Mapmakers and the Lost Magic by Cameron Chittock & Amanda Castillo

Mapmakers and the Lost Magic

Information

GoodreadsMapmakers and the Lost Magic
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Alidade is tired of living in a small village ruled over by the cruel Night Coats, who prevent anyone from leaving. Running into the forest, she discovers a secret treehouse where a group of Mapmakers once worked to protect the Valley. Now, if Alidade wants to free her home from the Night Coats, she will have to take up the ancient art of mapmaking.

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Review

Mapmakers and the Lost Magic possesses an intriguing premise, but ultimately proves a lackluster story that relies on tired tropes and does nothing original with them. Alidade lives in a valley ruled by the Night Coats, a group of guards whose sole duty seems to put down the locals and make them dig dirt in a pit (for unknown reasons). Alidade longs for more, however. She longs for travel. And, so, after running away yet again, she stumbles upon a magic treehouse and learns that the valley was once free, and once guarded by the Mapmakers and their magical companions–now lost to time. Alidade has to unite the villagers to stand against the Night Coats and reclaim their land. It all sounds good. It just…feels really boring in practice.

The concept of a village that lives isolated from the rest of society and is oppressed by outsiders is nothing new. To stand out, Mapmakers and the Lost Magic really had to do something different, whether that meant creating especially lovable characters or providing a plot twist on the old tale. It does not. Alidade is a one-dimensional character whose sole point of interest is that she seems to be the only villager who has ever thought of leaving. Her friend is the standard homebody who distrusts adventure, but is loyal to Alidade. The plot is standard and predictable. Even the art does not make the story feel more magical.

I really wanted to see more depth in Mapmakers and the Lost Magic. I wanted to know more about the Night Coats, who they are, how they came to power, and what they are even doing bothering to police a small village of people who are not even interested in rebelling. What is their overall goal? Are they hiding something bigger? Is someone in the capital leading them in their nefarious deeds–whatever those are? I have no idea. The Night Coats are in Alidade’s village, and they are a nuisance, and aside from some commentary about humans always seeking power, that is all readers get because, in the end, the Night Coats are just around to give Alidade an antagonist.

The rest of the story is just as underdeveloped and lackluster. Politics and history are glossed over with the barest minimum needed to give Alidade a reason to try to become a Mapmaker. Her victory over the Night Coats is swift, confusing, and so easy it feels anti-climatic. Do I want to read a sequel to this book? No, not at all.

Mapmakers and the Lost Magic has a lot of promise, but it does not live up to that promise. If you are seeking an insightful book on politics, power, and oppression, other books have done a similar plotline and they have done it more effectively. With all the compelling middle grade graphic novels out there, this one is not really fleshed out enough or original enough to feel necessary.

2 star review

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief by A. F. Steadman

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief

Information

GoodreadsSkandar and the Unicorn Thief
Series: Skandar #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Skandar Smith dreams of leaving the Mainland to join the Island as a unicorn rider. All he has to do is pass the Hatchery exam, and he will be one of the chosen few to travel to the island and hatch a real, life unicorn. But not the type of unicorns people on the Mainland thought were cute (and imaginary). Real life unicorns are vicious, violent creatures who can control the elements, and share that magic with their bonded riders.

But the Hatchery exam does not go as planned, and Skandar finds his world shrinking–until a stranger knocks on his door at midnight and smuggles him onto the Island. People are disappearing, and a mysterious figure known as the Weave is stealing unicorns. And Skandar might be the only one who can save the Island.

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Review

Skandar and the Unicorn Thief proved a bit of a rollercoaster read for me. While it starts out feeling a bit slow and rather derivative, over time the pace picks up and the action drew me in. I initially thought I would end up DNFing the book, but discovered that I eventually enjoyed it for what it is–a fun middle grade fantasy that does not try to do much of anything new, but does relish in bringing out all the old favorite tropes. A solid read I think tween readers especially will enjoy.

