Lasky continuously finds new ways to amplify the threat of the Pure Ones in each successive book of the series. They start out as a mysterious rumor, to a dreadful shadow, to a fully realized evil. In The Siege, if the author’s note didn’t make it clear enough, the Pure Ones are basically the Nazis. As the title suggests, they lay siege to the Ga’Hoole tree and the Guardians have to fight them off.
The first half of the book, though, deals with the infiltration of St. Aggie’s to weed out the Pure One spies. That’s right—Soren and Co. become spies in order to catch other spies. It’s a great little callback to the first book, and also shows just how far the characters have come in terms of strength and courage. And there’s a great reveal in this book—let’s just say a character in the first book returns in a surprising, amazing way.
Lasky has simplistic views of morality and good and evil laced throughout the book, so while it’s perfect for children, I found it a trifle tedious and boring at times. The long bits of dialogue are especially hard to read. And in this book, Lasky herself stated she “modeled” Ezylryb’s speechs after Winston Churchill’s, and it shows. Ezylryb’s speeches have a ring of familiarity to them, and one strong enough that I had to wonder if Lasky was phoning it in, relying on someone else’s material to make her point rather than try and create speeches of her own. It fits the stark lines she has drawn, but I do prefer a little bit more nuance. Adult tastes opposing the target audience of the book, I know.
I found some confusion at the end in regards to Dewlap’s role, as it is never clearly explained, but overall the book is well balanced, with lots of setup at the beginning, a decent action-filled scene at the end, and lots of setup for the next two books in the series. I’m not a fan of certain aspects of the writing style, but I’m still drawn to this series and what it can teach its audience about good versus evil.
Milo keeps waiting for that special relief that usually settles in at the start of winter vacation. But it’s not coming. For one thing, there’s no snow, and it’s hard to get into the spirit when all you have to work with is a crust of stupid frost. For another, it’s been a tough couple of weeks at school, thanks to a teacher who doesn’t get how much Milo hates having attention called to him, and to his adoption. Then there’s the lone guest staying at his family’s inn, an art student who seems determined not to leave until he’s sketched very single stained-glass window in the place. Worst of all, Milo’s friend Meddy has been conspicuously absent for a long, long time. It’s almost enough to make him wish for a winter break like last year’s, when his house was full of secretive guests and unexpected mysterious, and Meddy had helped him unravel it all. There’s no chance of that happening again, though; Milo is certain of it. Until the bell rings.
I loved Greenglass House, so of course I had to pick up the sequel! Ghosts of Greenglass House picks up a year after the events of the first novel. It’s been a while since I read the first book, but luckily Milford does a good job of filling in enough of the gaps that I wasn’t completely lost. The fantasy element is even stronger in this book, and the mystery is delightfully twisty as well.
I did think the mystery, or parts of it, was easier to figure out than the first book. The truly shocking reveal I figured out beforehand, but there was another one I didn’t see coming, so that was delightful. There were a few aspects that I found a little confusing, but for the most part, all of the clues were integrated really well into the novel, so much so that I never picked up on them until the characters explicitly pointed them out.
The story aspect that I really enjoyed from the first book is back, as well. I love books that emphasize the power of stories, and I’m glad that Milford stuck to the same sort of thing she did with Greenglass House. That book worked well for a reason, so it was smart of Milford to call back on all those great elements and create a new story out of them.
However, a few things are holding Ghosts of Greenglass House back from being as delightful as the first one. The first is that I really didn’t buy the relationship between Georgie and Emmett. How they interacted felt more as if they knew each other for weeks as opposed to one day. Another thing was the heavy-handedness/preachiness, but that’s probably due to the fact that I’m an adult reading a book aimed for children. Even so, I wasn’t fond of Milo’s self-reflections, especially when it results in a “the people around you need to change, not you” sort of message. I also wasn’t fond of the roleplaying bit this time around, and since it’s pretty central to the novel, I tried my best to like it and ended up not enjoying it.
Ghosts of Greenglass House has a delightful, deep mystery interspersed with fantasy elements that are communicated quite well. There’s mentions of The Left-handed Fate, too! However, a lot of the aspects I remember liking about Greenglass House I didn’t like here, so I’m wondering, if I read the first book again, would I still like it as much?
