The Tasters Guild by Susannah Appelbaum

The Tasters Guild, by Susannah Appelbaum, was published in 2010 by Knopf. It is the sequel to The Hollow Bettle.

After the perilous adventure of The Hollow Bettle, the dark reign of the Nightshades is over at last, and a new day has arrived in Caux, a land long ruled by poison and deceit. The ancient Prophecy—the coming of a Noble Child to cure the one, true King—has finally begun. But fear still grips the people of Caux, for they live in the shadow of the powerful, poisonous Tasters’ Guild. Sequestered high within its corrupt walls sits Vidal Verjouce, the Guild’s diabolical Director, his dark magic more potent than ever. Eleven-year-old Ivy, famed healer and Noble Child, and her friend and taster Rowan must venture inside the Guild itself if they are to find the door to their sister world, Pimcaux-and fulfill the Prophecy. But a deadly weed-once thought extinct-threatens their journey: scourge bracken, a plant dedicated to domination and destruction, also known, ominously, as Kingmaker. Who else has detected it? And will Ivy’s remarkable gift—her dominion over plants and nature—be enough to thwart it?

Rating: 2/5

The Tasters Guild is a decent follow-up to The Hollow Bettle, with more revelations (including a rather obvious one that at least the characters admit is obvious), some interesting plot mechanics, and a more established sense of danger and threat. Just like the first book, I still started on the fence about whether or not I would actually enjoy the book. I liked the first one enough to read the second, but now that I know what to expect in terms of style and voice, that gave me more opportunity to reflect on other things, such as characterization.

There are some prominent weaknesses of The Tasters Guild. For one, it highlights even more how absurd and rushed the ending of the first book is. There’s a whole lot of handwaving going on and I still don’t buy what happened as a plausible or realistic option. Once I noticed that, I noticed how specifically tailored the chapters in the book are to deflect attention. The beginning of each chapter is always a distraction, either through the use of filler or switching points of view in order to avoid explaining important details. I actually grew quite irritated with the way the chapters are structured. At least twice during the novel, some things happened that needed more explanation, but instead—chapter break, viewpoint switch, convenient hand waving.

I may get the last book just to finish out the trilogy, since I do think there is some promise yet even though I grew quite frustrated with The Tasters Guild. I still like the characters, even if both Rowan and Ivy seem to make the same mistakes over and over, and there were some plot developments that I thought were interesting that I would like to see resolved. I’d have to bear with the irritating chapter structures and the glossed-over worldbuilding and plot mechanics, though, and I’m not sure I’d end the trilogy in a very good mood if that’s the case.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Dumbcane has somehow come upon scourge bracken, and it, beyond anything else, must not be allowed to fall into the hands of Vidal Verjouce, or—”

“Or what?”

“Or all of Caux’s green earth will be reduced to ash. There will be no Prophecy to fulfill, no Doorway to Pimcaux.” Cecil walked over to Dumbcane’s window and upended the dead potted plants to illustrate. “Just blackness and destruction.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2yY7IR1

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Wildwood by Collin Meloy

Wildwood, by Collin Meloy, was published in 2011 by Balzer + Bray.

Prue McKeel’s life is ordinary. At least until her baby brother is abducted by a murder of crows. And then things get really weird. You see, on every map of Portland, Oregon, there is a big splotch of green on the edge of the city labeled “I.W.” This stands from “Impassable Wilderness.” No one’s ever gone in—or at least returned to tell of it. And this is where the crows take her brother. So begins an adventure that will take Prue and her friend Curtis deep into the Impassable Wilderness. There they uncover a secret world in the mist of violent upheaval, a world full of warring creatures, peaceable mystics, and powerful figures with the darkest intentions. And what begins as a rescue mission becomes something much bigger as the two friends finds themselves entwined in a struggle for the very freedom of this wilderness. A wilderness the locals call Wildwood.