The main draw for Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is presumably the “twist” on unicorn lore–the book makes a big deal out of noting that unicorns in this world are not the cute, rainbow-pooping creatures trending in pop culture right now, but rather vicious monsters who can kill. There are actually numerous fantasy books were unicorns are presented as wild and dangerous, so it’s not that original. However, I will accept that today’s tweens are so immersed in the glittery kind of unicorns that this might seem incredibly weird and innovative to the target audience.

And that’s the main draw, initially. “Look how scary these things are!” the book shouts. “They shoot lightning! They can trample you to death!” The dangerousness of unicorns is so hyped up, I began to wonder exactly why the protagonist wanted a unicorn of his own. Unicorn riders are treated as international celebrities, and audiences gather worldwide to watch the riders and their unicorns fight it out to see who will be in charge of the unicorn Island. But…it all seems so bloodthirsty! Why should I sympathize with Skandar wanting a unicorn of his very own so he can try to kill or maim another rider just so he can be on TV?? But this is to wonder too much. I think it’s just supposed to be like Pokemon, where you watch “caring” humans battle and injure their beloved animals and cheer them on instead of reporting them to the authorities responsible for animal welfare. So, if you or your child likes Pokemon, maybe Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is for you!

Despite all the hype about these bizarrely non-sparkly unicorns, however, the beginning feels slow. I felt like I could have been reading just about any other middle grade fantasy and getting a similar experience. The worldbuilding tried for something unique, but making the boarding school be a series of treehouses did not feel all that innovative. Then, once the pacing picked up, it felt choppy, with Skandar and his friends too easily completing different tasks that should have been impossible for a bunch of new students with almost no training.

By the middle of the book, however, I did somehow find myself immersed. I began to get more interested in the question of who the Unicorn Thief was, and what their end goal is. The pacing was still a bit uneven, with Skandar and his friends again completing tasks with a bit too much ease. But I enjoyed the action and the drama for what it was, without worrying too much that the book and its elements do not particularly stand out from similar titles.

If you enjoyed middle grade fantasy, and are looking for your next read, Skandar and the Unicorn Thief is worth a try!

4 stars

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun by by Tọlá Okogwu (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun
Series: Onyeka #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Publisher
Publication Date: June 14, 2022

Official Summary

Onyeka has a lot of hair­—the kind that makes strangers stop in the street and her peers whisper behind her back. At least she has Cheyenne, her best friend, who couldn’t care less what other people think. Still, Onyeka has always felt insecure about her vibrant curls…until the day Cheyenne almost drowns and Onyeka’s hair takes on a life of its own, inexplicably pulling Cheyenne from the water.

At home, Onyeka’s mother tells her the shocking truth: Onyeka’s psycho-kinetic powers make her a Solari, one of a secret group of people with super powers unique to Nigeria. Her mother quickly whisks her off to the Academy of the Sun, a school in Nigeria where Solari are trained. But Onyeka and her new friends at the academy soon have to put their powers to the test as they find themselves embroiled in a momentous battle between truth and lies…

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Review

Onyeka and the Academy of the Sun is a unique and fun-filled adventure about magic and finding a place for oneself sure to appeal to fans of magic school stories. Onyeka, upon suddenly finding the hair she’s always hated and struggled to manage is magic and that her abilities are related to her missing father, is whisked off to her home country of Nigeria, where she must navigate controlling her new powers while also making friends and adjusting to living in a new place.

The descriptions of the magic academy and of Nigeria will draw readers in and make the story feel real, as do the little hints of darkness scattered about: the fact that the children at the academy must live away from their parents, the idea they don’t know everything about their powers, the suggestion that something terrible has happened to Onyeka’s own parents.

Yet the darkness is balanced by Onyeka’s resilience, making her a character to root for, while her new friends are brave and loyal and just about everything one could hope for in a support group.

I do think:

1) the mentions of Onyeka’s hatred of her own hair could have been toned down. I appreciate it as a central theme of the story; I simply mean that the character seems to bring it up every 2 pages, and I believe the author could have created the same effect and explored the same things while cutting a few of these references.

