The Circus at the End of the Sea by Lori R. Snyder

The Circus at the End of the Sea Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Circus at the End of the Sea
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: October 2021

Summary

Maddy has never had a family or a place to call home. So when she feels the tug of magic calling her in Venice, California, she hops off the bus headed to her new group home. She discovers by the sea a magical circus, but, with the Ringmaster missing, the circus may soon have to close. Maddy offers to help, and suddenly finds herself on a wild adventure.

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Review

The Circus at the End of the Sea seems like just the quirky kind of middle grade fantasy I would love. It is filled with plenty of heart as well as magic, and I yearned to connect with the characters and to immerse myself in the world. Ultimately, however, it felt like the story was trying just a little too hard to be quirky for me to find it truly delightful. And I never connected with the protagonist Maddy, who possesses an amazingly bland personality, yet still overcomes each obstacle thrown her way with relative ease, as the apparent Chosen One. The Circus at the End of the Sea may find more love from its target audience, but I never felt the enchantment.

The story begins, of course, with an assurance that the protagonist Maddy is not like the other kids–and that, frankly, was enough for me to start the book with skepticism. Maddy, you see, can feel the tug of magic. And she still believes, even though she has learned not to tell anyone else. Yet there seems to be nothing particularly special about Maddy. She is not particularly kind or wise or brave–she actually comes across as kind of unlikable in her aversion to other children and her seeming resentment at having to be nice to her seatmate on the bus, a young girl who is worried about going to a new group home, but who is unable to see magic and, thus, ultimately too boring for Maddy to want to engage with forever. When thinking about her potential future, Maddy actually thinks back on this girl with horror–she can’t go back to that life and to more kids like that! So it was kind of hard for me to buy into the idea that Maddy was the only one who could save the circus, the only one who could complete the special tasks. The only thing special about her is that she loves magic. While this is often a sign of some great insight or openness or love of life in story books, Maddy does not really have any of that, just a desire to escape her current world.

The actual plot somehow seems rushed, as Maddy passes each challenge on her journey with comparative ease. Yes, there are few times when Maddy is confused, or fails, or has to ask for help. Generally, however, after a brief hiccup, she finds her way. The stories that often really grip me, that make me remember them long after I finish reading, are the ones where the heroes are truly challenged and even suffer. Maddy does suffer from loneliness, of course–because she apparently does not like any of the kids she has ever met before finding one who is, gasp, part of a magical circus–but most of this comes from telling rather than showing. And it is only sometimes related to the journey she must make to find the Ringmaster. While the book ultimately has a heartwarming message about finding one’s self by accepting one’s self, the good as well as the bad, Maddy finds this acceptance without much struggle, and that weakens both the story and her characterization.

Ultimately, The Circus at the End of the Sea is not the kind of story that will stay with me. I enjoyed many of the characters, I was entertained briefly by the plot, and I approved (as a stuffy old grown-up, I suppose) of the Good Messages imparted to the intended child audience. However, I was not moved, and I do not foresee myself rereading this book, or even reading a sequel. It is a good book. Just not the gem I was hoping to find.

3 Stars

Tidesong by Wendy Xu

Tidesong Book Cover

Information

GoodreadsTidesong
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: November 2021

Summary

Sophie longs to attend the prestigious Royal Academy of Magic, but instead is sent to learn her family’s special magic from her aunt and grandmother. But all her grandmother does is assign her chores! Determined to prove her power, Sophie attempts a difficult spell–and accidentally traps a dragon in human form. Can Sophie find a way to undo her magic?

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Review

Tidesong is a gentle fantasy reminiscent of a Studio Ghibli film. Young witch-in-training Sophie longs to prove herself, but her self doubt gets in the way of her ability to take direction. As a result, she creates a magical mishap that nearly results in disaster for both humans and dragons. The plot is simple, but also fast paced, so young readers can feel like they experienced a lot of action and growth in a short time.

The greatest strength of Tidesong just may be its illustrations, which are charming and sweet–and sure to appeal to the growing number of manga fans. The high stakes that are supposed to be a result of Sophie’s actions are not always effectively conveyed. However, Sophie’s emotions are–and those form the heart of the story.