Rating: 2/5

Wildwood is a Narnia-esque fantasy novel that plucks unsuspecting children from their world into the midst of a world they knew nothing about. Meloy does this through a mysterious forest on the outskirts of Portland that Portia and her friend Curtis are drawn into when Portia’s brother is abducted by crows. Along the way, they encounter anthropomorphic animals, birds, and humans, as well as the White Witch—I mean, the Governess.

I wasn’t particularly enthralled by Wildwood—in fact, the book bored me. I did manage to finish it, if only because I want to make progress on my Goodreads Reading Challenge, but I didn’t like it much. It’s not that it’s a bad book, it’s just that I’ve read books that use the tropes better. It’s not so similar to Narnia as I made it sound, but it’s hard not to think of Narnia, or Oz, or something similar, while you’re reading this book. Maybe that’s a good thing, but I didn’t consider it to be. It was just a little bit too tame for me and not nearly magical or wondrous enough.

Wildwood really lacked the “wow” factor for me. It interested me enough to be able to finish it without much grumbling, but nothing about it amazed me or wanted me to get the next book to find out more about the magical world revealed in the book. If Meloy was trying to draw on Narnia vibes for this novel, he failed spectacularly. It’s not a bad book, or badly written, but it failed to engage me. Also, I’m not a huge fan of anthropomorphic animals living alongside humans in fantasy, to be honest, Narnia aside, so perhaps that’s why Wildwood fell so flat.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Birds? What birds?”

“The birds that kidnapped my brother. Crows, actually. A whole flock of ‘em. A murder. Did you know that? That a flock of crows is called a murder?”

Curtis’s face had dropped. “What do you mean, birds kidnapped your brother?” he stammered. “Like, birds?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2g8pMkA

The Royal Ranger by John Flanagan

The Royal Ranger, by John Flanagan, was published in 2013 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Lost Stories.

Will Treaty has come a long way from the small boy with dreams of knighthood. Life had other plans for him, and as an apprentice ranger under Halt, he grew into a legend—the finest Ranger the kingdom has ever known. Yet Will is facing a tragic battle that has left him grim and alone. To add to his problems, the time has come to take on an apprentice of his own, and it’s the last person he ever would have expected. Fighting his person demons, Will has to win the trust and respect of his difficult new companion—a task that at times seems almost impossible.

Rating: 3/5

The Royal Ranger is a good, albeit not entirely necessary, ending to the Ranger’s Apprentice series. It has a tight plot, the same memorable descriptions and hijinks (although toned down a little bit), lots of character development, and introduces a female Ranger. Starting with plot, the main thread of the story was clear and developed well. It perhaps wasn’t as epic in scope as the stand-alone plots of Erak’s Ransom or The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, but since the book is massive, there’s quite a lot of meat to it. It’s convenient that the person Will was looking for just so happened to be so heavily involved, but let’s chalk that up to Flanagan being reluctant to leave things uncertain (and prevent even more page length).

I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t find it particularly necessary. It’s nice to see the old heroes “all grown up,” but since Madelyn’s training is practically the same as Will’s (though Flanagan realizes this and does a few things differently) and since this is clearly not a reboot of the series I don’t really understand why Flanagan felt the need to tell this story. Unless fans were begging him for a female Ranger and this was the result. I really don’t feel like a continuation was necessary; The Emperor of Nihon-Ja was a fine finale and the series really didn’t need a “20 years” later addition. (Also, how does Will have “steel-gray” hair? Assuming he was 20 in Emperor, that would make him 40 in this one, which is normally not a time when someone has completely gray hair. And his dog is still alive, which seems to say it’s been less than 20 years, which would put him in his 30s.Unless he prematurely grayed because of all the stuff he’s done. Or he was way older in Emperor than I thought).

I also found myself missing certain characters. The book focuses only on Will and Madelyn, with the other familiar characters only showing up at the beginning and end. The absence of Horace and Halt really stood out, as there was much less humor and verbal sparring.

I liked The Royal Ranger, but I found it unnecessary and a bit of a setback. After 10 books, I really don’t need Ranger training and technique explained to me again. There was also less humor and I really missed Horace and Halt. Madelyn was a good character, but as Flanagan doesn’t seem to be planning to reboot the series, she’s also an unnecessary one.