2) the pacing feels a bit off. It took me a while to get into the story at the beginning, and then things begin to happen extremely quickly, and then the whole book ends on a cliffhanger. This is by no means a standalone book; expect it to end seemingly in the middle of the story, just as events start to really start going somewhere.

Overall, this is an immersive tale that feels fresh, and it will likely keep a lot of readers on the edges of their seats. Just wait for the sequel to be released if you’re the type of person who likes to read a full story all at once.

Briana
3 Stars

The Raven Heir by Stephanie Burgis

The Raven Heir

Information

GoodreadsThe Raven Heir
Series: The Raven Crown #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Gift
Publication Date: August 2021

Summary

Cordelia lives in an enchanted forest with her triplets Giles and Rosalind, her mother, older brother, and a servant. The triplets have been hidden away from the outside world for years, not knowing that one of them is heir to the Raven Throne. But then a group of men breach the castle, determined to take one of the triplets for the throne. But the triplets are just a pawn in an unending war. Taking the crown would mean certain death. So, when their mother and brother are taken prisoner, the three flee into the forest. Only by restoring their connection to the land can they save their mother–and maybe the kingdom.

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Review

The Raven Heir has a fascinating premise. Three triplets live in the forest, unknowing that one of them–the eldest, whichever that is–is actually the heir to the Raven Throne. But, for now, they live a sheltered life where their mother protects their home with magic and Cordelia learns to shapeshift into various animals, while Giles writes songs and Rosalind practices swordplay. Their life is shattered when a group of knights comes to take one to act as a puppet ruler. But however wonderful the premise, the execution falls short. I thought the politics were nonsensical, the characters annoying, and the plot too episodic and fast-paced. I wanted to love such a magical-sounding book, but I found myself desperately hoping the book would just end already.

Logic is one of the aspects of a book I highly value, and any politics that do not make sense are likely to make me immediately skeptical of a book. The Raven Heir does not have logical politics. Or, at least, I do not think it does; they are too thinly sketched for readers to have any deep understanding of what is actually happening in the kingdom. One gets the sense that the author wanted to provide just enough information to explain why the triplets have to flee, but that fleshing out an actual political landscape was deemed unnecessary. The idea is basically that a group of knights have to kidnap a triplet to act as ruler, while they actually rule behind the scenes. Other factions favor other puppet rulers. I…really did not understand why a group of men had to kidnap a random child at all. If they are all fighting for the throne, and everyone knows the child ruler is a farce, one of them can just fight for the throne and sit on it themselves. That is normally how new dynasties start, isn’t it? The strongest army wins. No need to chase a bunch of children through the forest.

Aside from that, the characters were really, really annoying. Even though there is an armed force at the gates, none of the children takes it seriously and Cordelia decides to just leave the castle and wander around their camp. This naturally leads to disaster, creating a series of events where Giles and Rosalind also do not take their imminent deaths seriously, instead choosing to dilly dally in the forest while being chased by armed soldiers, shout at the tops of their voices while they are being hunted, and generally squabble about everything instead of working together to make a plan and survive. It ends with an out-of-the blue betrayal just for dramatic effect. I did not care about any of the triplets and certainly did not care if they managed to save the kingdom or not.

The plot pacing was really fast-paced, with the children going through a series of episodes to constitute a grand adventure of some sort, before they reached the dramatic climax. Because the pacing is so fast, the children seem to get out of each situation with unbelievable ease. Rosalind, for instance, is apparently, as a child, equal to nine fully trained knights in battle. How convenient. I simply could not suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy this tale.

The idea of a shapeshifting protagonist is cool, but it is not enough to outweigh the other aspects of the work. I can see this book being received more favorably by the children it is intended for, however, since they may not care as much about logical politics or even having child protagonists exhibit more believable training. There is only book one in a series, but I do not see myself continuing any farther.

