Death Sworn eventually won me over, but Death Marked failed from the start. Death Marked takes what happened in Death Sworn and makes it entirely irrelevant. It is not a pleasant sensation to finish a book and feel as if the author has simply wasted your time.
The problem with Death Marked is manifold. First, there’s the worldbuilding—again. I talked about the thin worldbuilding in the first book, but this book does almost nothing to build on that. Ileni is once again stuck in a series of cavelike rooms, only venturing out once or twice. There is never any sense of an established world or order. Though “Renegai” is mentioned several times over, there is never a clear idea of what they are beyond “magicians in exile.” The city that Ileni walks in is featureless and boring, its only purpose to show off the Imperial’s way of harvesting magic.
Second, there’s the plot, or the lack of it. I can only assume Cypess intends this as a character-driven novel, but fails for a multitude of reasons (one of which being Ileni herself, which I’ll get to). Motives are too thin or unclear, the characters too one-note, the poorly built world too vague for any solid development to occur. The book ends with no momentum gained, nor any clear resolution reached—only a vague sense that the characters are happy where they are, even though nothing was accomplished.
The biggest problem, I found, was Ileni herself. She spends far too long floundering in confusion, then switching from loyalty to treachery and back again according to what suits her in the moment. She spends the majority of the book reacting (poorly) to what goes on around her, rather than being proactive. The most annoying aspect of her character is her behavior towards magic, the irritating push-and-pull, addictive thinking. She spends one chapter reveling in her power, the next swearing she’ll never use it again, the next using magic and then guiltily remembering her promise. It’s a never-ending cycle, and though I think Cypess wants it to add to her character, I found it annoying.
She also spends far too much time screaming.
The only thing I did like was the departure from that romance-heavy take of the first book. In fact, Cypess actually ends the book with something I didn’t actually think she would do, but didn’t actually mind, as it fit well. Other than that, though Death Marked was a disappointment through and through, almost a complete waste of time.
Little House by Boston Bay, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 1999 by HarperTrophy.
Having finished the Martha Years, I’m moving right along to the Charlotte Years—Martha’s daughter, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s grandmother. The same author wrote both sets of books, which is a good thing—Martha remains familiar, and the details of her life in Scotland remain accurate. Not that many details are given—Wiley saves that for another book.
As a kind of hopeless romantic at heart, for most of the book I reflected on Martha and Lewis. If I remember correctly, Martha marries Lewis, a blacksmith, someone of a much lower station than her, and as a result her family disowns her (however, there is some research that indicates that “Martha Morse” was never Scottish at all, and that her husband’s name was really Joseph). It’s kind of interesting to read this book with that perspective and reflect on all the sacrifices that were made, but also see how much Martha and Lewis love each other.
The book is fairly similar to the Martha Years books—as it would be, with the same author—although obviously without the Scottish background. Instead, we have the War of 1812, and the political tension of the day woven into the background. It’s maybe not as immediately gripping as were the backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, but Little House by Boston Bay is still part of a series that were dearly loved by me as a child—I know the scenes like old friends, and I vividly remember the too-spicy pounded cheese chapter and the Saturday family. Perhaps the Charlotte Years aren’t too exciting, but reading this book has been a great nostalgia trip for me.
The Dalemark Quartet, Volume 1: Cart and Cwidder and Drowned Ammet, by Diana Wynne Jones, was published in 2005 by Greenwillow.
I haven’t read Diana Wynne Jones in such a long time, and this book has been sitting on my TBR (“to be read”) pile for quite literally years. I’ve read the Dalemark books before, so I was familiar with the story, but it was so great to experience Jones and her writing and her worlds again.
Cart and Cwidder tells the story of Moril, who has to help escort a mysterious young boy to the North. Along the way, they stumble into the path of an army and have to prevent an invasion. The basics of Dalemark are established in this book: the North and the South have been in conflict for years. The South is much less free than the North. Moril inherits a cwidder (I’m guessing like a lute) from his father, which was the cwidder of a famous hero of old, and he discovers that it’s magical. In terms of tropes, everything is very familiar, but Jones weaves everything together in her trademark way and makes things interesting. I also liked the way Moril figured out how the cwidder works: you have to sing things that are truth, not opinion. I think that’s a good message that emphasizes the different between opinion and truth. Moril is a bit of a dull character, though, since he doesn’t get a lot of development.
Drowned Ammet I thought was much better story-wise than Cart and Cwidder, and there was much better development as well. I wrote an essay in college about true names in fantasy, and I used this book as an example. The book takes place near about the same time as Cart and Cwidder, though the bulk of it takes place after the events of the latter. I found this one much more interesting, since Mitt was a more interesting character and I liked the mechanics of the magic better in this one. I’ve also always enjoyed the big reveal at the end.
Hopefully the next two books in the quartet won’t take me years to get to! I think Drowned Ammet has always been my favorite, but if I remember correctly, the last two books bring in a Big Bad Villain that ties everything together.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Warnings: Assassination attempts, hints at violence.
