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

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

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

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

Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo

Rule of Wolves

Information

Goodreads: Rule of Wolves
Series: Nikolai Duology #2
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2021

Official Summary

The wolves are circling and a young king will face his greatest challenge in the explosive finale of the instant #1 New York Times-bestselling King of Scars Duology.

The Demon King. As Fjerda’s massive army prepares to invade, Nikolai Lantsov will summon every bit of his ingenuity and charm—and even the monster within—to win this fight. But a dark threat looms that cannot be defeated by a young king’s gift for the impossible.

The Stormwitch. Zoya Nazyalensky has lost too much to war. She saw her mentor die and her worst enemy resurrected, and she refuses to bury another friend. Now duty demands she embrace her powers to become the weapon her country needs. No matter the cost.

The Queen of Mourning. Deep undercover, Nina Zenik risks discovery and death as she wages war on Fjerda from inside its capital. But her desire for revenge may cost her country its chance at freedom and Nina the chance to heal her grieving heart.

King. General. Spy. Together they must find a way to forge a future in the darkness. Or watch a nation fall.

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Review

The ending of King of Scars left me disappointed, fearful that the sequel would retread old ground instead of moving forward with the story about a nation rebuilding. Few series seem to treat the aftermath of a war, preferring instead to close with the “happily ever after” of an enemy defeated. King of Scars feels novel in that it depicts a country unsure of the future after the collapse of the old regime. Though readers may be rooting for Nikolai to be king, the people of Ravka do not know him, nor are they sure they want the kind of future he represents. This uncertainty, this fragility is what makes the book so interesting. I was glad to discover that Rule of Wolves continues to explore the fraught relationships between people and nations, rather than trying to recreate the storyline of the Shadow and Bone trilogy.

Leigh Bardugo’s masterful storytelling is at its height here, as she weaves together the stories of several characters, each with their own hard choices to make. Nikolai is trying to keep a country together, even as he is torn apart by the monster instead. Zoya is trying to atone for following the Darkling by serving her country as its general. Nina is trying to lay her old lover to rest even as she glimpses the possibility of a future with another. Their stories intertwine along with several others, showing how the fate of a nation can rest in the hands of not only its leaders, but also the people who get swept up in events along the way. But, since this is Ravka, things only seem to get worse as the story progresses. The cliffhangers at the end of each chapter will lead readers breathless to know more, desperate to learn that everything turns out all right, after all.

Part of what I enjoy so much about Bardugo’s work is that is often offers the unexpected, upending tropes and refusing to fall into the patterns genre fiction so often embraces. Rule of Wolves is no different. While I predicted a few plot twists, others completely surprised me. This feels right, because leading a nation often means there are no easy answers. While the outcomes were largely satisfying, they did not feel trite. And they leave the door open for more exciting adventures to come.

My one main criticism of the work is one other fans may likely not share. I thought the cameos were overdone. While it is nice to see old favorites return, seeing them all in one book felt more than fan service than great storytelling, especially when some of these characters do not have a real reason to be mingling with each other. I understand, however, that many readers probably enjoyed these moments. And, really, they are too small a part of the book to really hinder my enjoyment.

Rule of Wolves is another stunning installment from Bardugo to the Grishaverse. Fans of Bardugo’s work will not want to miss out on this exciting adventure–especially as it seems to be setting up a future novel, maybe even the ones readers have been waiting for since Six of Crows.

4 stars

How to Save a Queendom by Jessica Lawson (ARC Review)

How to Save a Queendom

Information

Goodreads: How to Save a Queendom
Series: None
Source: ARC from publisher
Published: April 20, 2020

Official Summary

From critically acclaimed author Jessica Lawson comes a whimsical fantasy about an orphaned twelve-year-old girl who is called upon to save her queendom when she finds a tiny wizard in her pocket.

Life’s never been kind to twelve-year-old Stub. Orphaned and left in the care of the cruel Matron Tratte, Stub’s learned that the best way to keep the peace is to do as she’s told. No matter that she’s bullied and that her only friend is her pet chicken, Peck, Stub’s accepted the fact that her life just isn’t made for adventure. Then she finds a tiny wizard in her pocket.

Orlen, the royal wizard to Maradon’s queen, is magically bound to Stub. And it’s up to her to ferry Orlen back to Maradon Cross, the country’s capital, or else the delicate peace of the queendom will crumble under the power of an evil wizard queen. Suddenly Stub’s unexciting life is chock-full of adventure. But how can one orphan girl possibly save the entire queendom?