Because, in the end, Tidesong is not really a book about human-dragon relationships, or magical training, or even finding one’s self. Tidesong is about a girl who seems to be experiencing anxiety, and who must learn not to listen to the voice in her head that tells her she is a failure. Every time someone offers constructive criticism, even in an encouraging and supportive way, Sophie hears that she is not good enough, and never will be. Her self-doubt is helpfully conveyed in red text boxes with jagged edges, showing struggle she experiences to believe in herself. But only by believing in herself can she undo the trouble she has caused with her magic.

Tidesong is not exactly the world’s most memorable story, or the most heartfelt. The action occurs too quickly, and so do the character arcs, to feel truly meaningful. It is, however, a sweet, feel-good book. Just the kind to cozy up with when one needs something uplifting.

Read Briana’s review of Tidesong.

3 Stars

Manu by Kelly Fernandez

Manu

Information

Goodreads: Manu
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2021

Summary

Manu is the resident troublemaker at an all-girls’ academy for witches, until the day a curse makes her lose her magical powers. Distraught at the idea of being without magic, Manu summons a demon to restore her powers. But Manu cannot control her too-strong magic and soon her presence endangers not only the academy but also the nearby town.

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Review

Manu by Kelly Fernandez joins a spate of middle grade graphic novels about witches that focus on changing friendships and recognition of one’s sexual identity. While the setting is novel–a girl’s school where apparently Catholic nuns teach witchcraft and pray to the saints–not much about the rest of the book stands out. Manu is a solid and a serviceable book, but not one I would recommend above its competition.

Readers, I suspect, will have varying reactions to Manu, based on sympathetic they are towards annoying characters. Though the storyline tries valiantly to make readers feel bad for Manu because the other students find her obnoxious, the reality is that Manu is obnoxious. And it is not just that she skips class and has trouble with authority. Manu repeatedly pulls “pranks” that end up causing physical injury to people and that her classmates are then obligated to clean up–which makes them feel like they are being punished for Manu’s crimes. The story keeps reminding readers that Manu is an orphan, an outsider–but no one in the story ever brings that up as an issue, until they reach a breaking point and are trying to explain Manu’s bad behavior. If Manu would stop hurting people, they undoubtedly would have no problem with her mysterious background. The students and townspeople are not exclusive or small-minded so much as they are fed up.

All this culminates with Manu making a pretty bad life decision by anyone’s standards–calling up an evil spirit to give her magical powers–leading to an epic showdown in which the sisters and her friend Josefina once again must clean up Manu’s mess. But the story ends with a feel-good message of acceptance of Manu (despite a shocking revelation about her past) and a hint at romance for Manu in the future. Probably Manu deserves none of this, but maybe that is the point. The love others have for her is unconditional.

The elements of the story will be nothing new to readers who are familiar with the current offerings of the middle grade graphic novel market. There is nothing that really makes Manu stand out or that would make it any sort of must-read for fans of the genre. It is a solid book, however, and for many that will be enough.

3 Stars

The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo

Beatryce Prophecy Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Beatryce Prophecy
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

One day, a girl appears at the Order of the Chronicles of Sorrowing. She cannot remember who she is, but the king wants her dead. Brother Edick wants to help the girl, but the head of his Order does not. So the girl sets out with a goat and an orphan boy to try to find her way in the world. She only hopes that she will be shown the way back home.

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Review

The Beatryce Prophecy is, I suspect, one of those books beloved by adults, but perhaps not as much by children. The book takes on an almost fable-like feel, one created by the flatness of the characters and the generous repetition of ideas, phrases, and thoughts. The moral? That Words Are Important, of course. For some readers, any story about the power of stories is an automatic gem. For my part, however, I found the story veering a little too close to self-indulgent. I can see this one being a contender for many awards, but more because I think adults will find it Important and not so much because children will be lining up to read it.