After being held captive in the city of Gold and Lead—the capital, where the creatures that control the mechanical, monstrous Tripods live—Will believes that he’s learned everything he needs to know to story them. He has discovered the source of their power, and with this new knowledge, Will and his friends plan to return to the City of Gold and Lead to take down the Masters once and for all. Although Will and his friends have planned everything down to the minute, the Masters still have surprises in store. Will enters the battle with confidence, but it might not be enough to fight against the Tripods. And with the Masters’ plan to destroy Earth completely, Will may have just started the war that will end it all.
The Pool of Fire takes place almost right where The City of Gold and Lead left off, after Will comes back from the aforementioned city with the knowledge he gleaned about the Masters. The entirety of this book details the fight against the Masters (not the Tripods, as the back cover leads you to believe—they only show up once or twice) and what the humans must do before they can infiltrate the cities to destroy them.
I realized while reading The Pool of Fire that Christopher’s writing style is probably not for everyone. I actually enjoy it a lot, though I find it needlessly complicated at times, but it’s a nice breath of fresh air from all the present tense, flowery and trying to be poetic writing out there. I also really enjoy Will as the not-always-capable, brash, not-particularly-heroic hero. In many ways, it is the other characters who shine more so than Will: Beanpole, with his work in bringing back ancient knowledge (like electricity and hot air balloons!), Henry, with a moment in the book that I still clearly remembered even though it’s been years since I last read this book, and one other, who I won’t say because it is a spoiler. In fact, compared to those three, sometimes Will is a bit exasperating.
The one thing that I really didn’t like about this book is Christopher’s pretentious introduction, as well as all the “is the world worth saving if humans are just going to kill each other again?” talk. And what’s really ironic is that this attempt at preaching world peace is going on as the humans of this novel are about to go to war. I suppose since it’s against aliens it doesn’t count, huh? There’s also the attempt at the united world government at the end. I mean, it’s nice that in a book about an alien invasion, there is some attention given to the reconstruction done after the aliens are defeated, but I just wish Christopher had been less heavy-handed about it.
The Pool of Fire is a good conclusion to this series, continuing the tone and the characterization from the first two books and detailing a lot more than was covered in the first two books, as years pass in this one. I had some issues with the idea of world peace that’s preached throughout the novel, as I don’t think it’s realistic or feasible, and there were some problems with pacing throughout (not helped by Christopher’s dry writing style, though again, for the most part I don’t mind it). In addition, Will is honestly the most forgettable thing about the book. However, there’s some great moments in this book, ones that I remember vividly, and I’m not disappointed that I came back to this trilogy.
Spindle’s End takes the Sleeping Beauty tale and crafts an entire fantasy world out of it, complete with slight references to McKinley’s Damar books (I caught one The Blue Sword reference but there may have been more). The tale itself is also slightly different from the original; without giving too much away, it gives Sleeping Beauty more to do and there really isn’t a prince figure of the sort prominent in the original.
With two Damar books under her belt, McKinley is used to spinning out more magic and details than were present in Beauty, and Spindle’s End is stuffed full of things. It’s almost too much at times—the beginning is ponderously slow, and the book really doesn’t start picking up until it switches to Rosie’s point of view, 150 pages in. The conflict at the end is almost too dense and confusing for the reader to fully grasp; I struggled to get through McKinley’s long sentences and heavy descriptions of magic and animals to understand what actually happened. And now, as I’m writing this review, I’m starting to realize just how little dialogue is actually in this book—there’s bits and pieces, but most of it is description. In fact, the largest sections of dialogue concern the animals, and they talk almost as ponderously as the descriptions.
People who like developed, built-up fairy tales will probably really enjoy Spindle’s End, but I think I prefer the simplicity of one like Beauty more. Perhaps if McKinley had a better balance of description to dialogue, or if the beginning weren’t so hard to slog through, I might have liked it better, because I did quite enjoy the middle bits. “Thoughtful fantasy” is a term I would use to describe this sort of work, though I’m not really sure what I mean by that. Lots and lots of description, maybe; that’s all I’m going to remember about this book in the long run.
Little House in the Highlands, by Melissa Wiley, was published in 1999 by HarperCollins.
Meet Martha the little girl who would grow up to be Laura Ingalls Wilder’s great-grandmother. It’s 1788, and six year old Martha lives in a little stone house in Glencraid, Scotland. Martha’s father is Laird Glencaraid, and the life of the Laird’s daughter is not always easy for a lively girl like Martha. She would rather be running barefoot through the fields of heather and listening to magical tales of fairies and other Wee Folk than learning to sew like a proper young lady. But between her dreaded sewing lessons, Martha still finds time to play on the rolling Scottish hills.