Daniel Boone is a pretty outdated book, as you might expect from having been written in 1939. I’m sure the information about Boone is mostly correct, and I appreciated how Daugherty included excerpts from actual documents of the time, but many people today would take issue with the portrayal of the Indians, as well as their depictions in the illustrations.
I thought the illustrations were gorgeous most of the time, and though the pictures of the Indians I thought represented a stereotypical, outdated representation, there were a couple of pictures that I thought were actually quite powerful (there is one of an Indian man standing over a woman who is cradling a dead child (or possibly an adult) in her arms, and the text facing it is from a Seneca Indian speech about the destruction of his race). So, while Daugherty does continue to portray Indians as thoughtless warriors who attack the settlers, day in and day out, there are glimpses that he is trying to explain their side of things, though he doesn’t really succeed.
To be honest, the one thing I took away from this book was not the story of Daniel Boone. It was the thought that the entire conflict between the settlers and the Indians portrayed in this book was just really sad. The story that Daugherty laid out was just reaction versus reaction: one side gets mad at the other for some reason, so they attack; the other side reacts in vengeance; the first side reacts in vengeance; the other side reacts in vengeance; so on and so forth.
As far as biographies go, there are certainly better ones for Daniel Boone than Daugherty’s. There are just too many problems with Daniel Boone. Some of those are due to the modern age, some are due to the culture’s thirst for what they deem an acceptable portrayal of Native Americans. This book won the Newbery Medal over By the Shores of Silver Lake, and in my opinion, Wilder’s book was far superior.
Call It Courage wasn’t a bad book, but it simply didn’t grip me. I found it boring. It’s an adventure/survival book based in Polynesia, telling the story of Mafatu and his quest to become courageous by leaving his island and striking out on his own. Sperry traveled extensively, mainly in the Polynesia/Hawaii area, and it shows in his knowledge of Polynesian culture and language.
The only knowledge I have of Polynesia is from the movie Moana, so it was funny to read about Moana the Sea God and Maui the God of the Fishermen. Other bits of the Polynesian language are scattered about and always translated at some point so that the reader isn’t totally confused. It seems accurate and representative of the culture, though I’m sure someone more versed would be able to say it was or was not more definitively.
This definitely reads like a 1940s book: the language is much more cumbersome and complex, and so it might be difficult for a modern child to read. As I stated above, this book really didn’t interest me in the slightest, but I can see a boy or an adventurous girl really enjoying it. I’m glad it was short, as there was nothing in the book to pull me in or compel me to keep reading. Call It Courage is definitely one of the more forgettable Newbery Medals that I’ve read. Not as bad as The Dark Frigate, but pretty low.
Down the Rabbit Hole is the first of the revamped Dear America books I’ve read. Scholastic prettied up the covers, added the author’s name to the front, and placed a summary, rather than an excerpt, on the back of the book. I think the official reasoning behind it was that it made the books appear more like fiction (the old Dear America books did not have the author’s name at the front, and the copyright page was in the back of the book), but the complaints of “How are we supposed to know it’s fiction?” towards the old Dear America books always seemed thin to me. It’s in the fiction section, people—it’s fiction!
Anyway, my first experience with the revamped books wasn’t that bad. To be honest, I would have rated this book higher if it hadn’t been for the ending. The ending seriously annoyed me. I also didn’t like the titles of the sections, as it really disrupted the diary feel of it. And though I found the constant going back-and-forth in time annoying at first, I soon got used to it.
I would probably rank this book in the middle of my imaginary Dear America rankings. It seems more useful and historically integrated than A Light in the Storm, but it’s not as compelling as I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly. Bartoletti talks about labor unions, Down’s syndrome, and the Chicago fire well enough, but a lot of her plot hinges on convenience. Cager arriving at the Pritchard’s house was when everything turned awry for me. There was too much convenience, too many things being revealed, and several out of character moments. The ending was a letdown.
I don’t really understand the reason for the revamped Dear America books, but at least Down the Rabbit Hole promises somewhat good additions. Everything in the book was strong until the ending. I don’t know if I like the stylistic choice, but I’m glad to see that the change didn’t lead to a significant drop in quality.
The Singer of All Songs, by Kate Constable, was published in 2002 by Scholastic.
I have an unwavering soft spot for fantasies like The Singer of All Songs. It reminded me of Juliet Marillier’s The Caller trilogy a little bit, which I loved. This book has beautiful writing, good worldbuilding, interesting magic, a female protagonist who’s strong without being rebellious or good at fighting, and a really sweet undercurrent of romance.
Maybe the explanation is that I just really like fantasies written in the 2000s. Some of the more annoying tropes hadn’t crept their way into books yet. Calwyn doesn’t do a lot of fighting, nor does she rebel against tradition. She’s understated, but still subtly strong. She’s sweet, but fierce; peaceful, but unyielding; determined, but not brash. She makes bad decisions occasionally, but it makes her feel more human. And I’m impressed that Constable went in a different direction with her than I thought would be the case.