2 star review

The Mapmakers by Tamzin Merchant (ARC Review)

The Mapmakers

Information

Goodreads: The Mapmakers
Series: The Hatmakers #2
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: ARC from publisher
Published: May 2022

Summary

Cordelia Hatmaker has managed to stop a war, but the Maker families are still divided and her seafaring father is still missing. Each night she travels under the stars, trying to decipher the map he left behind for her, trying to find her way to him. Then the dangerous traitor Lord Witloof disappears from the scaffold, throwing the nation into chaos and threatening magic everywhere. Only the Makers uniting can stop him–but that seems like an impossible task indeed. Sequel to The Hatmakers.

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Review

The Mapmakers takes readers back to the enchanting world of The Hatmakers, where five powerful guilds work to create magical items of clothing that can do anything from curing stage fright to making a person nigh invisible. Tamzin Merchant uses all her wit and whimsy to make this world come alive, expanding the scope of the story as new places, new characters, and new types of magic are introduced. Though some aspects of the story seem a bit undeveloped or rushed, on the whole, The Mapmakers is a charming tale–just the type of fantasy I like to curl up with at night.

This story begins right where the last one left off, with young Cordelia Hatmaker still convinced that her father did not die at sea, but that he is alive and sent her a map to find him. Meanwhile, the nation is still recovering from Lord Witloof’s treachery, and the Maker guilds are still refusing to work together. Familiarity with the first book is recommended, as The Mapmakers spends no time recapping previous events or reminding readers who characters are or what their relationships are. It is all action from the start.

A bit of whimsy does seem lost in this new tale, however, as there is less focus on the Maker guilds and their particular types of magic. Instead, Merchant expands her world, showing that other types of magic, and plenty of magical places also exist–as does a secret society of Mapmakers, dedicated to preserving those places. These plot points feel a bit more standard and less original than the ones in the previous book; I would have preferred a book that required Cordelia to use her magical hats more, since that is what is unique about the series. By the time characters are joining secret societies to find hidden keys to access portal worlds, it just feels less inventive.

Even so, The Mapmakers is a charming book. The Maker guilds are still there, as are all the characters readers have come to know and love. Though I preferred book one, I still enjoyed book two–and I am most decidedly hoping for a book three.

4 stars

The Nightsilver Promise by Annaliese Avery

The Nightsilver Promise

Information

Goodreads: The Nightsilver Promise
Series: Celestial Mechanism Cycle #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2021

Summary

In thirteen-year-old Paisley’s world, everyone’s lives are mapped out for them on their wrists, determined by the Celestial Mechanism. But her mother has a new theory-that people can control their own destinies. Paisley hopes this is true, because her track is running out. And when she becomes embroiled in a plot to resurrect the long-gone Great Dragons, it truly does seem like it might be the end for her.

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Review

The Nightsilver Promise by Annaliese Avery has all the trappings of a great middle grade steampunk fantasy–secret societies, lost dragons, elite warriors, a prophesied king, and a brewing war between science and magic. Despite all this, however, the book reads as stilted, the worldbuilding confused, and the characters as flat. Somehow, the ingredients do not combine to make to make a compelling read, and The Nightsilver Promise is ultimately a book I felt relieved to finish.

Exactly why the book feels so stilted is hard to define. Part of it may be the prose, but part of it may be that this book really does read a bit like a “greatest hits” list of middle-grade fantasy elements. What is a middle-grade fantasy, after all, without a clever female protagonist, a helpful apprentice, a boy destined to be king, and a street urchin who has a good heart but is currently playing for the wrong team? Then just add dragons and floating cities! Bam! Middle grade magic! The parts just do not feel integrated as whole, however–more like concepts that still need to be woven into a story.

The confusing worldbuilding does not help matters. Bits and pieces of what happened are scattered throughout. If readers are lucky (I guess), someone will sit the other characters down and give them a long speech (I mean, story) about how the world used to be in ye olden days, for background info. But there are too many shifting pieces and individuals and groups who have various loyalties. Perhaps I was the problem, and not the book, but I just could not understand how there used to be dragons and there are not anymore–except, actually there are, but only in some places (just smaller ones?). And dragons are both scoffed at and secretly loved. And the Dragon Touched are routinely dragged away to be…killed? I guess. Unless they live in the floating cities and then they can be elite warriors who guard your treasure? (Why doesn’t everyone who is Dragon Touched move? Are floating cities only for some? I do not know.) The Dark Dragon wants the Great Dragons back, and that is bad. But the Dragon Walkers are good and they also want the dragons back, except they are fighting against the Dark Dragon so maybe they want some dragons back but not the same dragons?? It’s like reading about Dante’s Italy, for goodness sake! Where people align themselves with one group that says it stands for one thing, but that thing routinely change sides because, in the end, the group is really only out for itself. Who are we rooting for and why? I have no idea.