Because of the success of the Little House books, HarperCollins commissioned more stories about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, as well as a series on her daughter, Rose. Growing up, the Martha, Caroline, and Charlotte Years were almost as dear to me as the Little House books. I’ve been in a “Little House mood” recently, due to reading both the fictionalized Caroline, a telling of Little House on the Prairie from Caroline’s point of view, and the fantastic Prairie Fires, a thoroughly researched biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (and her daughter). So, I decided to start from the very beginning.
I read Little House on the Highlands I-don’t-know-how-many-times growing up, so this entire book was super familiar to me. It was a huge nostalgia trip for me, though I also tried to separate from that aspect of it and cast a more critical eye, though I’m not sure how well I succeeded.
I know almost nothing about Scottish culture and lore, so I’m not sure how well Wiley portrays it in this book, but it certainly feels authentic. There’s great fairy tales scattered throughout, and lots of descriptions of Scottish things. Wiley does her best to explain things to her reader without compromising Scottish terminology. The only thing that is a trifle put-upon are the accents, but, again, it’s used to represent that this is quite a different place and time than the one the reader is in, so it lends itself well to the setting.
Fiery little Martha is a great protagonist, and though there are a lot of other characters, they are all quite distinguishable from each other, except perhaps for Nannie and Mollie, who serve almost identical functions. There is definitely a Little House feel to Little House in the Highlands, with its extended descriptions of daily activities, way of life, and, yes, food, but it also serves quite well as a simple historical fiction. There’s no need for the reader to have read the Wilder books before this, as by itself, it stands as quite a nice little Scottish children’s book.
The Star-Touched Queen, by Roshani Chokshi, was published in 2016 by St. Martin’s Press.
Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. While Maaya is content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: as Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherwordly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.
The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Maya, who, forced into marriage by her father in order to avoid war, accepts the hand of an unexpected, mysterious suitor who then takes her into another realm, a land full of secrets. The plot reminded me of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” but I wouldn’t call this a retelling, as the book is very clearly based on Hindu mythology.
The setting of the book is rich and detailed; I haven’t read many Hindu/Indian settings in literature, and this one is beautiful. There’s lots of mythology thrown about that can get a little confusing, but Choksi integrates it very well. Choksi writes well, too, with great descriptions that stop just short of going overboard. There’s still a bit of polish that needs to happen—details often get lost, contradicted, or are given too brief explanations—but there’s lots of beauty in the writing.
The lack of tightness in the writing is a little more prominent in terms of the plot. Plot details are often sidelined for description; Amar is almost too mysterious and is too inactive (Maya is the one who does most of the work in the novel; Choksi is obviously going for girl power, but makes Amar almost impotent and useless as a character as a result.); and the pacing of the plot seems rushed and imbalanced. Maya wanders through Akaran discovering its mysteries for a long amount of time, then makes several quick, important decisions in the span of a few pages, then wanders around some more. The moments in the last few chapters of Part One, in particular, stand out as particularly poorly delivered: decisions are made and described too quickly, motivations seem thin, and cause and effect isn’t clear at all.
The Star-Touched Queen is an impressive debut, especially in terms of setting and description. The writing, beautiful as it is, could do with more polish, especially in terms of uniting description and plot. There were far too many moments that were covered up by hasty explanations or thin motivations. Maya herself was a good protagonist, with brains rather than strength, which I prefer. However, Amar was cardboard, and he seemed completely unnecessary even in his own role; his sole purpose was only to motivate Maya. I get it, it’s subversion of the damsel in distress trope, but I’ve seen it executed far more effectively than what is given here.
A School for Brides, by Patrice Kindl, was published in 2015 by Viking.
The Winthrop Hopkins Female Academy has one purpose: to train its students in the feminine arts, with an eye toward getting them married off. There are two problems, however. The academy is in a Yorkshire backwater, far from anywhere…and there are virtually no eligible men. A School for Brides is the very funny saga of how the eight Winthrop Hopkins girls manage to get around those constraints, and how those of marriageable age snare the man (or future) of their dreams.
A School for Brides is the companion/sequel to Keeping the Castle, that lovely Jane Austen-esque novel that I enjoyed to bits. Unfortunately, this book has very large shoes to fill, and doesn’t fill them successfully.
There are so many characters introduced at the beginning that it is quite difficult to keep track of them all. Eight female characters are introduced almost simultaneously, and then several male characters are thrown into the mix, making it hard to differentiate between all the different female characters as well as the male characters. So for the first third of the book, I found myself foundering a little bit, trying to remember who Miss Evans and Miss Asquith are, and then trying to remember who their love interests are, and then trying to differentiate between the love interests.
