running a monologue about how silly and shallow the little mermaid has to be in order to give up everything for a guy she has never even spoken to. I imagine most readers will not be particularly impressed by this one.

“Peter Pan”

This is possibly the highlight of the collection. It is told by an older Wendy, who recounts her early adventures in Neverland, and then her growing understanding of how vile Peter Pan really is. She ends up falling in love with a pirate instead. The one aspect I really didn’t like was that Wendy marries someone, but has a years-long affair with the pirate. And I guess readers are supposed to be okay with that because her husband is boring. But being boring is hardly wrong. Why are readers supposed to be disdainful of anyone who does not want to engage in deadly adventures? I so wish that the husband had been fortunate enough to marry a boring woman who would have loved him.

“Sleeping Beauty”

I was not sure what to make of this one, either. It begins with the prince waking up every morning with bleeding wounds, and he worries that he is being attacked by a demon. It seems clear that this is supposed to be a metaphor for his being gay. However, he attacks the boy who has been attacking him at night, then ends up marrying a countess. But he now he is not happy, so he locks himself in a tower, so the boy can return to…hurt him?…every night? This does make him happy. His wife gets upset that her husband has locked himself in a tower, but readers aren’t supposed to worry about her too much because she’s a gold digger (ahem, sexist stereotype!) so she deserves what she gets.

I don’t understand the link between violence and pleasure here. Also, if the wounds are supposed to be some uncomfortable metaphor for sex, like in vampire lore or something, does that mean the the prince was being raped…and then decided later to become lovers with his rapist?? Because, remember, initially the night attacks were unsolicited and not consensual. They hurt the prince and worried him. How is this an appropriate story for anyone, let alone children?

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Conclusion

Ultimately, I was not overly impressed with the collection. The originality of each tale varies a lot and often the author seems to rely on a gender swap alone to make a story “new,” but without removing gendered stereotypes. The content, too, is too mature for a middle-grade book. I imagine most 8-12 year olds are not developmentally ready to read a book where cannibalism is depicted as either a neutral or a laudable act, and certainly not ready for one where sex is equated with violence and where apparent rape is depicted as the prelude to romance. This is not what children should be learning about sexuality when they are at an impressionable age. That these stories are specifically marketed as updated to reflect contemporary values and sensibilities only makes many of the narrative choices stranger because it implies that readers should take the stories at face value.

Maybe read this one if you like dark tales where no one is the hero and everyone is the villain. But go in knowing that the content here is mature and that the book is not what most would typically call a middle-grade read.

2 star review

Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?! by Sophie Escabasse

Witches of Brooklyn What the Hex

Information

Goodreads: Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?!
Series: Witches of Brooklyn #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Sophie loves exploring her new powers as a witch and, even better, she’s starting to meet the other witches in town. They’re really cool women who do their best to help others! But there’s a new girl at school, and suddenly everyone seems way more interested in her than they are interested in hanging out with Sophie. Can this witch figure out how to save her friendships?

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Review

The sequel to Witches of Brooklyn is an engaging, if not particularly memorable read. Like many middle-grade graphic novels, it focuses on the drama of changing friend groups, though with the added twist of making the protagonist a witch. Sophie, however, does not experience any real struggles with her magic in this installment, thereby lessening much of the drama and keeping the focus on her jealousy towards her friend’s infatuation with the new girl at school. What the Hex?! is a pleasant read, but not the type of story that invites rereading.

What the Hex?! attempts to intertwine two parallel stories, with only partial success. One thread follows Sophie’s anger at her friend for paying more attention to the new girl than to her. Another follows Sophie as she meets more neighborhood witches, and learns about a city corner that seems to be cursed–at least, everyone who goes by seems to meet with bad luck. Predictably, Sophie’s ability to move past her jealousy and reach out is what ultimately enables her to solve the conflict at the corner, as well.

Unfortunately, however, the magic system is somewhat undeveloped, as is the process whereby Sophie solves the problem of the curse. As a result, the ending scene feels a bit rushed or perhaps unearned. Sophie has a random idea about the corner, based on little evidence, that just happens to be right. And then all is solved by the power of friendship! I support messages of friendship, but sometimes just throwing out that love can solve everything seems a bit too facile to be believable. There needs to be work involved, as well.