My feelings towards The Beatryce Prophecy are, I must admit, very ambivalent. While the plot is not particularly original, the characters are winning, and I think many a reader will fall in love with Jack Dorey, Brother Edick, and, of course, Answelica the goat. The titular character, Beatryce, is beloved in turn by all the characters, but it must be admitted that she exhibits the least personality (which is saying something in a book where pretty much no one has a personality). Readers are supposed to take it for granted that she is special because she can read, and that she is intelligent because her mother and her tutor say so. Why Beatryce should be treated like an angel because someone taught her to read is beyond me–she just happened to be rich and lucky. And Beatryce, in fact, does not make any intelligent decisions during the course of the book. But because love prevails and other people love her, it doesn’t much matter–they keep saving her from herself.

The slow pacing and the repetition of words, phrases, and thoughts also weigh the story down. Listening to a long ramble about the demon goat Answelica at the opening almost made me put the book down. Fortunately, however, the book is short, so I figured I could try to power through. This did prove a little more difficult than I had imagined, since nothing much happens in the book–the bulk of it really does come from the repetition. Three phrases are often needed just to describe something like the sky or someone’s thoughts that they are afraid. While this is soothing at time, I do think repetition is often most effective in smaller doses.

Finally, the ending of the story proves confusing–if one thinks about it too closely. The trouble comes from revelations about Beatryce’s mother that make her one of the most rounded characters of the book, though she barely appears except in flashbacks and through other people’s memories of her. However, readers do learn that her husband died years ago, that she allegedly thinks her children might one day take the throne (maybe the reason she saw that they were all educated), that she is proud of her family’s bloodline, and that she (again allegedly) is classist and would not be amenable to marrying someone of common birth.

All this makes Beatryce’s mother intriguing and fleshed out. But. In a story where everyone else is flat and pretty much divided into Good and Not So Good–what does that make her? The story wants to make her Good. But she’s too complex for this type of tale. Her pride and her apparent ambition (in a story where ambition for the throne is coded very negatively) suggest that she should be on the Not So Good Side. So why does the book try so hard to make her seem wonderful? Just because she is Beatryce’s mother? It’s a knotty problem and one that the book closes with unresolved.

I do think that there are readers out there who will love The Beatryce Prophecy. The types of readers who love romantic tales of old, who enjoy knights and ladies, who dream of going on medieval adventures. I also realize that these types of readers are probably less abundant than the ones repeatedly bringing humorous books like Dog Man and Wimpy Kid to the top of the bestseller lists all the time. But I do think it’s worth pondering whether this book has more kid appeal, or more adult appeal. To me, it seems like a book that will be most beloved of adult readers who already love everything Kate DiCamillo writes.

3 Stars

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

The Jumbies

Information

Goodreads: The Jumbies
Series: Jumbies #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2015

Summary

Corinne La Mer does not believe in jumbies–trickster spirits said to live in the forest near her home. But then one day she sees a pair of yellow eyes in the trees. And then a beautiful woman follows her from the marketplace and appears in her house, trying to win over her father. Corinne learns that the woman desires to take over the island and reclaim it for the jumbies. Can Corinne stop her before she loses everyone she loves?

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Review

Inspired by Caribbean folklore and the tale of “The Magic Orange Tree,” Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies offers supernatural thrills and chills to middle grade audience. Corinne La Mer does not believe in jumbies–malevolent spirits said to live in the forest–until the day one shows up in her house and puts a spell on her father. Now, she must unlock her own magic in order to save him, and the rest of the island, from being turned into jumbies forever. An original fantasy sure to delight–and scare–young readers.

Much of the joy of The Jumbies comes from watching Baptiste introduce a new audience to the tales of her own childhood. An author’s note at the end explains some of the stories of the jumbies, as well as the ways in which Baptiste adapted them to create a story of her own. These tales are not for the faint of heart! Creatures who carry their own coffins with them? Or lure children into the woods when they learn their names? Eek! Fortunately, Baptiste’s versions are slightly less terrifying. They, at least, seem able to be beaten, either with physical resistance or a bit of magic.