Once the characters solidify, however, it is easier to tell them apart, and Kindl somehow manages to give each of them a different personality and a different story. It’s hard to really root for one romance over the other, as we never get enough of the characters’ thoughts and feelings, but the one romance that is focused on more than the others (at least in my opinion) is sweet. We also get some instances where a budding romance turns into nothing, and that’s fine, too.
A School for Brides is fun, but it lacks almost all of what I found so enticing about Keeping the Castle. Kindl tackles a little bit too much: telling eight different stories is hard to do in such a short book, and so we don’t get as much character depth and focus. Things aren’t too serious, and a lot of what happens is played for laughs, but there’s a lack of substance to the whole book. I enjoyed it, but I wish the scope had been more narrow and that the focus was on one or two of the characters, rather than four or five.
It began as a dream. A quest for the Great Ga’Hoole Tree, a mythic place where each night an order of owls rises to perform noble deeds. There Soren, Gylfie, Twilight, and Digger hope to find inspiration to fight the evil that dwells in the owl kingdom. The journey is long and harrowing. When the friends finally arrive at the Great Ga’Hoole Tree, they will be tested in ways they never dreamed of. If they can learn from their leaders and from one another, they will soon become true Ga’Hoolian owls—honest and brave, wise and true.
The Journey picks up right where The Capture left off: Soren, Gylfie, Twilight, and Digger on their way to the Great Ga’Hoole Tree. And, despite what the title suggests, they make it to the Tree in the first third of the book, where even more things are discovered about the world of the books and of the main plot in general. Lasky is doing her best to create a rich, complex world, but it can be confusing sometimes. How did these owls get such knowledge of science? Why do they know their Latin species names? Why do they have books? I know, I know—it’s fantasy. But this is clearly a post-human world (“the Others” is the name given to humans in this book). What happened to the humans, and how did owls rise to become the dominant bird species?
I’m probably expecting a lot more than I should from a children’s book about owls!
The society of the Great Ga’Hoole Tree is a lot like…I hesitate to say Hogwarts…let’s just say a school. It seems any owl who arrives is welcomed into the community, and they are taught various classes until the day arrives when they are picked for a special “chaw.” Soren, the main character, gets picked for weather interpretation and colliering (which basically just means “coal mining”), and reveals hidden depths of gizzard intuition (since he’s the main character and all), attracting the attention of the old Screech Owl Ezylryb.
There are lots of new characters introduced, as well as new aspects of the owl world, so The Journey is chock-full of interesting concepts and worldbuilding. The book as a whole is still mainly set-up, though there’s a mysterious “you only wish” added onto the villainy of St. Aggie’s—something apparently far worse and may be related to the babbling, stunned owlets that the Guardians discover towards the end of the book.
The Journey builds a lot more of the owl world, though not much happens to advance the plot. More questions are raised than are answered, and though the whole concept of the Ga’Hoole Tree and the system surrounding it are cool, it leads to a bit of confusion in terms of how things got that way (at least to me). In addition, you can tell things are building up to some sort of climax, but at the moment it’s unclear how or what it is. Lasky generates a lot of mystery with the “you only wish,” but it’s frustrating to not get any answers.
Three Dark Crowns, by Kendare Blake, was published in 2016 by HarperTeen.
In every generation on the island of Fennbirn, a set of triplets is born—three queens, all equal heirs to the crown and each possessor of a coveted magic. Mirabella is a fierce elemental, able to spark hungry flames or vicious storms at the snap of her fingers. Katharine is a poisoner, one who can ingest the deadliest poisons without so much as a stomachache. Arsinoe, a naturalist, is said to have the ability to bloom the reddest rose and control the fiercest of lions. But becoming the Queen Crowned isn’t solely a matter of royal birth. Each sister has to fight for it. And it’s not just a game of win or lose…it’s life or death. The night the sisters turn sixteen, the battle begins. The last queen standing gets the crown.
Three Dark Crowns has an interesting premise: three sisters following an age-old tradition of familial murder (sororicide) in order to be crowned queen. What makes it so interesting is that the three sisters are all the protagonists, which immediately means the reader is thrown into the position of being in the heads of all of them, of relating to all of them, of knowing that no matter what the outcome, one of these viewpoint characters may have to die. I say “may have” because I’m not entirely sure any of the three girls will die, although I’m guessing at least one will. I’m also guessing that there’s going to be an overthrow of the old system before the series is over. There’s already a hint of it in the reveal at the end, that this year, this generation, will be different than the last, and I’m guessing either the sisters will find a way to all survive, or one of them will sacrifice herself to save the others, or something like that.
