Dragon’s Green by Scarlett Thomas

Information

Goodreads: Dragon’s Green
Series: Worldquake Series #1
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Effie Truelove is not sure magic really exists until her grandfather ends up in the hospital.  Then, suddenly, he is bequeathing his library to her as well as an assortment of magical objects.  But her father sells the books to a man Effie is not sure she can trust.  And thus she finds herself on an adventure to reclaim her inheritance and the truth about her birthright.

Review

Dragon’s Green is a fast-paced and exciting adventure story that feels wholly original in the realm of middle-grade fantasy.  It seems based on role-playing games, requiring the protagonist Effie to collect magical items (called boons) and bequeath them to her allies, who all possess different innate abilities and thus different titles (scholar, mage, healer, etc.).  Together, they form a team that  can defeat an evil book-destroying mage.

A lot of intriguing elements come together in the story to heighten the mystery and keep readers intrigued. The story begins with Effie’s grandfather dying under strange circumstances and leaving her only vague hints about what to do with the magic she never really knew existed.  From there, she and her friends have to piece together the rules of the magical world, before they inadvertently do something terribly wrong or terribly dangerous.  Dragons, princesses, goblins, and guardians all make their appearances, making the story a very satisfying fantasy experience.

Dragon’s Green is the first in a series, but it’s the kind of first that really makes you want to read the sequel.  The characters are sympathetic, the world intriguing, and the mystery thrilling.  I, for one, am excited by the possibility of going on another adventure with Effie and her friends.

5 stars

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A Dash of Dragon by Heidi Lang and Kati Bartowski

Information

Goodreads: A Dash of Dragon
Series: Dash of Dragon #1
Source: Library
Published: 2017

Summary

Lailu is the youngest chef to graduate from the academy in three hundred years and she has a plan to revolutionize the way people think about food.  She is a mystical chef, one who hunts and serves beasts like kraken and dragons.  But her master has made a deal with a loan shark and if their restaurant does not succeed, they’ll both end up in servitude for life.  Does Lailu have what it takes to navigate the underworld, match wits with a series of spies, defeat a cooking rival, and still prepare the perfect meal?

Review

At times, A Dash of Dragon feels a little like a clunky and convoluted mess.  Lailu, a thirteen-year-old Mystical Chef (one who serves meals made of monsters), finds herself caught up in a world where a loan shark holds power over local businesses, the elf mafia terrorizes the city, the scientists may or may not be engaged in deadly schemes, and the king is…too young to be relevant as his city lives in terror?  None of this is bad.  It’s all very exciting.  It’s just confusing that Lailu is dragged into it by the opposing sides.  Who really hires a thirteen-year-old to spy on other people?  Especially when they are already doing a better job of spying themselves?

Also unclear are the motivations of Lailu’s rival, Greg.  He is roughly the same age and has opened his own restaurant, which Lailu perceives as competition–even though the average city can surely sustain two restaurants quite comfortably.  He obviously has a crush on her, but also appears to be a little mean.  Whether or not he is really mean or not is left unanswered–read the sequel if you want to figure out what this guy’s deal is.

Indeed, read the sequel if you want any of your questions answered, because this book is more concerned with drama than it is with giving anyone clear or logical motivations.  Lailu, for instance, regularly forgets about really important things just to make the plot convenient and just as regularly tends to be wrong about the characters of essentially everyone she knows–again to drive the plot.  By the end, she has done a score of ridiculous things, like protecting the identify of a group of murderer/kidnappers.  Why?  Probably so they can show up in the sequel.  There is no other explanation.

And yet.  The book is quite entertaining.  I loved Lailu’s spunk.  I was intrigued by the elf mafia.  I thought the premise of a group of chefs who hunt and cook monsters original and exciting.  In short, I enjoyed the book.  And I want to read the sequel.  Not because I want to figure anything out–I’ll be surprised if book two makes any more sense than book one–but because I love traveling through the magical world built in A Dash of Dragon.