Though I enjoyed the concept behind the story, I have to admit that the pacing of it is a bit uneven, particularly at the start. Baptiste likes to jump around the perspectives of different characters and one of those happens to be the villain, the jumbie who calls herself Severine. By showing Severine’s movements and trying to get into her mind, Baptiste loses some of the suspense she might have been able to build. Readers know upfront that she is a jumbie, that she is bad news, and that she has a very specific plan regarding Corinne and her father. I think a stronger tale would have unfolded from Corinne’s point of view, leaving readers to piece together the mystery along with her.

And, strangely, even though readers get several chapters from Severine’s perspective, her motivations remain unclear–as do the motivations of all the jumbies. Jumbies are initially introduced as basically pure evil–they are bad creatures who lure in the unwary in order to harm them. Severine does seem pretty awful, but then she seesaws between wanting to…love? Corinne and her father and wanting to hurt them. Maybe Severine is just really confused, with competing and contradictory desires. But it makes for an unusual reading experience, with readers not knowing precisely if they are supposed to feel bad that Corinne fights Severine’s evil magic. Because, you know, the rejection hurts Severine’s feelings.

Ultimately, however, The Jumbies is a fun and spooky middle grade fantasy that will have readers rooting for Corinne and her friends to save the day. There are currently two sequels, but the book also works as a satisfying standalone.

3 Stars

Salt Magic by Hope Larson & Rebecca Mock

Salt Magic

Information

Goodreads: Salt Magic
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When Vonceil’s older brother Elber returns to their Oklahoma farm after the end of WWI, Vonceil imagines things will go back to the way they were before. But Elber has changed. He’s serious and grown-up now, and he even proposes to his boring girlfriend. Then a sophisticated woman arrives all the way from France, looking for Elber–and she is furious to find Elber married. The witch curses the family’s well so it turns to salt water and, now the town people who will rely on it will likely die. So Vonceil grabs a horse and runs away to find the witch and break the spell before it is too late.

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Review

Salt Magic is the kind of enchanting tale that only comes along once in awhile. Vonceil lives what she considers a boring existence on a farm in Oklahoma. But, after a witch curses her family’s well, she has to journey into the wilderness to find the witch and reverse the spell. Along the way, she discovers that magic and adventure are not as elusive as she thought, but also that dangerous journeys always come with a price.

Though Salt Magic is set after the end of WWI, the beauty of it comes in how relatable it all feels–even with the magic. Vonceil is a young girl waiting for her life to start, and she is convinced that will happen when her beloved older brother Elber returns home. But going to war has changed Elber in ways Vonceil cannot understand; he values safety and stability and home, while all Vonceil wants is to get away. Plus, she feels alienated and betrayed when Elber marries his girlfriend; Vonceil cannot accept that someone else might be more important to Elber than she is. Vonceil’s growth comes from meeting a witch who also lashed out because she feels lonely and betrayed. In helping the witch, Vonceil also helps herself.

Plenty of magic appears in this tale, and readers will likely find themselves charmed (and alarmed!) just like Vonceil. However, the real depth and beauty comes from the character development. From Vonceil realizing that she and a witch are not so different, after all. From Vonceil realizing that a bit of good and bad resides in everyone. From Vonceil realizing that doing the right thing does not always mean a person will end up happy.

Growing up is bittersweet–and so is Salt Magic. This is the kind of story that stays with a reader. The kind of story that makes them want to return to it again and again.

5 stars

Hooky by Miriam Bonastre Tur

Hooky

Information

Goodreads: Hooky
Series: Hooky #1 (implied by ending)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When twins Dani and Dorian miss the bus to school, they head to their aunt’s house, hoping she will teach them magic instead. But it seems like their aunt might be in league with some witches intent on reviving an old war between magic workers and the non-magical. So the twins go on the run once again. With a group of friends, they will have to figure out what the witches are up to–and what role they want to play in the approaching conflict.