In the end, I did enjoy What the Hex?!, but the story and the art do not stand out from all the similar titles. Witchy middle-grade books are trending, as are middle school friendship dramas. As are witchy friendship dramas, which is apparently now its own subgenre. What the Hex?! simply is not as strong as the titles it is competing with. And it is not really the kind of book that I see lasting.

3 Stars

Tidesong by Wendy Xu (ARC Review)

Tidesong by Wendy Xu instagram photo

Information

Goodreads: Tidesong
Series: None
Source: PR company for review
Publication Date: November 16, 2021

Official Summary

Perfect for fans of Studio Ghibli and The Tea Dragon Society, this is a magically heartwarming graphic novel about self-acceptance and friendship.

Sophie is a young witch whose mother and grandmother pressure her to attend the Royal Magic Academy—the best magic school in the realm—even though her magic is shaky at best. To train for her entrance exams, Sophie is sent to relatives she’s never met.

Cousin Sage and Great-Aunt Lan seem more interested in giving Sophie chores than in teaching her magic. Frustrated, Sophie attempts magic on her own, but the spell goes wrong, and she accidentally entangles her magic with the magic of a young water dragon named Lir.

Lir is trapped on land and can’t remember where he came from. Even so, he’s everything Sophie isn’t—beloved by Sophie’s family and skilled at magic. With his help, Sophie might just ace her entrance exams, but that means standing in the way of Lir’s attempts to regain his memories. Sophie knows what she’s doing is wrong, but without Lir’s help, can she prove herself?

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Review

Tidesong by Wendy Xu is a whimsical graphic novel that has the feel of Kiki’s Delivery Service, but with dragons and a setting by the sea. The result is a story that ebbs and flows with protagonist Sophie’s struggles but ultimately will feel warm and familiar and cozy to readers.

The greatest struggle, I find, for many graphic novels is to create a complex story using limited words and space, and I do think Tidesong ultimately feels a bit sparse. There’s the main conflict of Sophie’s wanting to learn magic but then getting her magic tied up with a dragon’s and needing to sort it out so she can continue to practice for her audition for the esteemed magic academy she wants to attend, and there are side plots about Sophie’s family and Sophie’s own inner turmoil. It’s simply not as developed as I’d expect it all to be if the story were told in novel form. However, I don’t think it this will be an issue for the target audience of middle grade readers. As a child, I often imagined fuller stories into the books I read and was surprised to find as an adult that many of the books I loved so much seemed so short and simple. So I think young readers will absolutely fall in love with Tidesong and its world.

And the world has a lot to offer. In a brief space, and with the help of her gorgeous illustrations, Xu brings readers to a seaside town where Sophie’s family works magic and consorts with dragons. You can practically smell the salty air on the pages. I love the idea that Sophie’s magic is tied to water and that her family has a history of special magical traditions they have passed through the ages.

Finally, Xu ensures each character in the book has an arc, from Sophie who has to deal with learning magic in ways she didn’t expect, to Lir who has to come to terms with his memory loss and family problems, to Sophie’s extended family members who need to learn to let go of the past in order to truly see the present. The journey for each of them has up and downs but is a joy for readers to watch.

Tidesong is a book that is sure to delight readers and have them hoping Xu will return to this world with a sequel.

Briana
4 stars

The Halloween Moon by Joseph Fink

The Halloween Moon

Information

Goodreads: The Halloween Moon
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: July 20, 2021

Official Summary

Esther Gold loves Halloween more than anything in the world. So she is determined to go trick-or-treating again this year despite the fact that her parents think she is officially too old. Esther has it all planned out, from her costume to her candy-collecting strategy. But when the night rolls around, something feels . . . off.

No one is answering their door. The moon is an unnatural shade of orange. Strange children wander the streets, wearing creepy costumes that might not be costumes at all. And it seems like the only people besides Esther who are awake to see it all are her best friend, her school bully, and her grown-up next-door neighbor.

Together, this unlikely crew must find a way to lift the curse that has been placed upon their small town before it’s too late. Because someone is out to make sure Halloween never comes to an end. And even Esther doesn’t want to be trapped in this night forever.

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Review

The Halloween Moon is the perfect book to break out for Halloween, whether you’re an actual child or a just a child at heart. With engaging characters, a wild plot, and a setting that transforms magically from Southern California to a Halloween nightmare, the story has everything you could ask for.