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Review

How to Save a Queendom by Jessica Lawson is a rollicking middle-grade adventure that takes all the best parts of a fantasy quest, mixes them up, and presents a story sure to enthrall its readers. From the moment twelve-year-old orphan Stub appears, bullied by the tavern owner she’s apprenticed to, and finding solace only in her pet chicken, readers will know that this is a quirky tale that means to entertain. The appearance of a tiny, grumpy wizard, magically bound to Stub by accident, along with a chef’s apprentice who can’t seem to stop talking about food, only add to the delightful chaos. Will all three be forced to go on a journey together across the nation to stop an evil queen from taking over? Of course!

There’s something kind of irreverent about the way Lawson takes fantasy staples–orphans, wizards, dragons, and evil regents–and puts her own spin on them. The orphan holds no special secret powers, but she is plucky. The wizard is small and impotent. The dragon is somewhat beside the point. And the evil regent almost gets our pity. But, somehow, it all works. The presence of the tropes gives readers something familiar to hold on to. But the way Lawson subverts them makes the book feel not only unpredictable, but also fun.

The characters, along with the plot, are sure to delight. Readers will be sure to fall in love with the protagonist, Stub, who is forced to live in a chicken coop and put up with her mistress’s abuse. Over time, however, Stub finds her strength by learning to trust others and allow them to help her. She is joined by Orlen, a somewhat cranky wizard who is not always as good at spellcraft as he would like everyone to think, but who proves lovable nonetheless. And by Beamas, who provides much of the comic relief by babbling on about recipes and spices when he ought to be thinking about how is life is in danger. Together, they make an unlikely team to save a queendom, but, somehow, it works.

Readers who enjoy middle grade fantasy, fantasy quests, and quirky humor will be sure to love How to Save a Queendom. Its irreverent take on genre tropes, along with its unlikely heroes, prove an irresistibly charming combination.

4 stars

The Tea Dragon Festival by Katie O’Neill

Tea Dragon Festival cover

Information

Goodreads: The Tea Dragon Festival
Series: Tea Dragon #2
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2019

SummarY

Rinn dreams of becoming an apprentice cook but, for now, she is a gatherer.  Gathering is how she stumbles upon Aedhan, a dragon who was supposed to protect her village, but who fell asleep decades ago instead. Now Rinn must help Aedhan find his place in the community, while her uncle Erik and his partner Hesekiel search for the beast who caused Aedhan’s enchanted slumber.  A companion book to The Tea Dragon Society.

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Review

The Tea Dragon Festival is another dreamlike fantasy from Katie O’Neill, whose gentle story lines, measured pacing, and whimsically beautiful worlds make her work feel a little like a Hayao Miyazaki film.  She imagines a world where people are kind, all are welcomed, and inclusiveness is a matter of fact.  The drama comes, not from villainy, but rather from misunderstandings, doubt, and fear.  This is the drama of a life, where things that may seem small to some–finding one’s place in the community, learning what one wants to be when grown up–are acknowledged to be big things indeed.   All this combines to make a story filled with wonder, beauty, and hope–the kind of story that invites the reader to sink into it and rest.

The remarkable thing about O’Neill’s work is how easily the small matters of a community come to life and take on significance for the readers.  Many stories rely on fast-paced action, surprise twists, and plenty of violence to keep things interesting.  But The Tea Dragon Festival is simply the story of a girl and her new friend preparing for a festival.  The girl begins by seeking to help her new friend, and ends by being helped in turn.  There is a simple elegance to it, a naturalness that prevents the book from feeling didactic.  It just is.  And it raises the question of whether something so natural–kindness, friendship, support–could happen in our world as easily as it happens in Rinn’s.

Rinn’s world is perhaps so enticing because it is wondrous and whimsical and magical.  Rinn is not just any girl trying to find her calling in life.  She is a girl who raises tea dragons, who befriends actual dragons, who lives on a mountain that seems enchanted.  Perhaps it is not surprising that a simple story about her life could be interesting–everything about her life seems fantastic.  Yet something about Rinn seems like it could happen in our world, too.  After all, she has normal hopes and fears, a desire to belong, a need to be needed.  Her world may be extraordinary, but Rinn herself seems ordinary in the best way possible.

The Tea Dragon Festival will be a guaranteed hit for fans of The Tea Dragon Society.  But, as a companion book, it stands on its own and can easily be enjoyed by readers new to the series. With its whimsical world, sympathetic characters, and beautiful artwork, it is sure to enchant readers old and new alike.

4 stars

Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

Information

Goodreads: Shadow Scale
Series: Seraphina #2
Source: Library
Published: 2012

Summary

War has broken out between the dragons and now the humans must choose sides.  The kingdom of Gorredd has chosen to support the dragons who will uphold the human-dragon treaty.  But to win, they need the help of all the half-humans, half-dragons who have previously been hidden, often shunned and punished by their communities.  Seraphina has agreed to track down those of her kind.  But one of them is invading minds and she has the power to destroy everything Goredd has worked for.