The characters, meanwhile, add nothing to the story because they are like paper cut-outs. Feisty protagonist who is always brave and spunky and gets super powers are the end for no discernible reason. Adorable, precocious younger brother. Bumbling but sometimes useful apprentice. Elite female warrior. Street urchin who has a traumatic past and will ultimately change sides when he realizes that killing people is not really a great life choice (but for now we are supposed to feel bad he’s so conflicted about the whole murder and kidnap gig). Treacherous villain who comes out of nowhere just to keep us all on our toes. Yeah, I’ve seen this all before, and I have seen it done more effectively.

The Nightsilver Promise never really does live up to its promise. I was drawn in by the shiny cover and the promise of dragons, but the story I found is too unoriginal to captivate me. I’ll be passing on the next two books in this proposed trilogy.

2 star review

The Marvellers by Dhonielle Clayton

The Marvellers

Introduction

Goodreads: The Marvellers
Series: The Marvellers #1
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Eleven-year-old Ella Durand dreams of attending the prestigious Arcanum Training Institute, which previously had accepted only Marveller students and not Conjurors like herself. So, when the opporunitey comes, she seizes it–only to realize that not everyone wants her there. Ella will have to avoid all the whispers and stares if she is to succeed. But things only become more complicated when a notorious criminal escapes from a Conjuror prison, and the Marvellers start pointing at Conjurors like Ella.

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Review

Dhonielle Clayton’s The Marvellers was one of my most anticipated reads of the year. I adore a good magical boarding school story, and I was eager to read a more diverse representation of that genre. However, despite strengths such as some winning characters and plenty of diversity, I found the worldbuilding lacking and the pacing slow and uneven. I think The Marvellers will appeal to many readers, especially the young readers for whom it opens a door to a new magical world they can see themselves in. It is simply not immersive enough for me to want to read the sequel.

A detailed, logical world is one of the things I value most in fantasy stories, and I was looking forward to seeing what kind of world The Marvellers would transport me to. Sadly, however, exactly how and why this world works is never really explained. Much of the “magic” of the world is given in shorthand–everything in the Marveller world, for example, seems to have “star” appended to it to indicate its enchanted nature– “star ink,” “star post,” and so forth–without any real explanations of what those things are and how they work. The most extravagant descriptions are left to the food–most of which seems to either fight or talk back–and the rest is simply there. Most unfortunately, the really big things are never explained–the politics, the history, and the different types of magic.

The whole premise of the book feels uncertain without any explanations of how Ella’s world works. The starting point is that Conjure folk (such as Ella and her family) have been shunned by the Marvellers. Conjurors, who seemingly practice growing magic and who look after the Underworld, are looked down upon by Marvellers and thus must live upon the ground with the wretched Fewels (non-magic folk, whom the book routinely dismisses as cruel, dangerous, and bad without saying why, which seems ironic in a book preaching the values of inclusion–but maybe that conversation is for the sequel?). The Marvellers live in the sky cities and have their own light magic and their own schools. Ella desperately wants to attend one of the most prestigious Marveller institutions, and she does so once a new law is passed allowing her to do so.

Why exactly do Marvellers hate Conjurors? Why does Ella want to learn to be a Marveller instead of (or…in addition to?) a Conjuror? Why does she stay all year in a school where everyone except about four people hate her and the teachers constantly try to get her expelled? It’s never explained. I don’t even understand the difference between Marveller and Conjuror magic, or even the categories of Marveller magic (which are divided into five Houses of sorts, each one with its own (not very creative) catchphrase, such as, “The ear listens well!”). Being able to understand Ella’s motivations would have made the story fall more into place for me. But, as it was, I have to wonder why Ella is so desperate to be part of a world that does not want her and that she seemingly does not need, when her own family is at the top of the Conjuror hierarchy.