I’ve read mysteries and thrillers and books about witches or zombies, but I’ve never before read a book so purely about Halloween itself. The Halloween Moon, while a scary book with a plot focused on adventure and a bit of a mystery (aka WHY ARE ALL THESE SCARY THINGS HAPPENING???) is a celebration of all aspects of the holiday: costumes, scary movies, trick-or-treating, candy, decorating your yard, and more. If you want a book that will truly immerse you in the spooky season, led by a protagonist who loves the holiday deeply herself, this is it.

I love that the book starts out focused on “normal” Halloween things, like Esther’s questions over what costume she should wear to school and whether her best friend will go trick-or-treating with her, and then things begin to take a more sinister shape as Esther starts seeing actual monsters. She loves being scared, but does she love being THIS scared? Isn’t the fun of scares at Halloween knowing that it’s all fake? Esther (and friends, some of them delightfully unexpected) rise to the challenge, however, and soon are fighting to bring back normal Halloween in a fast-paced and exciting plot.

The story also grounds itself in some real-world issues, such as the antisemitism Esther faces and her fears about growing up and going to high school next year. There are times I think the narrative voice might get too in the weeds pontificating on the nature of change and whatnot, but overall it’s very thoughtful.

Truly, this is an excellent read. It will be enjoyable any time of year, but you definitely won’t regret reading it around Halloween itself.

Briana
4 stars

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy by Anne Ursu (ARC Review)

Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy book cover for Instagram

Information

Goodreads: The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy
Series: None (yet)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: ARC for review
Publication Date: October 12, 2021

Official Summary

If no one notices Marya Lupu, is likely because of her brother, Luka. And that’s because of what everyone knows: that Luka is destined to become a sorcerer.

The Lupus might be from a small village far from the capital city of Illyria, but that doesn’t matter. Every young boy born in in the kingdom holds the potential for the rare ability to wield magic, to protect the country from the terrifying force known only as the Dread.

For all the hopes the family has for Luka, no one has any for Marya, who can never seem to do anything right. But even so, no one is prepared for the day that the sorcerers finally arrive to test Luka for magical ability, and Marya makes a terrible mistake. Nor the day after, when the Lupus receive a letter from a place called Dragomir Academy–a mysterious school for wayward young girls. Girls like Marya.

Soon she is a hundred miles from home, in a strange and unfamiliar place, surrounded by girls she’s never met. Dragomir Academy promises Marya and her classmates a chance to make something of themselves in service to one of the country’s powerful sorcerers. But as they learn how to fit into a world with no place for them, they begin to discover things about the magic the men of their country wield, as well as the Dread itself–things that threaten the precarious balance upon which Illyria is built.

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Review

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy jumps into the heart of its problem from the very first page: girls in Marya’s kingdom are given no opportunities. Marya is raised to believe the shortcomings are hers, that’s she’s useless and messes everything up and gets in her brother’s way, but when she’s sent to a school for “troubled girls,” she and her friends begin questioning everything they’ve been taught and unraveling mysteries about their school and their country that have lasted centuries. The result is an immersive, engaging story that both enthralls and enrages.

I always think I’m over stories about the patriarchy and the oppression of girls. It’s an important topic and, of course, a personal one as I’m a woman, but I do get tired of reading books with “Girls aren’t allowed to do anything” as the premise. However, Ursu digs deep into history for her story, and her take on this premise is thoughtful and complex. Indeed, it’s actually very dark at times, as characters try to convince girls they are insane rather than admit they might have knowledge or talents, but Marya’s independence and optimism help readers see the light at the end of the tunnel. Readers believe that Marya will use her wits and bits of women’s knowledge and secrets that have been passed down through generations to get out of her troubles and to find fairness for girls they’ve been denied.

The plot is ever-twisting, and I’m pleased to report that while I was close with some of my predications, I was never 100% correct. Ursu keeps readers on their toes and builds a complex web of lies and clues and magic that will hold its own for readers both young and old. I was excited to find out what would happen next, what Marya and her friends would do and what they would uncover, and I kept turning page after page to find out.

The end of the book feels a bit rushed, but everything gets wrapped up, so The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy can work as a standalone. There’s doom for sequels, and I think a lot of readers will be clamoring to hear more about Marya and her friends and their next adventures, so hopefully a new book contract is in the cards for Anne Ursu.

If you like fantasy and books about tearing down the patriarchy, this will definitely appeal to you.