I’ll be reviewing more Flanagan, and I haven’t decided if it will be the prequels to this series (The Early Years) or if it will be Brotherband. I think I might take a break from Halt and Rangers and hang out with Skandians. Brotherband will be a nice change of pace.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

“[Will] needs to take on an apprentice,” [Halt] said.

They all turned to look at him. The idea, once stated, seemed so obvious. Both Horace and Pauline nodded. This was what they had been getting at, without realizing it.

Gilan looked hopeful for a few seconds, then shook his head in frustration.

“Problem is,” he said, “we have no suitable candidates at the moment. And we can’t offer him someone substandard. He’ll simply refuse to take on someone who’s not up to scratch and he’ll be right. I won’t be able to blame him for that.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2xEvOlW

The Hollow Bettle by Susannah Appelbaum

The Hollow Bettle, by Susannah Appelbaum, was published in 2009 by Knopf.

There’s little joy left in the kingdom of Caux: the evil King Nightshade rules with terrible tyranny and the law of the land is poison or be poisoned. Worse, eleven-year-old Ivy’s uncle, a famous healer, has disappeared, and Ivy sets out to find him, joined by a young taster named Rowan. But these are corrupt times, and the children—enemies of the realm—are not alone. What exactly do Ivy and Rowan’s pursuers want? Is it Ivy’s prized red bettle, which, unlike any other gemstone in Caux, appears—impossibly—to be hollow? Is it the elixir she concocted—the one with the mysterious healing powers? Or could it be Ivy herself?

Rating: 3/5

As I started The Hollow Bettle, I wasn’t sure whether or not I was going to enjoy it. It seemed the type of quirky that I don’t like, the type of quirky to cover up mediocre plot and characters, the type of quirky that seems self-indulgent and unnecessary.

However, as the story wore on, I started to enjoy myself more and more. The world is pretty interesting, and even though the major plot trope is unoriginal, the setting and the characters themselves are intriguing enough to carry through. I wasn’t really a fan of the bouncing viewpoints or the narrator interposing his/herself for the sole purpose of suspense, but Ivy and Rowan grew on me over time, even if some of their fights started and ended abruptly.

The ending of the book was also good, if just a teensy bit convenient and a whole lot confusing. I’m not sure if the events warranted what happened and the thing with King Nightshade at the end was particularly difficult to swallow, if only because it seemed so abrupt and didn’t seem to follow from the events that occurred. However, Appelbaum manages the difficult task of both wrapping up the book and also leaving lots of things in suspense, without relying solely on a Wam! cliffhanger ending.

The Hollow Bettle is a little bit amateurish and clumsy, especially in terms of the plot and occasionally the interaction between the characters, but it is interesting and, eventually, endearing despite its flaws. The quirkiness grew on me and the end of the book was decent enough to make me curious to see what happens next. It’s not the most brilliant or the most groundbreaking fantasy out there, but it is interesting.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“But, Axle.” Ivy couldn’t hold back. “You said that the Good King Verdigris created great things, things to marvel at. This is just a doo! Show me this Rocamadour place! Got any drawings of that?”

Rowan bristled at the mention of the dark city of the Guild and thought how he’d be quite happy staring at either side of a plain old door instead. He looked in closer.

“Ah, Ivy. You are right—it is just a door. But there is an important question you need to ask yourself.” Axle sighed.

“May I?” Rowan was hoping to turn back the page to get a better look at the first image. Axle nodded and continued.

“What do you think of when you see a door?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2wPbvBX

The Lost Stories by John Flanagan

The Lost Stories, by John Flanagan, was published in 2011 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Emperor of Nihon-Ja.

They were mysterious. Some claim they were merely the stuff of legend—the Rangers with their mottled green-and-gray cloaks and their reputation as defenders of the Kingdom. Reports of their brave battles vary, but we know of at least ten accounts, most of which feature the boy—turned man—named Will and his mentor, Halt. There are reports, as well, of others who fought alongside the Rangers, such as the young warrior Horace, a courageous process named Evanlyn, and a cunning diplomat named Alyss. Yet this crew left very little behind and their existence has never been able to be proved. Until now, that is…Behold the Lost Stories.

