The Crow by Alison Croggon

The Crow, by Alison Croggon, was published in 2006 by Candlewick. It is the sequel to The Riddle.

Rating: 4/5        

I anticipated that The Crow would be my favorite of the Books of Pellinor so far, and I turned out to be correct. The absence of Maerad and pages of pages of her and Cadvan doing absolutely nothing helped make The Crow more interesting, though still just as massively long. This time, though, the book is cram-jam full of action, from the siege of Turbansk to Hem infiltrating the child army of Den Raven.

That’s not to say the book was perfect. It was still way too long, and this time there was so much crammed in that there was almost no time to pause before being slapped in the face with tension and action all over again. I also really didn’t like the plot convenience behind Hem getting his hands on the second half of the Treesong, and the fact that his trek across the country to rescue Zelika was a complete waste of time (except for that previously mentioned plot convenience—or should I say incredibly obvious plot machination??).

Speaking of Zelika, she was a bit annoying, and I’m sure many people probably don’t like where her character goes and how her character is used in the book, though it didn’t bother me as it was realistic. I just am not fond of brash, headstrong characters who do stupid things. Hem was better, though he got a bit annoying at times, too. I liked him more than Maerad, as he seemed more normal and acted in a more understandable fashion than Maerad’s odd weak/strong, passive/assertive ping-pong personality. He also used more magic in one book than Maerad seemed to use in two, so Hem definitely seems the more Bardic of the two and also seems to understand more about many things than Maerad does, though perhaps my memory of the first two books is simply failing me.

Despite the problems with the book, I still enjoyed The Crow for being much more fast-paced and action-y than the first two books, as well as less clumsy in delivery. The characters were more interesting and realistic, though I wasn’t fond of Zelika and Hem had his bad moments, too. The worst part of the book is the obvious plot manipulation in the last third, which made all the other manipulation stand out even more.

The last book promises to bring together Hem and Maerad in one last attempt to free the Treesong and defeat the Bad Guy before he destroys everything. I remember not liking the ending, so we’ll see how it goes!

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2ZxY84d

The First Collier by Kathryn Lasky

The First Collier, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2006 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Outcast (but technically a prequel to the series).

Rating: 2/5

The First Collier is an interesting installment in the Ga’Hoole series. It’s the first book in a prequel trilogy that details the start of the legends of Ga’Hoole: the owl king Hoole and his war with the hagfiends (and presumably his founding of the Guardians of Ga’Hoole). This first book deals with Grank, the titular first collier, and how he comes to receive Hoole’s egg and cares for it. Appropriately, the book ends with Hoole hatching.

Lasky really steps up the fantastic elements in this one, with the owl-crow hagfiends and their yellow eye magic, Grank’s own magery, and, of course, the ember of Hoole and the egg of Hoole. It’s also the first Ga’Hoole book to be in first person, which actually helped out a lot. It completely changed the usual ebb and flow of Lasky’s writing and helped make things less stiff and clunky and cheesy. Rather than everything feeling stilted and there being an abundance of telling rather than showing, the first person narration lessened that a lot, though there were a few instances of rather awkward worldbuilding.

However, despite some of the new things, I think I’m simply getting bored of the series. Every book feels the same. Lasky does not do enough to change things up (the first person helped, as did some of the elements of the world, but not enough); I feel as if I am reading the same story over and over again. It reminds me a bit of Erin Hunter’s Warriors series, another set of books that I ultimately got tired of as they were all too similar. The First Collier had interesting bits to it, but overall everything was done in the same delivery and style—there was even an Otulissa replacement! The only thing that changed was the terminology. I’m halfway through the Ga’Hoole series, but I’m not sure if I want to finish or not.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2U7iTmk

Wolf Queen by Tanith Lee

Wolf Queen, by Tanith Lee, was published in 2001 by Dutton. It is the sequel to Wolf Star.

Rating: 4/5

Wolf Queen solves lots of the mysteries that were set up over Wolf Tower and Wolf Star and sends Claidi and Argul off on a happy ending, finishing up the Claidi Journals on a sweet, sentimental note—or, at least, that’s what the book wants me to think.