Briana
4 stars

The Girl and the Witch’s Garden by Erin Bowman

The Girl and the Witch's Garden

Information

Goodreads: The Girl and the Witch’s Garden
Series: None
Source:
Library
Published:
2020

Official Summary

Mallory Estate is the last place twelve-year-old Piper Peavey wants to spend her summer vacation. The grounds are always cold, the garden out back is dead, a mysterious group of children call the property home, and there’s a rumor that Melena M. Mallory—the owner of the estate and Piper’s wealthy grandmother—is a witch.

But when Piper’s father falls ill, Mallory Estate is exactly where she finds herself.

The grand house and its garden hold many secrets—some of which may even save her father—and Piper will need to believe in herself, her new friends, and magic if she wants to unlock them before it’s too late.

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Review

The Girl and the Witch’s Garden evokes the feeling of classic children’s fantasy, where old estates hold secret portals to another world. However, while the idea of a hidden garden remains as enchanting as ever, the execution of the plotline shows some weaknesses that prevent the story from being as remarkable as it might have been. I wanted to adore The Girl and the Witch’s Garden because it possesses all the right elements to make my imagination soar. In the end, however, the storyline is rushed and predictable, making this a book one I am not likely to reread.

Like many a classic tale, this one begins with a girl arriving at an old estate said to be owned by a witch. Inside, she finds a number of orphans who are being fostered and who claim to possess magical skills. Their quest? To find their way inside a magic garden and complete a series of trials in order to obtain a legendary object of great power. Initially, the protagonist, Piper Peavey, does not believe them. But when she learns that they seek a potion of immortality, she becomes desperate to claim it for her dad, who is dying from cancer.

This is the kind of plot that normally would move and delight me. I love stories where the magical intersects with the everyday, where enchantment lurks just beyond the corner, if one knows how to look. Unfortunately, however, the rushed plotline made it difficult for me to feel immersed in the story. Piper unlocks her magical ability, learns how to control it, enters the secret garden, and completes the first trial almost immediately. Subsequent trials are passed with equal ease. For a story to grip me, I need there to be challenges to overcome. I need the characters to feel trapped, to sleep on the solution for a few days, to seek outside help because they are absolutely stumped. Having characters solve a puzzle in ten minutes after a failed try or two simply does not provide the same sense of drama. It lowers the stakes and makes it seem as if the garden is a puzzle anyone could solve, as long as they possess the right magical knack.

All this leads up to a climax that is too predictable to be exciting. Because the book spends a lot of time setting up an obvious villain early on, I knew who the the real villain must be and even where they must be. Perhaps the target audience will gasp in surprise at the late revelations, but I merely yawned. Then got annoyed when new powers suddenly came into play at the last moment. A deus ex machina to end the tale? Of course.

I wanted to love The Girl and the Witch’s Garden. This is a book I have eagerly been anticipating since last year, and only managed to read now because of the pandemic and other factors. Unfortunately, however, the magic of the premise did not translate into the execution.

3 Stars

Well Witched by Frances Hardinge

Well Witched

Information

Goodreads: Well Witched
Series: None
Source:
Library
Published:
2007

Official Summary

Ryan and his friends don’t think twice about stealing some money from a wishing well. After all, who’s really going to miss a few tarnished coins?

The well witch does.

And she demands payback: Now Ryan, Josh, and Chelle must serve her . . . and the wishes that lie rotting at the bottom of her well. Each takes on powers they didn’t ask for and don’t want. Ryan grows strange bumps–are they eyes?–between his knuckles; Chelle starts speaking the secrets of strangers, no matter how awful and bloody; and Josh can suddenly–inexplicably–grant even the darkest of wishes, the kind of wishes that should never come true.

Darkly witty, wholly unexpected, and exquisitely sinister, Frances Hardinge’s Well Witched is one well-cast tale that readers didn’t know they were wishing for.

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Review

I have loved every book by Frances Hardinge that I have read, so I was more than surprised to discover that Well Witched failed to capture my imagination in the same way as her other stories have. While I associate Hardinge’s work with beautiful prose, as well as with quirky and imaginative stories, Well Witched reads a bit more like a standard middle-grade fantasy than it does a highly original and inventive tale. In the end, I enjoyed Well Witched, but it does not strike me as a read that is memorable, or one that I am likely to read again.