Rating: 2/5

I thought that The Lost Stories was a prequel to the Ranger’s Apprentice series, but it’s not. It’s actually a bunch of filler stories, telling stories about what the characters were up to in the time between The Emperor of Nihon-Ja and The Royal Ranger, the next and last book. Some of the stories are prequels, but most of them tell about things like Horace’s wedding, Will’s wedding, and other odds-and-ends.

As a collection of filler stories, The Lost Stories stands out as a filler book, ultimately unnecessary and only important for completionists’ sake. I enjoyed the stories, but their shortness and the switch from one issue to another made everything choppy and disjointed. Plus, I’ve never liked the “talking horses” aspect of Ranger’s Apprentice and there is too much of that going on in multiple stories.

My favorite story is the one with Jenny because it was so strange and hilariously random. There’s another good one, too, where Will decides to use a bigger vocabulary, and then Horace’s wedding is also fairly memorable. The rest, however, are mostly forgettable and I think in one or two of them Flanagan forgets his own worldbuilding (or I’m misremembering details). It’s nice to get a look at some of the early years, but it’s not entirely necessary—especially since Flanagan now has a spin-off series dealing with young Halt.

The Lost Stories also serves almost as a set-up for Flanagan’s Brotherband series, which again marks the book as a filler or a bridge rather than as a cohesive, entertaining unit by itself. Of all of the Ranger’s Apprentice books, I suppose the collection of stories is the best candidate to be the worst book. I’ve never understood the desire of authors to “fill in the gaps,” although I suppose in this case, Flanagan was just trying to extend his ending since The Royal Ranger came afterward. The Lost Stories is a good addition if you like Ranger’s Apprentice, but it doesn’t go beyond mild charm and memorability.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

“I’m trying to track down a man called Foldar,” Gilan said. “You may have heard of him.”

Now Philip’s face darkened, anger replacing the former nervousness. “Foldar?” he said. “I’ve never know a man so evil. In my opinion, he was worse than Morgarath himself.”

Gilan looked up quickly. “You knew him?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2wmP7zW

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook, by Leslie Connor, was published in 2016 by Katherine Tegen.

Eleven-year-old Perry T. Cook shouldn’t be living in a prison; he has committed no crime. Perry was born and raised at the Blue River Co-ed Correctional Facility in tiny Surprise, Nebraska. His mom is a resident on Cell Block C. So far, Warden Daugherty has made it possible for them to be together. Anyone who knows about the arrangement is quietly okay with it. But when Perry is discovered by the new, ambitious district attorney, Thomas VanLeer, everything changes. Forced to foster with the VanLeer family, Perry lives on “the outside” but feels trapped. His mom’s parole hearing is just weeks away, but the rule bending that allowed Perry to stay with her could mean she’ll get more prison time. Desperate to be reunited with his mom, Perry goes on a quest to learn the whole truth behind their Blue River story. But will the facts help them or hurt them? Can he find a way to tell everyone what home truly means?

Rating: 5/5

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook has a premise that’s hard to buy, but is filled with so much heart, charm, and lovely moments that Connor (who acknowledges the lack of realism) gets away with it. Perry is sweet at the right times and strong at the right times, and although I’m not a huge fan of “kids know better than adults” trope, it works well here—because, let’s face it, sometimes the innocence of kids is exactly what makes them better able to handle and/or know certain things than adults.

Besides Perry, the adult characters in the novel are all fully fleshed-out. I was especially happy that VanLeer, the “villain” of the novel, was also three-dimensional—his motives are understandable, his failings are understandable, and Perry’s thoughts about him at the end of the novel are spot-on. Brian Morris, the other “villain,” also gets some dimension to his character, though his is not explained as well.