Books like this really hinge on worldbuilding, and Blake did a decent job of it, though some things could have been smoother. The chapters with Arsinoe and the naturalists were especially choppy, with most of the worldbuilding and background established by throwing names of characters around and expecting the reader to remember them all. There’s never a moment when it feels as if the characters are explaining things that they should already know, but Blake goes a little too far in the other direction, and doesn’t explain things enough.
I think of all the sisters, my favorite is Katherine, if only because she’s not involved in a dumb romantic plot (Mirabella) or hampered by clunky worldbuilding and overshadowed by a more powerful, more memorable character (Arsinoe). I also find weaker protagonists more interesting, and though Katharine also had a romantic plot, hers was far more interesting (especially at the end of the book) and far less infuriating than Mirabella’s.
Let’s talk about that dumb romance for a moment. The main problem with it is that Blake apparently expects us to believe that a relationship founded upon a tryst in the woods where one of the people was suffering from hypothermia, and afterwards the characters spend maybe three hours in each other’s presence total, with the boy realizing that the former relationship he had with another girl, which is founded upon years of friendship, isn’t enough compared to the physical aspect of the relationship of a girl he knows nothing about, is a good and legitimate ground for a “relationship.” Sure. Okay.
Beyond that completely infuriating and meaningless romantic plot, as well as the annoying use of present tense, Three Dark Crowns was interesting enough that I think I will follow up with at least the next book. The reveals at the end have piqued my curiosity, and I’d like to know if my guesses about what will happen are correct.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Nothing explicit, but there’s lots of kissing, lots of mentions of “fire” and “heat” and obvious sexual connotations.
Disclaimer: The Crescent Stone, by Matt Mikalatos, was provided by Tyndale. I received a free copy from the publisher. No review, positive or otherwise, was required—all opinions are my own.
Madeline Oliver has never wanted for anything, but now she would give everything just to breathe. Jason Wu skates through life on jokes, but when a tragedy leaves him guilt stricken, he promises to tell only the truth, no matter the price. When a mysterious stranger named Hanali appears to Madeline and offers to heal her in exchange for one year of service to his people, Madeline and Jason are swept into a strange land where they don’t know the rules and where their decisions carry consequences that reach farther than they could ever guess.
My rating: 3/5
The Crescent Stone is a decent fantasy novel of the Narnia subtype: two people find themselves entering a mysterious new world, where there’s magic, strange new people, and a battle to fight. Along the way, they discover things aren’t what they seem. The worldbuilding is good in terms of lore; there are all sorts of things in the appendix to help establish that. I wasn’t swept away in wonder, but I found the fantasy world interesting, for the most part.
Less good is the heavy-handed way that Mikalatos incorporates his cultural relevancy. Two of the characters are delivered a sermon about their perceived ignorance, and the fantasy world itself hinges on Mikalatos’s interpretation of the way the real world works. Except, while the magical aspect is fine, taking it and applying it to reality falls flat on its face. See, Mikalatos’s magic system is a zero-sum game: make something big, something else becomes small. But applying that to the real world, which is what he wants the reader to do, makes little sense. Money is not a zero-sum game; me getting $50 does not stop someone else from getting $50. My use of electricity does not prevent someone else from using electricity. There’s truth in some of what he says, but it’s hidden by the exaggerated magical message.
Other things that fell flat for me: the made-up books that Mikalatos includes to inspire the characters and create in them that longing for a fantasy world. The dialogue of those books is laughably cheesy, made even more so when the characters start quoting lines to each other. The heavy-handedness/preachiness is something I’ve already mentioned. Mikalatos sticks to rigid tropes and stereotypes, which is ironic considering the message he’s trying to get across. Towards the end, MacGuffins abound, and the plot points get muddled and confusing.
For a Christian fantasy, The Crescent Stone is pretty good in terms of worldbuilding, something that oftentimes can slip between the cracks in favor of message. But Mikalatos’s message stretches the bounds of reality—it makes sense in a fantasy world, but start applying it to the real one and it falls flat. A much more subtle approach would have gone over much better, with less preaching, absurd scenarios, or unbelievable concepts to clutter up the good message of compassion and equality.