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Review

Hooky by Miriam Bonastre Tur begins a little rough–perhaps because it started as a web comic and the conventions for setting up background and characterization may be different. However, soon the story hits its stride, bringing together a lovable (and comedic) cast of characters for an exciting magical adventure. Though I initially thought of DNFing the story, by the end I was hoping for the sequel.

The start of Hooky admittedly had me baffled due to a lack of exposition. It begins in media res, with twins Dani and Dorian missing the bus to magical school, saying something about having to hide their identity as witches (even though Dani’s openly flying through the street), and then wandering off to their (obviously evil) aunt’s house, where they unquestioningly do her bidding–down to taking some hapless young man to a secret prison where (for unknown reasons) Dorian attempts to steal a dragon, leading the twins to be branded traitors (why? who knows!). It’s all kind of frenetic, which is compounded by Dani’s (and later other characters’) peppy personalities–illustrated by a lot of enthusiastic yelling and popping up with big grins. The story does not really seem to know where it is going at this point, only that it needs to keep adding exciting scenes (missed bus! evil aunt! stolen dragon!) to keep readers coming back for the next installment.

At some point, however, the story calms down and the background starts to get fleshed out a little more (even though it’s honestly still confusing and even seemingly self-contradictory). What really helps is that the story gets a main goal around which the other events can kind of cluster. Dani and Dorian have heard about a gathering of witches dedicated to taking back the kingdom from the non-magic folk and they want to check it out–whether to join or resist is still up in the air. Their friends, yes, have their own problems, like finding a lost prince and trying to reverse a spell gone awry, but the sense is that finally the story has some sort of plot that is driving the narrative. And it’s a relief.

By the end of the book, I was finally invested in the characters and interested to know what they might do next. The beginning is rough, yes, but the writing and the structure improves–and it can improve still further! The ending leaves room for a sequel and I hope that we get one!

3 Stars

Garlic and the Vampire by Bree Paulsen

Garlic and the Vampire

Information

Goodreads: Garlic and the Vampire
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

When a vampire moves into the castle in the woods, Garlic’s friends convince her that only she can confront the threat.

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Review

Garlic and the Vampire is a short graphic novel for the lower middle grade crowd. It follows Garlic (a sentient garlic bulb) when her fellow vegetables volunteer her to confront the vampire who has moved in across the way. Garlic lacks self-esteem and is hesitant and shy, so the thought of having to defeat an evil monster frightens her. However, this is a children’s story so, of course, in the end, mistaken assumptions are corrected and friendship triumphs. There is nothing particularly new or notable about the tale or its message, but the sentient vegetables make the story intriguing if only because readers will have a lot of questions about how sentient vegetables work.

The story here offers nothing fresh; readers know going in that Garlic and the vampire must become friends. And, because the book is so short, not even the “journey” to that friendship proves worth mentioning. Essentially, Garlic just walks up to the vampire’s door, and the vampire introduces himself. He also clarifies that he only snacks on the local wildlife sometimes and that mostly drinks juice. Crisis averted in the span of about two pages. There is zero sense of drama or suspense.

What really interested me about the book is the sentient vegetables. The story opens with the titular Garlic running to the farmer’s market to sell…garlic. Her friend Carrot sells carrots. Tomato sells tomatoes. And so on. Even after the story explains that Garlic and her friends are magical vegetables that have been given life by a witch, it seems more than a little weird. How do the vegetables feel about growing vegetables for other people to eat? Even if those vegetables are (hopefully) not alive? Some readers may find this book cute and winning with its talking vegetables and message of friendship, but the more one thinks about it, the darker the book seems to be.

I read this book in about 15 minutes, so I would not say it is a waste of time to pick it up. I just do not find the book remarkable. There are plenty of stories about unlikely friendships out there, and some of them will likely tug at the heartstrings in the way this one does not. Still, maybe the target audience will enjoy this one more than I.

3 Stars

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow by Emma Steinkellner

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow

Information

Goodreads: The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow
Series: Okay Witch #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

Now a witch, Moth Hush has no hope that things at school will get any better. Her mom will still let her learn only small spells, and she is not allowed to use magic to make the school bullies stop. Then Moth finds a powerful charm that promises to make her cool and popular. There may be a cost involved, but it is nothing Moth can’t handle, right?