The aspect I enjoyed most about Well Witched is the way that magic intersects with the contemporary world. Often, fantasies tend to be set in pseudo-medieval worlds, alternative worlds, or worlds based on a past time period. Much rarer are those stories that suggest that magic is still around, and that the readers, too, might just be able to catch a glimpse. In Well Witched, the characters receive unwelcome powers after stealing coins from a wishing well. They must then determine what the well witch wants from them, all while hiding their new strangeness from friends and family. I absolutely loved the idea that contemporary characters have to figure out how to accept the presence of magic in their midst, all while hiding the fact from people who might think they are crazy.

The characterization, however, does not reach the standards I have come to expect from Hardinge. What I love about her books is that her protagonists are often conflicted, but also often not very nice. They are not necessarily heroes or people striving to do the right thing, but people striving to survive. In Well Witched, there are echoes of Hardinge’s complex characters, particularly in Josh, the leader of the trio of protagonists, who seems to enjoy his dark new powers a little too much. However, the story is told mainly from the perspective Ryan, who is more of a do-gooder, a little more boring, and a little unobservant for someone the story claims can see things others cannot. One of the main things Ryan misses is his friend Chelle, whom he dismisses as a bubbly, perhaps not too bright, chatterer, just like everyone else. Perhaps it is the presence of three main characters that throws this book off, but each one gets a few defining characteristics, but none really comes alive in the breathtaking way that Hardinge is capable of.

Finally, the plot in Well Witched is not evenly paced, and somehow comes across as less original than it probably is. The story starts off incredibly slowly, and only picks up steam in the final third. By this point, of course, some readers may have already given up. The slow pacing at the start damages the feeling of the story overall. The idea that an ancient spirit of some sorts is now trapped in a modern-day well, granting twisted witches, is a great one! But all the interesting bits that come with this information arrive too late in the tale to feel as meaningful and gripping as they might. I love the concept of Well Witched. I think the execution could be improved.

Well Witched is not a bad story by any means. It is certainly worth a read for fans of Hardinge, and it will probably also appeal to readers who like their tales twisted. Hardinge excels at the creepy, and not many middle-grade authors seem to be willing to go as as dark as she does. We’re talking infanticide (a story from the past–not depicted in the present storyline), souls trapped in some sort of limbo hell, and friends willing to commit murder to keep their powers. Perhaps it is not surprising that some readers prefer to categorize Hardinge’s middle-grade books as YA. But for readers who like a bit of horror, Hardinge delivers.

So would I recommend Well Witched? Certainly, to the right reader. Do I think it is Hardinge’s best work? Probably not. But even Hardinge’s more standard fare is engaging.

3 Stars

Fly by Night by Frances Hardinge

Fly by Night

Information

Goodreads: Fly by Night
Series: Fly by Night #1
Source:
Library
Published:
2005

Official Summary

Twelve-year-old Mosca Mye hasn’t got much. Her cruel uncle keeps her locked up in his mill, and her only friend is her pet goose, Saracen, who’ll bite anything that crosses his path. But she does have one small, rare thing: the ability to read. She doesn’t know it yet, but in a world where books are dangerous things, this gift will change her life.

Enter Eponymous Clent, a smooth-talking con man who seems to love words nearly as much as Mosca herself. Soon Mosca and Clent are living a life of deceit and danger — discovering secret societies, following shady characters onto floating coffeehouses, and entangling themselves with crazed dukes and double-crossing racketeers. It would be exactly the kind of tale Mosca has always longed to take part in, until she learns that her one true love — words — may be the death of her.

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Review

Fly By Night is a treasure, a book so quick-witted and lively that it seems a marvel it could be Frances Hardinge’s debut. The story breathes with inventiveness on every page, from the floating coffeehouses, to the panoply of kings and queens waiting for a triumphant return to the fractured kingdom, to the fighting goose. Loosely based on 18th-century England, the book is alive with imagined religions, politics, and intrigue. Any lover of fantasy will devour the descriptions of people, places, and things, all told with keen observation, and just a little cheek. Fly by Night is, in short, a fantasy sure to delight readers young and old.

Hardinge immersed me in her world from the very start, when readers learned that Mosca Mye was born into a kingdom where the people pray to the Beloved, gods of sort who each have a dedicated time of day and year, and who are each responsible for a different aspect of life. Readers will know that Hardinge’s work tends to have atheistic underpinnings, so the Beloved, while interesting, are also treated a bit humorously. Their areas of concern can be incredibly specific, and also a little bit strange. However, be that as it may, the people are serious about the Beloved, and the different belief systems of the realm soon becomes important as Mosca and her new guardian find themselves embroiled in city politics. A story that initially seems like a fun fantasy adventure becomes a thoughtful look at the way we use words to shape the world around us, and the way those words can be wielded for good or for ill by both the powerful and the lowly.