Second to my love for Calwyn is my love for Calwyn and Darrow. Like Marillier’s The Caller, the romance is subtle, complicated, and sweet. I adore romances like this one. And even though it doesn’t end as satisfactorily or as resolvedly as I might like, there’s still the promise of the sequels. Darrow himself is just a tiny bit bland, but it’s his background and interactions with the villain, Samis, that are the most interesting (which is a bit of pity, since I like the romance so much). And he remains mysterious right to the end.
The Singer of All Songs is the sort of fantasy that I look for and long for. Absent of any sort of cultural relation or tired trope, there’s only beautiful writing, interesting magic, and a plot that is made more intriguing by the strength of the characters. The book isn’t perfect—but it’s close.
I adored The Hollow Kingdom, so finding out there were two more books after it made me really happy. Close Kin is about Emily, the sister of Kate (the protoganist in The Hollow Kingdom), but it’s also about Seylin and his quest to find the elves, and the elves themselves, particularly the two female elves.
I didn’t enjoy Close Kin as much as I enjoyed the first book—there’s just a few too many places where the pace drags, and the elf history is convoluted and hard to understand. And the last third of the book is almost a rehash of The Hollow Kingdom, except a little harder to take and with a greater emphasis on children. I know that many people might not like that Dunkle emphasizes children so much, but it makes sense in the world she has built. If Marak seems a bit heartless, well, his role as King is to help protect the life of his people, and having children is one of those things. So that part I didn’t mind—plus I thought the parts with Sable overcoming her fear were good, too.
Speaking of Marak, the dry humor and wit he exudes with every line is fabulous. I literally laughed out loud, or giggled, during the last third of the book, solely due to his lines. That doesn’t happen with me a lot. Basically, all the parts in the goblin kingdom I liked—it’s when the book moves away from that where it fell apart a little bit. There are simply too many characters, and the point of view switch from Emily, to Seylin, to Sable is just one too many switches, especially since by the end of the book it’s not really about Emily anymore, or Seylin, but Sable. I liked Sable’s parts, but it made for a clumsy, confusing story.
The Summer of the Swans, by Betsy Byars, was published in 1970 by Puffin.
The Summer of the Swans is a novel on the shorter side, with a simplistic, yet important, message. The events of the book take place over two days and starts off with Sara expressing how discontent she is with everything in her life. We get a glimpse into what her life is like with her older sister, her aunt, and her little brother with an unspecified disability. As one might expect, by the end of the book, Sara has come to appreciate what she has and has learned to not always express her dissatisfaction and to be open to the possibility that she might be wrong.
As with other shorter Newbery Medals like The Whipping Boy or The Matchlock Gun, I find it quite hard to comment much on The Summer of the Swans. I read it all in one bus ride on my way to student retreat, and spent some of the time both during and after reading it conversing with my students (mostly about my pace of reading), so this is not a book that I had the luxury of reading without distractions.
The message is standard and simple, but still important today. It’s interesting how effective the “I took everything for granted, but then I realized what I really had when it was almost too late” plot can be. Byars deals with Charlie’s mental disability very well, though handwaves the specifics (it seems a little like autism to me, but Byars clearly says that Charlie became this way after an illness). By giving some scenes from Charlie’s perspective, the reader is able to understand a little bit more of Charlie—and to see “the other side” that Sara cannot yet see.
I’d be interested to see what someone who has experience with special needs kids would say about this book. I thought the message was important, though the story itself was basic. It’s not a particularly memorable Newbery, and it’s nowhere close to my favorite, but I do think The Summer of the Swans was ahead of its time, in a way, in portraying something that back then was probably much more closeted and taboo of a subject.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Warnings: Charlie is called “retarded” a couple of times.
Death Sworn, by Leah Cypess, was published in 2014 by Greenwillow.
I really wasn’t expecting to like Death Sworn as much as I did. In fact, about halfway through I lamented about how the entire plot was basically an unimaginative romance thinly veiled as something actually interesting. But then, something happened towards the end of the book—I became irrevocably hooked.
Death Sworn is full of political intrigue, though you aren’t necessarily able to tell at first glance. Cypess is doing some pretty shallow worldbuilding: all important details are given through conversation or casual asides and thoughts. Since Ileni never leaves the cave, that’s the whole world the reader knows, so the rest of it is pretty flimsy. Yet, somehow, Cypess manages to sell some parts of it, enough for the reader to actually care. Looking back, I can see how thin the worldbuilding is, but in the moment, I didn’t notice. That “in the moment” matters a lot.
The plot itself is part murder mystery, part romance. Well, mostly romance, and a pretty basic, obvious one at that. I’ve never liked the “girl falls in love with dangerous boy” romances, and I’ve also never liked the “boy falls in love with the only girl around” romances. So, since this romance is made up of both of those traits, I pretty much thought that part of the book was pretty boring. However, the parts of the plot that are murder mystery are pretty superb and interesting. I wish Cypess had done more worldbuilding so that I was more aware of all the different details going on, and so that things felt more connected to me as the reader, but despite that, the explosion of plot at the end really hooked me, so much so that I immediately went out to get the second book.
And, despite the unoriginal aspect of the romance, it didn’t end how I thought it would—though, looking back at it, it ends pretty unoriginally as well. But again, in the moment, Cypess exceeded my expectations, and that’s important.