See, this isn’t actually the last Claidi book, though it’s the last one I read. Lee wrote one more, though apparently wasn’t planning to, based on the blurb for this book. I’m excited to read it to see what happens, as that one will truly be a “blind” read for me. This book, Wolf Queen, wasn’t quite as jaw-dropping as it should have been, since I’ve read it before and knew the big twist already. However, it was nice to read it to see all the hints Lee dropped beforehand.

Claidi’s voice is as delightful and unique as always, and even though this book introduces some truly outrageous (in a good way, I think) fantasy/sci-fi elements, her voice made everything somehow more plausible and realistic. I wish it was explained more as to how, exactly, a lot of the magic/technology works—we’ve got clockwork people, which I understand, but then all there are also powerful items that operate on a “don’t pay too much attention to the mechanics” level. Ustareth’s ring is one of those, of course, and it did bother me a bit that there was no explanation as to how it can do half of the things it did.

I wish each book didn’t hinge quite so much on “Claidi gets taken places,” but, again, Claidi’s voice is so delightful that she could probably stay in one room the whole book and it would still be interesting. These books lack a bit of something that I can’t really explain—they’re interesting, and I like them a lot, but they don’t grip me like some books do. However, Claidi and Argul are adorable, and the draw of the books is Claidi’s voice, not complexity of plot or stellar worldbuilding. I can deal with that—and I’m looking forward to exploring Wolf Wing, the book I never read, and seeing if Lee can surprise me.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2HhAtP8

Wolf Star by Tanith Lee

Wolf Star, by Tanith Lee, was published in 2000 by Dutton. It is the sequel to Wolf Tower.

Rating: 4/5

The thing that stands out the most to me in The Claidi Journals is Claidi’s voice. The parentheses, the random asides, the subtle sarcasm and wit, all combine to make Claidi distinctive, unique, and memorable as a protagonist. And Lee is so good at following old tropes, and yet somehow making them new.

For example, in Wolf Star, Claidi is kidnapped and taken to the mysterious Rise and must figure out a way to escape. Although she never actively tries to run, her reasons for why she doesn’t are relatable and make her more realistic as a protagonist. Then, as she gets to know Venn and is intrigued by the mysteries of the moving rooms and the clockwork servants, her curiosity is what makes her stay. And I love the contrasts set up in this book: the contrast between Venn and Argul, between Ustareth and Zeera, between Wolf Tower and the Rise, and even between Claidi-before and Claidi-after.

Wolf Star is strange, and not much happens—it’s much more of a character-focused novel, intent on exploring a particular backstory, than an action-packed novel. There’s less excitement and movement than the first book, yet this one has excellent pacing and worldbuilding to make up for it. The one thing that jarred me was the revelation of Argul’s age—he doesn’t seem, and has never seemed, like an eighteen-year-old. A strange thing to complain about, but it caused a disconnect for me.

I can see not everyone liking these books. Wolf Star in particular seems framed for a very specific audience; it’s a strange book in its flow and in its story. I loved it, but I enjoy books where the protagonist is witty, but not ridiculous; brave, but not aggressive; faltering, but not bemoaning. Claidi is all of that and more.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2SoGkqo

The Outcast by Kathryn Lasky

The Outcast, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2005 by Scholastic. It is the sequel to The Hatchling.

Rating: 1/5

The Outcast is full of cheese and fluff and represents a cheap version of a prophecy fulfillment story. The problems I spotted in The Hatchling return tenfold in this book, to the point where not even nostalgia could win the day.

Let’s start with Nyroc/Coryn. Coryn consistently speaks in grandiose, cheesy statements, and is given advice that is also grandiose and cheesy. He’s not as familiar or as memorable a protagonist as Soren; in fact, he’s a rather flat character who is pretty much flawless in every way. The only thing Coryn struggles with in this book is fear that other people will confuse him with his mother. He does everything perfectly because, as this book tells us multiple times, he is the next owl king and everyone knows it and welcomes him and whoever doesn’t recognize that fact is evil.