Review

Shadow Scale gripped me far more than its predecessor Seraphina.  It moves beyond the palace walls and opens up the narrative to the larger world and the various ways half-dragons have survived.  Higher stakes, a larger cast, and more settings to explore simply make Shadow Scale more interesting.

I tend to be drawn to character-driven stories, so I was engrossed by a narrative in which Seraphina must fight a woman who can enter the minds of others.  The question of whether Seraphina could continue to protect her mind, as well as the question of which other characters could be trusted, added excitement to the tale.  This, coupled with how it never fell into the well-worn tropes of YA fantasy, made Shadow Scale a compelling read.  I wanted to know more because I never felt sure that I did know what would happen.

The characters won my heart, as well.  I loved seeing Seraphina finally open herself up to her friends and I loved seeing how other half-dragons lived both in Goredd and in other nations.  It was truly satisfying both to see some well-respected community members and to see Seraphina realize that she was no longer alone.  She set out to find a family and, even when she did not succeed, she still managed to bring people–and herself–a little bit of light.  I felt she deserved some of that after everything she had been through.

Shadow Scale is an original YA fantasy that is absolutely thrilling.  Everything from its characters to its plot conspires to make it the kind of book difficult to put down.  Fans of YA, of fantasy, and of dragons are advised to pick it up.

4 stars

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Information

Goodreads: Seraphina
Series: Seraphina #1
Source: Library
Published: 2012

Summary

The peace between dragons and humans is uneasy in Goredd.  Dragons take on human form and attend universities, but they are marked with bells and locked into gated communities at night–all to make the humans feel safer.  When a member of the royal family is found dead in a way that suggests a dragon culprit, tensions rise.  Seraphina Dombegh, a court musician and secret half-dragon, half-human, thinks she understands dragons well enough to help keep the peace.  But no one can know who she really is.

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Review

I have been meaning to read Seraphina for years.  Fantasies with dragons are exactly my cup of tea, even if they have never turned into New York Times bestsellers.  Having finally read Seraphina, I am not entirely blown away, however.  The story is a solid fantasy with a compelling plot and a sympathetic protagonist.  It just could never live up to my expectations after I read Tess of the Road.

Writing a review for Seraphina is difficult because I have no strong emotions about the book.  I enjoyed reading it and often kept reading it long after I should have stopped.  However, it does not possess for me that ineffable “Wow!” factor.  I found Seraphina sympathetic, but not particularly interesting.  I liked the plot, but did not find it particularly amazing.  Nothing stood out for me.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  A solid fantasy is still a good fantasy!  I am just a little baffled about how Seraphina became a bestseller over other fantasies equally as solid.  Perhaps fantasy fans just cannot resist a good dragon tale.

3 Stars

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Information

Goodreads: Tess of the Road
Series: Tess of the Road #1
Source: Library
Published: 2018

Summary

Tess has given up everything to see her twin sister married, so perhaps it’s not surprising she loses it at the wedding.  With her family determined to send her to a nunnery, Tess takes off.  Her quigutl friend, a subspecies of dragon, gives her a mission, but Tess is walking simply to survive.

Review

“You will wander the dark places under the earth, but you will come back with the sun.”

In a market full of plot-driven narratives, Tess of the Road stands apart.  It is a quiet, carefully crafted story.  One that focuses on the inner thoughts of the protagonist and her hard-won growth from bitter alcoholic to a self-assured woman.  It is is one my favorite books of 2018 so far.

Other reviewers have mentioned that they think nothing happens in the story and are bored.  Nothing happens only if you consider character growth “nothing.”  For much of the story, Tess is walking, ostensibly to find a legendary creature her friend is positive exists, but mostly because she does not know what else to do.  She has no place at home, no place in the court, no one she feels who really understands or supports her.  She wants to choose her own life, but initially can only find the courage to choose to wake up each day and walk.  Her story is one of finding an ultimate destination.

Quiet, reflective books like this are rare in YA–and precisely why other reviewers are likely confused.  This is a fantasy novel, so where are the epic battles?  But Tess of the Road reminds us that epic battles take place each day.  The decision to move on, the decision to stop and really look, the decision to love–all these things can be the result of silent battles raging inside individuals.  These battles are not insignificant because invisible.  Rather, they can mean everything.

So if you’re looking for something different, if you’re looking for something beautiful, try Tess of the Road.  It ignores all the tropes of YA and, in the process, ends up telling a transcendent tale.

4 stars