The plot pacing did not really save the story for me. It feels slow, even with the lack of worldbuilding, and does not pick up until about 190 pages in. At that point, stuff finally starts to happen–but in a stop and go manner. The ending in particular feels rushed and uncertain, with Ella and her friends saving the day too quickly and too easily. Then a few chapters are appended after the climax to tidy up loose ends such as Ella’s future at the school and her sorting into a magical category. And then readers still have to read the little epilogue to set up the sequel. I would have preferred a book that jumped into the storyline more quickly, kept the pacing consistent, added more to the climatic scenes, and removed some of the housekeeping at the end.

On top of all this, I found myself truly distracted by all the authorial name dropping in the story. Kwame Mbalia, Ellen Oh, and Anne Ursu are teachers. Lamar Giles is an author of magical books. Justin A. Reynolds, Tochi Oneybuchi, Angela Thomas, and Julie Murphy are students. Other authors appear glancingly, with their last names only–Mark Oshiro as the chef Oshiro, L. L. McKinney as the presumed owner of McKinney’s Mojo Mansion, Zoraida Córdova as the presumed owner of another shop, and Bethany C. Morrow as “Ms. Morrow” the beauty shop owner. I assume Ella’s friend Jason Eugene is actually named after Jason Reynolds. I imagine all these references are supposed to fun, or a nod of acknowledge to people Clayton knows and respects. However, I found it all a bit distracting, both because it feels like an Easter egg hunt, with readers on the lookout for how many names they can spot, and because, when the full names are used, I now imagine the actual authors as teaching and working in this fictional world–and I don’t really know if I’m supposed to. I do wish that Clayton had stuck to first names only to acknowledge her friends and favorites, as this would keep me immersed in the story and not wondering which real life people were going to pop up next.

Despite all this, The Marvellers is a solid enough book. I can see it appealing particularly to tween readers who love fantasy (and who are often more agreeable than I am in their assessments of literature, in my experience). If you love magical boarding schools, it’s worth a try. You might find yourself transported in a way I was not.

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3 Stars

Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms by Rey Terciero & Megan Kearney

Swan Lake Quest for the Kingdoms Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms
Series: None
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Odette and Dillie are the princesses of two kingdoms that have been on the brink of war for years.  Then, the two have a chance encounter, and realize that the other nation and their people might not be so bad, after all.  Soon, Odette and Dillie are off on an adventure to lift the curse that has Odette turning into a talking swan during the day.  They will encounter many perils on their journey, but the greatest test will come at the end.  Because both princesses have a wish–but only one can come true.

Star Divider

Review

Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms reimagines the ballet of Swan Lake with two feuding princesses who bridge their differences and come to value each other for who they are.  Odette is the princess of Bloom, but her parents keep her alone and trapped in her tower, so no one can learn that she is cursed to be a swan during the day.  Dillie is the princess of Rotbart, upset that her mother wants her to sit in a throne room all day instead of having adventures.  Though tensions right high between their countries, the princesses bond over their parents who just do not seem to understand them.  And this is the start of a fun retold tale sure to charm audiences not only with its fast paced action and colorful illustrations, but also with its determination to overturn stereotypical gender roles.

The beauty of Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms is the way in which it presents differences not as something to be tolerated, but as something to be celebrated.  The kingdom of Bloom is full of cute butterflies and plenty of color, and Princess Odette is a more feminine character who wears pink dresses and wishes she could be a ballerina.  The kingdom of Rotbart, meanwhile, is a grey and dismal place where the people dislike and even fear cute things like butterflies and kittens.  Dillie is a princess who prefers swordfights to sitting on a throne.  But the book makes it clear that no way is better than the other way.  It is okay to like cute things and to like ballet.  It is also okay not to like cute things and to like adventures and quests. Additionally, they meet a prince who eschews the toxic masculinity that says only a killer of beasts is worthy to rule the throne, and who proves that bravery goes beyond hunting wildlife. The entire book shouts the message that individuals do not need to adhere to stereotypical gender roles to be valued.