The side characters also speak declaratively and pithily. Even the introduction of the dire wolves and their clan system is derailed by the clunky dialogue and lack of plot. Too much happens too fast, and there wasn’t enough buildup to this whole idea of a new owl king for the plot to be in any way coherent or believable.

Lasky tried to take this series in a different direction, but the lack of adequate development and buildup, lack of worldbuilding in terms of Hoolian knowledge (something she tries to rectify with her three prequels about Hoole) and prophecies, and the awkward, cheesy dialogue only make The Outcast a chore to read and difficult to finish.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence, use of the word “damned.”

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2IQLx5X

1972 Newbery Medal: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien, was published in 1971 by Aladdin.

Rating: 4/5

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is one of those books where I felt like I remembered a lot about it before reading it, and then realized that I really didn’t remember much at all. The only thing I truly remembered was that Mrs. Frisby’s son Timothy gets sick, and also that the rats were genetically modified. Other than that, my vague impressions of the book were dead wrong.

The book has a more middle-to-high level reading level (on a scale that I invented just this minute to express what I’m trying to say about the writing), and so it feels, at least, a bit more mature and complex than an average Newbery Medal. I actually quite like this type of writing style. There’s a lot of words, but they’re not complicated ones, so children should still be able to follow along fairly well. It was a nice change after some of the more simplistic things I read, and it helped give the book a more serious and studied air, as befitting the NIMH rats.

The story itself is engaging. Mrs. Frisby enlists the help of the genetically modified rats of NIMH to help her move her house, and along the way learns their story and their ultimate goal of achieving their own sustainable den so they no longer have to steal to survive. There’s some tension involving the cat, Dragon, as well as the looming threat of NIMH, and the ending is dramatic and even a little ambiguous as to the final fate of the rats (one in particular).

The biggest weakness of the book is that the whole premise of the book is based on evolutionary theory, and I honestly don’t think O’Brien did a very good job at all at communicating it in an even remotely sensible way. Perhaps the age of this book shows a little during all the talk of monkeys and prairie dogs. In any case, it’s presented in a way that’s almost laughably bad. In addition, the end goal of the rats is shaky at best. It’s a bit like Rabbit Hill was. At least in this book it explains how the rats were modified, but the whole idea that rats could have their own community, their own farm and crops, and flourish (in essence, live like humans) is unbelievable.

Despite my problems with the entire premise, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is still an interesting story—and it’s not all about the rats, either. Mrs. Frisby gets some great moments to shine, too, which are arguably some of the best moments of the book besides the rat escape at the end.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2IsntGu

The Riddle by Alison Croggon

The Riddle, by Alison Croggon, was published in 2004 by Candlewick. It is the sequel to The Naming.

Rating: 2/5

The Riddle is the book that I probably remember most of the Books of Pellinor. The ending of this book is the ending that I thought was in the first book. I remember when I read it the first time that I thought it was a very sweet and poignant scene, but this time around was more of a “shrug, meh” moment. Maybe because I remember absolutely hating the ending of the fourth book, and the ending of the second book is the precursor to that.

Anyway, The Riddle continues to be Tolkien-esque. It’s a hefty book, though to be honest, I feel like most of the first half of the book could have been left out. Maerad and Cadvan spend weeks on an island for no reason. The most interesting part of the book is the second half, when Maerad traverses the ice lands in the North and is then taken to the domain of the Winter King. Croggon does a little better with worldbuilding overall in this book, though there’s still the feeling that there’s so much she isn’t covering beyond the Bardic system. Her world feels so empty most of the time, full of no one but Bards and enemies.

The series as a whole is very female-centric, and this one in particular is full of choice and empowerment and all that jazz. Personally I found Maerad’s struggle in the Winter King’s domain too much; her actual struggle to escape was fine, but the other bit that Croggon wants to get into, well, that was developed far too quickly and resolved far too quickly to seem like anything more than another character obstacle for Maerad to overcome.