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Review

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow is a powerful, and empathetic, follow-up to The Okay Witch. Now practicing as a witch with the blessing of her mother, Moth hopes that she can use her powers to make her life at school better. But her friend Charlie and the grown-ups around her just keep telling her to ignore the bullies and to accept herself as she is. For Moth, that is not good enough. So she steals a charm that promises to make her more popular. The result, as readers might expect, instead threatens to erase Moth completely. The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow is a beautiful story about learning to love one’s self, with the support of friends and family along the way.

Stories about accepting one’s self and learning to appreciate one’s friends are common for middle grade, but The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow gives a little twist by making the protagonist a witch. While many characters might wish that they could drastically change themselves, or that they could instantly become popular, Moth actually can. The ultimate lesson is still, of course, that magic cannot solve all of life’s problems. But it is fun to see how magic might try–the scene in the cafeteria where magically popular Moth begins a High School Musical-esque number and gets everyone to join in was amazingly hilarious. A reader starts to wonder if magic might not be a great solution. How else would one get to actually live in a musical for a moment?

The book is filled with moments of humor, from when Moth accidentally “twins” outfits with the dorkiest teacher at school to the scenes where her talking cat gets absorbed in a sitcom about a teenage witch. Though Moth is not happy with her life, readers can see that she is, in fact, surrounded by wonderful people. Even the dorky teacher turns out to be empathetic, sensitive, and, well, pretty cool. (Though it’s probably hard for a preteen to admit that.) Readers will delight in getting to enter into Moth’s world and experience all the loving support she has, if only she would recognize it.

The Okay Witch and the Hungry Shadow is a wonderful read, more effectively executed even than book one. Hopefully, there are yet more of Moth’s adventures to come!

4 stars

City of Dragons: The Awakening Storm by Jaimal Yogis, Vivian Truong

Information

Goodreads: The Awakening Storm
Series: City of Dragons #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Official Summary

When Grace moves to Hong Kong with her mom and new stepdad, her biggest concern is making friends at her fancy new boarding school. But when a mysterious old woman gifts her a dragon egg during a field trip, Grace discovers that the wonderful stories of dragons she heard when she was a young girl might actually be real–especially when the egg hatches overnight.

The dragon has immense powers that Grace has yet to understand. And that puts them both in danger from mysterious forces intent on abusing the dragon’s power. And now it’s up to Grace and her school friends to uncover the sinister plot threatening the entire city!

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Review

The Awakening Storm follows a familiar premise–a girl moves to a new city, then finds out she has been Chosen to save the world–but the story still feels fresh. Grace is a winning protagonist with a team full of smart–and funny–friends who have the most delightful camaraderie. Further, the inclusion of Chinese mythology adds a a beautiful layer of depth to the story, as Grace must learn more about her past in order to determine her future. I loved learning along with Grace and her friends, and I hope this is one series that continues!

In many ways, The Awakening Storm is not the most notable graphic novel to recently hit shelves. Chosen One stories certainly offer few surprises, and readers will hardly find themselves shocked by plot twists here. Fortunately, however, Grace and her friends manage to carry the story though a combination of winsome eagerness and comedic interactions. As the series progresses, it seems likely that their personalities will as well, making this team more than just the language girl, the teacher’s pet, and the tech guy.

The illustrations are possibly the highlight of the story–which perhaps is fitting for a graphic novel. The opportunity to draw upon mythology here and to include as much dragon awesomeness as possible is not wasted. Grace’s little water dragon happens to be adorable, but, in time, will no doubt be as majestic as his forebears. I love a good dragon story, so I was excited to see all the different types of dragons. Future installments no doubt will provide even more information.

Altogether, The Awakening Storm is an engaging graphic novel. It will likely perform particularly will with its target audience–tweens–who may not have read as many Chosen One stories and will be able to immerse themselves in the action without worrying about originality. I know this is a book I would have really loved when growing up.

3 Stars