The only thing I’m disappointed in is that the resolution that I wanted to happen with Perry and his father didn’t happen. I suppose it’s understandable, and it’s probably more realistic this way, but I did want to see something there. However, Connor’s message running throughout that entire plot thread was a good one, showing how far someone will go to protect the ones they love and that sometimes, as time passes, the importance of setting things right/meting out proper justice is not as important as saving loved ones. Through Perry’s mother, Connor shows us that, just as Perry and his mother have no regrets, neither should we, the readers, have any regrets as to the revelations and outcomes of the novel.

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook is a charming, heartwarming novel, chock-full of interesting characters and important messages. Perry’s sweetness is nicely tempered with his bouts of anger at his and his mother’s situation, VanLeer is understandable and relatable in his role as “villain,” and the rest of the characters get their own little moments to shine in ways that minor characters often don’t have. The novel did not end as I hoped it would, but upon reflection, it ended in the way that was best for what Connor was trying to say.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Realistic, Middle Grade

“You may know, I’m the Butler County district attorney,” Mr. VanLeer says. “Funny thing about that,” Big Ed says. “I always thought the DA was supposed to work for the people. And here it seems to me that you’re working against these people.” He fans his hand toward Mom and me.

“Well, I believe I’m righting a wrong in this case,” Mr. VanLeer says. He is still smiling and nodding. “Which brings me to my business. We all know why I’m here.”

“Here to take away our Morning Son,” Big Ed says.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2wcgASQ

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

The Inquisitor’s Tale, Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, by Adam Gidwitz, was published in 2016 by Penguin.

61tsxh3l6llOn a dark night in 1242, travelers gather at a small French inn. It is the perfect night for a story, and everyone in the kingdom is consumed by the tale of three children: Jeanne, a peasant girl who has visions of the future; William, a young monk with supernatural strength; and Jacob, a Jewish boy who can heal any wound. Together, their powers will be tested by demons and dragons, cruel knights and cunning monks From small villages to grand banquet halls, these three unlikely friends—and their faithful greyhound—are chased through France to a final showdown in the waves at the foot of the abbey-fortress of Mont-Saint-Michel.

Rating: 1/5

I struggled to finish The Inquisitor’s Tale. After each chapter, I kept thinking that I would stop reading it. But I gritted my teeth and continued, because as much as I am less averse to not finishing a book, I still think it’s a cop-out. So, instead of the book growing on me, or me wanting to know how it ends, I finished the book out of sheer determination, not pleasure.

I can’t even really describe, either, what I disliked so strongly about The Inquistor’s Tale. I found it childish in its humor, overly preachy in its message, and melodramatic with its characters. Gidwitz frames this story like The Canterbury Tales, sort of, and while it’s an interesting device to use and while he does some clever things with it, nothing was truly spectacular or added any depth.

Gidwitz, though dealing a fair hand with his portrayal of religions—somewhat—also emphasizes that sort of bland, all-inclusive type of depiction that culture loves to do. Underneath its preachiness, his message seemed to be nothing more than “live and let live,” but at the same time denounced any form or expression of religion that went against what the characters, and through them, Gidwitz himself, thought was right. So, Gidwitz was, at the same time, emphasizing both inclusivity and exclusivity. Since he’s working within the historical time period, some things he manages to get away with, but for the most part what he’s trying to emphasize is muddled and confused.

If I ever felt physical pain when reading before, The Inquistitor’s Tale is what would cause it. This book did not entertain, engage, or even mildly appeal to me in any way. Add to that a muddled message beneath a, granted, decent Middle Age setting, unrelatable characters, and immature humor, and The Inquisitor’s Tale is not any book I would ever want to read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Some gruesome scenes.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Middle Grade

Standing in the center of the clearing was a figure as white and shining as a ghost.

But it was not a ghost.

It was a dog.

A white greyhound, with a copper blaze on her forehead.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2w2Kg6K

Just Sayin’ by Dandi Daley Mackall

Disclaimer: Just Sayin’, by Dandi Daley Mackall, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.

Nick and Cassie almost had their perfect family: their parents were getting married, and that meant a best-friend brother and a sweet little sister for Cassie, and Nick would have Cassie as his partner in crime. When their parents mysteriously call off their wedding and Cassie is left in her Gram’s care, Cassie and Nick become “almost-step” pen pals. Through letters, they scheme about how to get on their favorite game show, The Last Insult Standing, and just maybe figure out how to get their parents back together.