Words stand at the center of the story, making Fly By Night a short of homage to the power of words and the power of literature. Mosca initially runs away from home because her father’s books have been burned, and a man of letters represents a chance for a future where she can possess all the words she wants. But Mosca ends up in Mandelion, a city run by the stationers’ guild, and they control what can and cannot be printed. Anything without a stationers’ seal is viewed as corrupt, for it is said that books can make one mad. Mosca’s journey sees her transform from a young girl who believes what everyone around her says, even though it creates tension with her own desire to have all the words she chooses, to a girl who begins to desire the freedom to think for herself. In many ways, Mosca is a heroine with Enlightenment ideals in a realm still focused on the safety of tradition.

Fly by Night is a wondrous tale, one that skips and sings with beautiful words and a passion for stories. It is a book about the stories we tell ourselves, both as individuals and as a society, and the ways in which those stories can transform the world for the better or for the worse. Fantasies that make me think are some of my favorite–they are the ones that make me want to read them again and again, to discover new things, to reflect on issues I may not have thought about before. For now, I hope to return to Mosca’s world through the sequel. But I can definitely see myself reading Fly by Night again.

5 stars

Sisters of the Neversea by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Sisters of the Neversea

Information

Goodreads: Sisters of the Neversea
Series: None
Source:
Library
Published:
2021

Official Summary

In this modern take of the popular classic Peter Pan, award-winning author Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek) brilliantly shifts the focus from the boy who won’t grow up to Native American Lily and English Wendy—stepsisters who must face both dangers and wonders to find their way back to the family they love.

Stepsisters Lily and Wendy embark on a high-flying journey of magic, adventure, and courage—to a fairy-tale island known as Neverland.

Lily and Wendy have been best friends since they became stepsisters. But with their feuding parents planning to spend the summer apart, what will become of their family—and their friendship?

Little do they know that a mysterious boy has been watching them from the oak tree outside their window. A boy who intends to take them away from home for good, to an island of wild animals, Merfolk, Fairies, and kidnapped children.

A boy who calls himself Peter Pan.

Star Divider

Review

A Peter Pan retelling from the perspectives of (Tiger) Lily and Wendy promised a magical adventure. Unfortunately, however, a lack of characterization, a turn away from the darkness of the original tale, and a heaping does of heavy-handed moralizing made Sisters of the Neversea a lackluster read for me. The reading experience was so disappointing that, in fact, I almost chose not to finish the book at all. I wish I had better things to say about a book with such an exciting premise, but Sisters of the Neversea is not the retelling for me.

The main draw of the book for readers seems to be that Sisters of the Neversea is a reimagining of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan that emphasizes the female characters and points out many of the flaws the original has in its depictions of Native Americans and women. This is a laudable goal. However, the characterization of the female characters leaves much to be desired. Lily and Wendy are said by the narrator to be very different, one practical and one fanciful, but, in practice, their characters read about the same way. Additionally, the narrator spends a lot of time telling readers that the characters are a particular way, but these supposed traits are never demonstrated by the characters in the story.

Tinker Bell, the other main female character, receives the same treatment; the narrator spends a lot of time telling readers what Tinker Bell thinks and why she is doing things, but does not really let Tinker Bell simply act. The narrator’s input further has the unfortunate effect of making it seem rather as if the readers are assumed not to be intelligent enough to figure out the fairy’s motives, were they not explicitly told. The spelling out of ideas, themes, and lessons is, however, a trademark of the book.

The author’s input is most clearly seen in the explicit moral lessons integrated throughout the story. For example, when Peter Pan calls Lily and her brother a name not used by their tribe, the narrator is sure to tell readers that Peter is rude and presumptuous. When Peter suggests that Wendy engages in traditional feminine roles, Wendy and the narrator make sure that readers know Peter is being a sexist jerk, and that Wendy’s stepmother is an accountant. When Peter assumes some of the Lost Boys are boys, the narrator again interjects to let readers know that Peter is wrong and presumptuous. Readers may rejoice to see that the Peter Pan of Barrie’s original work is being called out. Yet the fact remains that having a narrator spell out moral lessons in the middle of a story is not always great storytelling. The story would flow more effectively if the readers could see the lessons played out by the characters, instead of having an authorial voice interjecting all the time.