Readers will fall in love with more than the characters, however. The action is fast paced with a hint of old-fashioned fairy tale magic, as the three protagonists must pass three tests in order to complete their quest. And the images are fun and vibrant– just the thing to appeal to tween audiences. The worldbuilding relies mostly on contrasting the colors of Bloom with the greys of Rotbart, but readers still glimpse enough magic to make the world seem wonderful. Altogether, this is a book that begs for a sequel!

With so many middle grade comics flooding the market, sometimes it feels harder to find that sparkling gem among the rest. Swan Lake: Quest for the Kingdoms, however, captures that magic I love, from its colorful illustrations to its action-packed quest.

4 stars

The Emerald Gate by Mark Siegal, et al

5 Worlds The Emerald Gate Book Cover

Information

Goodreads: The Emerald Gate
Series: 5 Worlds #5
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source: Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Oona and her friends just have to light the final beacon, so they are off to the moss-covered world of Grimbo (E)–but first they need to find it. Meanwhile, Stan Moon is determined to stop them. Can Oona and her friends save the five worlds?

Star Divider

Review

The Emerald Gate is one of those books that unfortunately suffered because of my lack of memory in regards to the previous installments.  As book five, this should be the most exciting, most dramatic story as all the people Oona and her friends have met on the five worlds come together to battle Stan Moon.  I should have been excited.  I should have been on the edge of my seat.  Mostly, I just felt confused.

The Five Worlds series is one of those quest novels where the protagonists have to travel from place to place to collect objects or fulfill a mini quest before the final showdown, sort of like Avatar: The Last Airbender.  In this case, Oona and her friends had to light five beacons on five different planets in order to save their worlds from utter destruction.  The books love delving into the culture and geography of each planet, in a semi-superficial way.  Each planet is more or less color-coded and each seems to have an indigenous species or some sort of cultural marker like a love of singing or kinship with nature.  This last book focuses on the green planet, Grimbo (E), which is fittingly covered with moss–moss that just happens to eat just about anything that it comes in contact with. This should be interesting, but a lot of it feels too fast-paced to be truly intriguing.  

The fast pace also sort of hampers the emotional impact.  In this final installment, Oona has to travel to Grimbo (E), locate the beacon, light the beacon, face a series of several trials, and then have the final showdown with Stan Moon.  Her adventures are interspersed with the adventures of her friends on other planets, who are dealing with their own problems, like being held prisoner or wondering if they should stop Oona from completing her quest.  In other words, there is A LOT happening in this book.  Too much.  And it did not help that I could barely remember who some of these characters were or what was happening to them, and why or if I should even care.

I did enjoy the previous installments of this series, and vaguely remember awaiting the final volume with anticipation.  Now that it has arrived, however, I find my personal reaction to be less enthusiastic than I had hoped.  I had no sense of drama because I could not remember what was happening!  I suggest other readers get all five books at once and read them in a row.  The full arc of the story should be more apparent that way, and less confusion will be had!  And less confusion will likely result in a stronger emotional connection to the characters and their stories.

3 Stars

Witchlings by Claribel A. Ortega

Witchlings

Information

Goodreads: Witchlings
Series: None (yet)
Age Category: Middle Grade
Source:
 Library
Published: 2022

Summary

Every year, the twelve-year-old witches of Ravenskill participate in the Black Moon Ceremony to be sorted into covens. Seven longs to be placed in House Hyacinth with her best friend Poppy, but instead is selected to be leftover, a Spare, meaning that not only will she never come into her full powers, but that she will be treated as a second-class citizen forever, doomed to experience poverty as an abused servant to the wealthy witches on the Hill and shunned by society at large. Worse still, because she does not accept her fate, her coven’s circle will not seal, meaning that she will actually lose all her powers forever! Desperate, Seven invokes the Impossible Task, giving her and her two new Spare partners 21 days to fell a monster and keep their powers, or be cursed to live the rest of their lives as toads.