3 Stars

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Nevermoor

Information

Goodreads: Nevermoor: The Trial of Morrigan Crow
Series: Nevermoor #1
Source: Gift
Published: October 31, 2017

Official Summary

Morrigan Crow is cursed. Having been born on Eventide, the unluckiest day for any child to be born, she’s blamed for all local misfortunes, from hailstorms to heart attacks–and, worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday.

But as Morrigan awaits her fate, a strange and remarkable man named Jupiter North appears. Chased by black-smoke hounds and shadowy hunters on horseback, he whisks her away into the safety of a secret, magical city called Nevermoor.

It’s then that Morrigan discovers Jupiter has chosen her to contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organization: the Wundrous Society. In order to join, she must compete in four difficult and dangerous trials against hundreds of other children, each boasting an extraordinary talent that sets them apart–an extraordinary talent that Morrigan insists she does not have. To stay in the safety of Nevermoor for good, Morrigan will need to find a way to pass the tests–or she’ll have to leave the city to confront her deadly fate.

Review

Nevermoor is one of those magical middle grade fantasies that draw you in from the first pages and never let you go. There’s a bit of darkness to the story, as Morrigan is a cursed child—both for herself because she’s doomed to die at the age of twelve and for her community because a simple look from her can bring bad luck down upon others. Sadly, a lot of people, perhaps including her own family, are not going to be overly distressed by her death. However, the book nicely balances this darkness with whimsy and laughter, and Morrigan eventually finds a place where she belongs.

Morrigan herself is a spunky, determined protagonist whom readers will love to root for as she attempts to earn a coveted place in the exclusive Wundrous Society, a group of intrepid adventurers with unusual talents. Her good points are nicely balanced by some realistic character flaws, such as occasionally doubting her own abilities or getting into spats with other children.

The plot is engaging and ties together several threads, including Morrigan’s quest to pass the tests to enter the Wundrous Society and her attempts to fit into her new home, as well as a more overarching plot about good vs. evil. I couldn’t help but keep turning the pages to see what would happen next, as well as to keep exploring Townsend’s imaginative world.

Nevermoor delighted me the entire time I was reading it. It’s only January (at the time I’m writing the review, not when I’m publishing it!), but I already think this is going to be a contender for one of my favorite reads of 2018, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

5 stars Briana

A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano (with Spoilers)

Information

Goodreads: A Dash of Trouble
Series: Love Sugar Magic #1
Source: Library
Published: Jan. 2018

Summary

The Day of the Dead is approaching and Leo is bitter that her four older sisters get to help out at her parents’ bakery while she goes to school.  Then she discovers a family secret that really makes her mad: her family is a family of brujas with cooking magic–and no one was going to tell her until she turned fifteen!  Now eleven-year-old Leo is sneaking around, stealing recipe books and ingredients, determined to do magic by herself.  But magic does not always go as expected and soon Leo creates a mess she may not be able to clean up on her own.

Review

A Dash of Trouble is a fairly standard MG fantasy featuring magic and baking.  The women in Leo’s family are all brujas, but she is not allowed to do magic until she turns fifteen.  She therefore decides to practice behind her family’s back, imagining that she can help her friends at school with some enchanted baked goods.  Of course, love spells and the like typically backfire and, the more Leo tries to hide her magical tracks, the more damage she does.  The book is a typical finding-your-place-in-your-family tale, with Leo eventually learning that lies and theft are wrong and that she should have turned to her family for support from the start.

So far the other reviews I have seen seem to be fairly stellar.  And I have to admit that it is very exciting to see a Spanish-speaking family represented in this story.  Anna Meriano even cleverly inserts dialogue and recipes in Spanish, so that readers unfamiliar with the language can feel some of Leo’s disorientation as she tries to figure out her family’s secret (Leo knows only a handful of words).  But, personally, I did not connect with the story and finished it more out of obligation than because I was excited to pick up the book each night.