My rating: 3/5 

I really enjoyed Larger-Than-Life Lara by Mackall, so seeing another children’s/MG book pop up by her on the Tyndale website was exciting to me. And, while I didn’t enjoy Just Sayin’ quite as much as I did Lara, it was still an engaging read.

I like the whole concept of the “novel of letters”—the entire book consists of letters, texts, e-mails, and what-have-you between the characters, complete with different handwritings and paper backgrounds. It’s a nice touch, though perhaps a little distracting. Mackall does a great job of giving each character a distinct voice and communicating character development through a medium that’s rather restricting in what can be described or expanded.

The plot is a bit simple and resolves simply, too, and I don’t know whether that’s a good or a bad thing. The important part of the book, to me, was Cassie’s development, not Travis and Jen’s relationship, so perhaps the simplicity of that particular aspect of the book doesn’t matter. And, speaking of Cassie’s development, I think the lessons she learned were communicated clearly and effectively, though perhaps her actions at the end during the insult contest were not quite realistic (though the actions themselves don’t contradict her character, so perhaps the realism of it is fine, after all).

Perhaps my biggest problem with Just Sayin’ is that, after the wonderful subtlety of Larger-Than-Life Lara, the straightforwardness of it falls a little flat. I mean, I think it’s great that Cassie was so profoundly affected by what she read about words and by her letter writing to Jesus, but that also could have been communicated effectively without also alienating a large portion of readers who perhaps most need to hear the message. It wasn’t preachy—perhaps cheesy, but not preachy—but I do prefer subtlety in a lot of cases. However, with or without that, Just Sayin’ still has a good message about the power of words, as well as some good things to say about friendship and family.

Warnings: Insults.

Genre: Middle Grade, Realistic, Christian

You can buy this here: http://amzn.to/2vXs53q

The House of Dies Drear by Virginia Hamilton

The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton, was published in 1968 by Macmillan.

The house held secrets, Thomas knew, even before he first saw it looming gray and massive on its ledge of rock. It had a century-old legend—two fugitive slaves had been killed by bounty hunters after leaving its passageways, and Dies Drear himself, the abolitionist who had made the house into a station on the Underground Railroad, had been murdered there. The ghosts of the three were said to walk its rooms….Yes, the house held secrets…did it hold danger as well? Thomas was sure it did, but his obsession that the house give up its secrets led him on, through the terror entrapment in its labyrinth of tunnels and to an awesome confrontation with Pluto, the mysterious and formidable “devil” who jealously guarded the house. Then, suddenly, it was alarmingly clear—there was danger, and the Smalls were being warned to flee. But what kind of danger, and why, and what did it have to do with running slaves and the ordeals of a hundred years ago? Thomas searches, and in searching finds not only the answer to these secrets from the past, but a deeper sense of his own connection to that past.

Rating: 3/5

The House of Dies Drear is a bit of a spine-chilling suspense/mystery novel. Hamilton’s sparse writing helps contribute to the overall tension of the book, combining with the history and the mysteries of the past to create a creepy atmosphere. It’s a bit of a strange book, but you can tell how much Hamilton put into this book as it relates to her own history.

I suppose calling this book a mystery is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not really a mystery; it’s more suspense. There is some mystery aspects to it, especially at the beginning, but the mystery is solved midway through and the rest of the book is the characters dealing with what they have discovered.

The House of Dies Drear holds a lot of information about the Underground Railroad and black culture, in general, including things like the church environment which was nice to see in a novel. Most novels these days (and movies) pretend like religion (or, at least, Christianity) doesn’t exist at all, and if it does, it’s some distorted version of it that the author uses as a strawman. Hamilton’s take was both historical and respectful, detailing how important things like church and the church experience are to people, especially when in a new situation.