My final issue with the work is that, though one might think that calling out the original book’s flaws would result in a story just as dark as the original, Sisters of the Neversea is actually a comparatively tame work, almost as if the story wishes to protect its young readers from anything too scary. Neverland is said to be a dangerous place, yet the only dangerous person on the island is Peter Pan himself–everyone else is trying to stop him, and thus are good allies for the protagonists. Oh, there are hints about the wicked deeds Pan has done, such as making some animals go extinct or feeding people to crocodiles, but one never really feels that Lily and Wendy are in any imminent peril. But the sense of peril is what keeps a fantasy adventure story alive. Without it, the plot just slogs on.

The premise for Sisters of the Neversea is absolutely wonderful. And certainly Native children deserve more accurate representation in literature–something better than what J. M. Barrie gave readers. Yet the premise is not enough to carry this story. The poor characterization, authorial interjections, and lack of peril combine to create an unremarkable tale.

3 Stars

The Nightmare Thief by Nicole Lesperance

The Nightmare Thief

Information

Goodreads: The Nightmare Thief
Series: Nightmare Thief #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: January 2021

Official Summary

Maren Partridge loves working in her family’s dream shop where she can hand-craft any dream imaginable. The shop has only one rule. Dreams cannot be given to a person without their consent. Maren has no problem with this—until her sister, Hallie, has an accident that leaves her in a coma. Maren’s certain she can cure Hallie with a few well-chosen dreams. And when no one is watching, she slips her a flying dream.

But a strange new customer from the shop has been following Maren and knows what she did. Now she’s laid the perfect trap to blackmail Maren into creating custom nightmares for a dark and terrible purpose. As Maren gets drawn further into the sinister scheme, she must make a choice: to protect her family or to protect the town from her family’s magic.

Star Divider

Review

The Nightmare Thief seemed, on the surface, like just my kind of book. A girl with dream magic who ends up creating nightmares for a sinister woman out for revenge? Perfect. Unfortunately, however, I found the worldbuilding and the characterization to be lacking. And no book can rely solely on its premise. So while The Nightmare Thief lured me in with its summary, I ultimately found the experience lackluster.

The delight of many a fantasy is not only the plot, but also the world. I was excited to learn about what appears to be a contemporary American society, complete with regular shops and the internet, that coexists with small types of magic: the ability to send a letter to its recipient at once, a talent for gardening, the creation of singing and sparkling novelty toys. However, I quickly realized that my expectations would remain unfulfilled. The book has very little interest in exploring the different types of magic, how they work, how they interact, and how they are received. Rather, the book name drops a few types of magic, then quickly focuses on the major plot point: a suspicious-looking woman keen to purchase nightmares in bulk.

Sadly, however, the plot is not all that gripping. It is immediately obvious that this evil-looking woman is an old resident out for revenge, and that she is using dream magic to chase people out of town. Yet no one seems to be aware of her nefarious plot, or to care that all the charming magical shops are being transformed into wicked emporiums. Only Maren starts to grasp the overall plan, and she decides her best course of action is to do whatever the villain wants, in the name of protecting not her family (as the book summary states) but rather herself. Because the punishment for sneaking people dreams without consent is never to be allowed in her family’s dream shop again. And apparently sacrificing the whole town is worth being able to go into the shop.

One might hope that the characterization would save the book at this point. If Maren were really sympathetic and the characters all drawn compellingly, the reading experience might have been worth it. Alas, however, Maren is barely fleshed out. Readers basically know that that she loves her sister and she sometimes takes tap dance lessons, and those seem to be her major character traits. She is also having friendship troubles (because this is a middle grade book, after all) because her best friend is hanging out with another boy who is mean to her. But that is all glossed over quickly in the name of recruiting her friend to try to help her defeat the villain. Her friend pretty much has zero personality, though readers know his grandfather is ill and his parents are not together. Indeed, the attempts at creating characters in this book seems to boil down in most cases to associating each person with one or two random tidbits–she dances, he visits his ailing grandfather, and so on. I could not truly describe any of the characters’ personalities.

The Nightmare Thief has plenty of potential–magic shops! vengeful citizens! talking birds! Ultimately, however, the book seems to rely primarily on its premise to capture readers, and barely pays attention to worldbuilding or characterization. Though a sequel is promised, I simply do not care enough to read it.

3 Stars