I had a few major problems with the story: I did not like Leo, I did not find the plot convincing, and I did not find the magic well-developed.  Leo spends most of the book whining that her sisters get to do things she does not and it is not fair they can do magic–even though they all waited until they were of age and did not get any special privileges.  She also consistently lies and steals, making her friends’ lives increasingly worse because she will not admit she was wrong.  I did not sympathize with her; I wanted someone to scold her and make her see how annoying she is.

But this never happened and that is why I could not buy into the plot.  Instead, all four of her sisters find Leo out and then blithely ignore her, even though they are aware she is meddling in magic she does not understand and cannot control.  They lie for her to cover up her lies and theft, enabling her to do a lot of damage.  Typically in these types of books, the protagonist has to be clever to find things out and not get caught.  But Leo gets hand fed secret information from her irresponsible older sisters and then is saved by them repeatedly when she makes major errors.

Finally, the magic seems overly random, even for magic.  First we learn that Leo comes from a family of cooking brujas.  Then we learn that each cooking bruja has a special skill–influencing, making things appear, or speaking to the dead.  (None of this is related to cooking?)  Then we learn that spells, conveniently for the plot, can only be undone by another bruja if the spell caster is initiated into the family of brujas.  So basically the rules of magic ensure that any bruja who wants to go rogue and have unstoppable spells just needs to not join her magic with her family’s.  That seems…dangerous. But, of course, that’s not the point.  The point is that this rule was made up last minute to add drama to the conclusion of the story–oh no, Leo has made a spell that no one can undo!

I had been looking forward to this book since I saw it was going to be released, so I am disappointed I did not love it as I expected.  Still, I imagine that others will love it enough for the sequel to be published.

3 Stars

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede

Information

Goodreads: Dealing with Dragons
Series: Enchanted Forest Chronicles #1
Source: Library
Published: 1990

Summary

To avoid a marriage with the dullest of princes, Cimorene runs away to live with dragons.  As a dragon’s princess she finds freedom and excitement in learning magic, going through the library, and trying new recipes. If only those knights would stop showing up to try to rescue her!

Review

In Dealing with Dragons, Patricia C. Wrede introduces  a world where all the rules are about to broken.  Princesses are not supposed to learn magic, nor are they supposed to read Latin, or reject the hands of perfectly respectable knights.  And they are certainly not supposed to volunteer to be a dragon’s princess!  But Cimorene does not care what is or is not done.  She only wants to be happy and to avoid her impending marriage with a very boring prince.

Cimorene is the type of spunky heroine it feels impossible not to cheer along.  She’s bold, she’s smart, she’s persevering, and she’s kind.  No obstacle seems impassable to her.  If she thinks of something that needs to be done, well, she’ll set off and do it!  Furthermore, she’s surrounded by a compelling cast of characters, from her wise dragon to a witch who cooks crepes to the shy princess who lives a few caves down.  Together, they form quite a formidable team, one bound by friendship.  They simply make you want to join their adventures!

And the story is funny.  Wrede delights in playing with fairy tale tropes, turning them on their heads or making readers giggle at the nonsensical nature of it all.  It’s a little like The Paper Bag Princess for middle school readers.  There’s a feminist message, but it doesn’t feel like a message.  It’s just the way things are.  Because our heroine is brave and strong.  And she can do anything she sets her mind to.

If you like princess stories, fairy tales, dragons, or simply a good fantasy, Dealing with Dragons may be just the book for you.  It’s not a long volume but it certainly is memorable.

4 stars

The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis

Dragon with the Chocolate Heart

Information

Goodreads: The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart
Series: Untitled #1
Source: Library
Published: May 2017

Official Summary

Aventurine is the fiercest, bravest dragon there is. And she’s ready to prove it to her family by leaving the safety of their mountain cave and capturing the most dangerous prey of all: a human. But when the human she finds tricks her into drinking enchanted hot chocolate, Aventurine is transformed into a puny human girl with tiny blunt teeth, no fire, and not one single claw.

But she’s still the fiercest creature in the mountains — and now she’s found her true passion: chocolate! All she has to do is get herself an apprenticeship (whatever that is) in a chocolate house (which sounds delicious), and she’ll be conquering new territory in no time…won’t she?