The House of Dies Drear is an effectively creepy novel, and though it’s not the best thing I’ve read, it was certainly interesting and informative. I appreciated it for the passion so subtly conveyed by the author and for its historical worth. I probably won’t read it again, as it was a little too strange and not quite engaging enough for me, but it’s a good book.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

As soon as Thomas had entered the room, he understood what old Pluto had tried to do. He had arranged the furniture in a rigid progression, with the two long windows, not the open fireplace, as its focus. Thomas’ eyes swept from the fireplace to the windows, then out into the gray day, on and on, until he could see no farther.

It’s his warning, thought Thomas. He means for us to flee.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2fr64TF

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja by John Flanagan

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja, by John Flanagan, was published in 2011 by Philomel. It is the sequel to Halt’s Peril.

In his brief time as an Araluen warrior, Horace has traveled the known world and fought countless bloody battles. All for his country, his king, and his friends. For all that is right. When Horace travels to the exotic land of Nihon-Ja to study the Senshi fighting technique, it isn’t long before he finds himself pulled into a battle that is not his—but one he knows in his heart he must wage. The Nihon-Ja emperor, a defender of the common man, has been forcibly dethroned, and only Horace, Will, and their Araluen friends, along with a group of untrained woodcutters and farmers, can restore the emperor to the throne.

Rating: 3/5

The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is the last Ranger’s Apprentice book I’ve read before. And, at least in the edition I read, it’s marketed as the last book. As there are two more books after this one (though one is, I think, a prequel), clearly Flanagan returned to the series due to popular demand. I’ll be looking forward to reading the eleventh and twelfth books and experiencing them for the first time.

But, back to this book. It’s a stand-alone, which is good after the somewhat tiring formula of most of the other books, but I don’t think it’s as solid and engaging as Erak’s Ransom. There are new characters, new obstacles to surmount, and new enemies to defeat, but there’s never once the possibility that the characters might fail. Even when they’re at their lowest point, it’s never doubtful that they will come out on top in the end. Erak’s Ransom at least separated the characters and had them overcome individual obstacles, especially towards the end. Emperor’s separation of characters is not handled as well, with the girls essentially going to fetch a Deus ex Machina to save the day while the rest just waste time until they get back. There’s not really any sense of urgency because by this point, the reader knows that the rescue will come at the last minute.

There’s also some weird sort of time displacement, where Horace’s point of view is actually several months behind the others, but it’s often forgotten and seems as if it’s happening in real time with what’s happening with Will. In addition, since Horace’s chapters pretty much go over the same ground that was covered when the characters explained why they were going after Horace in the first place, some of his chapters feel meaningless, especially the chapter that depicts George going to send a message right after the chapter where Evanlyn explains that George sent a message.

So, perhaps the Ranger’s Apprentice formula is starting to wear a little thin, after all. I’m not saying The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is a bad book. I enjoyed reading it, as I enjoy reading all the Ranger’s Apprentice books. And this book is still better than the first two books in the series. But the formula is starting to get a little bit tiring, which is perhaps the reason why Flanagan switched to writing The Brotherband Chronicles after book twelve (also, there’s a moment in this book where Flanagan clearly took inspiration when writing the Brotherband Chronicles). As a stand-alone, it’s better than most of the Part 1’s in the series, but not as good as any of the Part 2’s or the other stand-alone, Erak’s Ransom (which is still my favorite of them all). I still enjoy the adventures of Horace, Will, Halt and Company, but ten books (or twelve, in this case) is a good time to start wrapping up a series or thinking of something new.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

“What’s this Kurokuma business?”

The Senshi looked at [Horace] with a completely straight face.

“It’s a term of great respect,” he said. Several others within earshot nodded confirmation. They too managed to remain straight-faced. It was a skill the Nihon-Jan had perfected.

“Great respect,” one of them echoed. Horace studied them all carefully. Nobody was smiling. But he knew by now that that meant nothing with the Nihon-Jan. He sensed there was a joke that he was missing, but he couldn’t think of a way to find out what it might be. Best maintain his dignity, he thought.

“Well, I should think so,” he told them, and rode on.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2eSpv7w