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Review

Witchlings by Claribel A. Ortega attempts to hit all the right notes in a middle grade fantasy by providing the usual friendship drama plot line, lots of magical creatures, and plenty of action. Personally, however, I found the book to be reminiscent of other current middle grade titles, while not providing anything extra or special. Additionally, the characters are flat, the worldbuilding weak, and the plot just a little too convoluted to make sense. I really, really wanted to love Witchlings, but this is not the book for me–though I can see it appealing to a tween audience who has less familiarity with other similar offerings out there.

Though fantasy books often use the same elements, I find that the characters in a book can often be what makes a story feel special. How the characters react to their circumstances and how they support (or do not support) each other allows variations on old plot lines such as the one in Witchlings–a monster is on the loose killing town dwellers, but political corruption prevents action. Unfortunately, however, the characters in Witchlings feel just a bit bland. Seven is the protagonist who thinks she knows everything and gets to be the leader and have special powers, even though her teammates Valley and Thorn arguably contribute more equipment, knowledge, and emotional sensitivity than Seven ever does. Valley is the bully-turned-BFF (she was just misunderstood because she has her own issues at home), and Thorn is the timid new girl who turns brave through the power of friendship. They are cute together, but they do read kind of like cookie-cutter characters for the ideal MG fantasy adventure.

Then there is the worldbuilding, which is woefully under-developed. Seven seems to live in an all-witch world where there is an alliance of twelve magical cities and they are surrounded by the Cursed Forest. But she also has a toad named Edgar Allan Toad, suggesting that her world is somehow overlaid on top of ours. And later she references that humans live in the “humdrum” and pulls out her phone to text. How do humans and witches co-exist? I have no idea.

The whole idea of Spares also seems under-developed, and present just to include a Message about inclusivity. The premise is that each year three twelve-year-old witches are selected, not to enter a prestigious coven where they get to train together and network with past coven members, but instead to be Spares, forbidden from doing high-level magic, excluded from all jobs except sewage clean-up and servitude to abusive rich people, and shunned by townsfolk who will not allow them to enter certain shops or have good seats at sports events.

There is no clear reason for this. The Spares are not bad at magic–they are not prohibited from using it for alleged safety reasons. It seems like the town really just wanted a caste system where they could select random children every year to be doomed to work for rich people for pennies. And everyone goes along with it! Even the “good” people like Seven’s parents do not question the system or suggest that donations be made to starving Spares who cannot get a job. They just bring their children every year to be selected to be social outcasts at the whim of the town leader, a woman depicted by the book as kind, loving, and wise!

Seven’s parents, and those of her friends, also notably do nothing to intervene in the fate of their children. After Seven invokes the clause of the impossible task, meaning she, Valley, and Thorn have only three weeks to fell a Nightbeast or be turned into toads forever, Seven’s parents just vaguely say they are always there for her, then go about their lives. The book tries to pretend that the impossible task will not suffer outside intervention, but the town leader intervenes spectacularly at one point and nothing happens. So why can’t Seven’s parents offer her a ride to the library, at the very least? Or suggest that she not waste some of her precious 21 days doing stuff like taking off to attend a toad race?? Or maybe just say that they will not cast her into the street to die in poverty now that she is a Spare? Parental care is almost completely lacking in this book, but it is strange specifically because the book seems to want readers to think that Seven’s parents and Thorn’s parents are among the good ones.

If readers can get past the bland characters and the half-hearted worldbuilding, there is a wild ride of a story somewhere in here. Spells fly around and expeditions are made into the Cursed Forest, and animals talk. Readers who enjoy fantasy worlds but do not care particularly if those worlds make sense or are developed meaningfully may find that trying to figure out just what on earth is happening in this book is enough to keep them reading. Ultimately, Witchlings is a book that relies on its overstuffed plot to keep readers from thinking too hard about everything else going on. And some readers may not mind that.

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