Review

The Dragon with the Chocolate Heart combines two things a lot of readers are going to love: dragons and chocolate.  In this story, a young dragon turned into a human and separated from her family has to learn to make her way in the human world—which, first of all, means making money.  Aventurine has never been entirely sure what her great passion in life would be, but once she tastes this thing that humans call chocolate, there’s no turning back: she has to apprentice with a chocolatier.

The story is a charming one, filled with some amusing mishaps as Aventurine has to figure out how to think like humans, whom she always considered unintelligent, beneath her notice, but maybe a source of food.  This means practical things like what a town is and how to function in one, but also more abstract things like cultural and societal norms about what is appropriate to say or to wear.  Aventurine always maintains her sense of dragoness, however, and has a bold, fiery personality she never allows anyone to beat down.

The world building is occasionally a bit sparse, but it’s just enough for the story.  Readers get the sense there are other countries and other magical creatures, but none of that is really the point.  The focal point is Aventurine’s town and the nearby mountains where her dragon family lives.  Conveniently the royal family lives here, too, though one does not always get the sense it is a large enough city to be the seat of the government.

The main point is that I enjoyed the story.  It’s unfortunately one of those books where I can’t seem to think of much more to say about it than that; it doesn’t offer any deep themes beyond the general stuff you might encounter in middle grade fantasy—finding yourself, dealing with friends, etc.  I had fun reading it, and I would recommend it, but overall it does seem a bit light.

4 stars Briana

Ghost of a Chance (100 Dresses #2) by Susan Maupin Schmid

Ghost of a Chance

Information

Goodreads: Ghost of a Chance
Series: 100 Dresses #2
Source: Library
Published: July 25, 2017

Official Summary

Inside an enchanted castle, there’s a closet—a closet with one hundred magical dresses that only Darling Dimple can wear.Each one disguises her as somebody else.

It turns out that Darling needs disguises. A thief is on the loose! Someone is causing an uproar among the servants—moving things around, stealing clothes from the laundry, and even pocketing Princess Mariposa’s jewels. Then Darling and her friend Roger think they spot a ghost roaming the halls. Could the culprit be a spirit? Can Darling and Roger get to the bottom of it all? With the help of the one hundred dresses, there just might be a ghost of a chance.

Review

Although Ghost of a Chance doesn’t have quite the same amount of whimsy and charm as the first book in the series, If the Magic Fits: 100 Dresses, I enjoyed continuing to read about the adventures of Darling Dimple, her magical wardrobe of dresses, and the secrets of the castle her ancestors helped build.

This book takes on a more serious tone, as items begin to go missing in the castle, and Darling and her friend Roger believe it may be the work of a ghost.  The rest of the castle isn’t buying it, and things turn sour as servant turns against servant and the princess becomes suspicious of everyone.  It seems as though only Darling’s daring to find the ghost will save the day–except Darling herself is widely out of favor!

I enjoyed watching Darling grow in this installment, taking on more serious responsibilities and digging more into her past.  Many of the secondary characters also receive some strong page time, including the spunky best friend Roger and the mean head servant girl Francesca.  Princess Mariposa drifts in and out of the story a bit oddly, but I think Darling already has a bit of an oddly close relationship with the princess considering she’s a young servant child whose main job is to iron, so perhaps this adds some realism to the book.

I think “cute,” “light,” and “magical” were all good descriptors for the first book, so this darker turn for the series was a bit of a surprise.  I have certainly read much, much darker in middle grade, but I guess I experienced some disappointment from not getting quite what I was expecting in terms of a fun, charming adventure.  I also don’t think Darling used the magical dresses as much as she could have, which, frankly, seems to be a part of the point of a series titled “100 Dresses.”  Basically, this is a strong middle grade fantasy in general, but perhaps a slight letdown as a sequel to If the Magic Fits.  I liked it, and Darling, enough to continue reading the series with some excitement, however.

4 stars Briana