I feel like there’s so much here in the book that I would love if it was revealed or developed in a different way. If I liked Maerad more, I might enjoy the books more, but she’s too…something…for me. I can’t really put my finger on what it is about her that I don’t care for. It’s like she’s too timid, but also too fierce, and I still don’t understand the magic enough to understand why she’s so powerful. I also don’t like the clumsy way Croggon is working in all of the “Fated One” stuff.

If I remember correctly, the next book takes place from the point of view of Hem, which may or may not be a nice change from two books of Maerad. I don’t usually like viewpoint changes, though, so I don’t know if it will matter for me. I’m two books in, so I think I will finish the series, but The Riddle didn’t do much to recommend the rest of the books to me.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2M7uAcv

Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn

Summers at Castle Auburn, by Sharon Shinn, was published in 2001 by Ace.

Rating: 5/5

Summers at Castle Auburn has been on my reading list for quite a while—since the first Sharon Shinn book I’ve read (The Safe-Keeper’s Secret), I think. The title, plus the rating on Goodreads, plus my love for 2000s fantasy, all contributed to my desire to read the book. It took me a while to actually get it, though.

But, boy, did it not disappoint.

Now, I’ve read other books that are more immediately gripping—The King of Attolia, for one—and it’s not the type of book that I feel I could read over and over again. But I enjoyed it the way I enjoyed Juliet Marillier and Kate Constable—and Shinn’s other works. It’s slow, and meandering, but there’s so much to think about and to see develop.

The book is pretty slow up until about the middle, but once you get to the middle, you see why the first part was important. There’s a bit of odd stuff scattered around, but it all contributes to the world and to the characters. The most prominent is the aliora, which seem like a pretty useless addition—take them out of the story and everything stays the same—but they do contribute to the world in a way that perhaps wouldn’t be as effective if they had been left out.

There’s a lot of court intrigue, which I loved, but the best part is that its intrigue interpreted through the eyes of someone who isn’t really involved in all the intrigue. So we see parts of it, and only get hints at the rest. The best part of this intrigue is, of course, the slow reveal of the character Bryan’s personality and tendencies, as he goes from flirtatious, energetic teenager to smiling monster. And, of course, my favorite part of the book was the ending, where intrigue collides with tension, and there are several big character moments for all of the main characters.

Shinn does make a small error towards the end—basically, Corie tells her sister something, and then later on wonders how her sister knows about that thing—but everything is so well paced and revealed that I could ignore it. And what I mostly cared about was the romance, which was maybe not as romantic as some people might like, but it was very well-developed, and I loved what it had to say about love and about how sometimes loving someone means doing something you normally wouldn’t do.

I’m not sure Summers at Castle Auburn will be on my “Could Read Again” list, but I thoroughly enjoyed almost every page of it—even the slow beginning. Shinn and 2000s fantasy prove their worth again!

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Dark themes (murder is the most prominent, subtle hints at rape)

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Vp8qBy

The Novice by Taran Matharu

The Novice, by Taran Matharu, was published in 2015 by Feiwel and Friends.

Rating: 1/5

I really wanted to enjoy The Novice. The cover art is eye-catching, the premise seemed intriguing, and the summoning aspect of the novel was interesting. I could ignore some of the other worldbuilding flaws as long as the summoning continued to be interesting, and for a book that started on Wattpad (*shudder*), some of it seemed pretty decent, if plagued by mistakes that first-time writers often make.

But, eventually, I couldn’t get past the characters, their terrible characterization, and the stilted, clunky dialogue.

There is no nuance in any of the characters. The main character, Fletcher, is pretty much perfect: he has a rare demon, his flaws in magic are made up for in his innovation and outside-the-box thinking, and he’s perfectly good and true and just. The lack of nuance means emotion is expressed too strongly, and gray areas are never addressed. There’s “Fletcher (and his friends and the commoners)—good” and “Nobles—bad” type conflict, and the characters act as if they’re ten years old, shouting at each other, screaming, and making melodramatic statements at every turn.

The world also falls apart once you even start considering the mechanics of the summoning school. Apparently the rules are able to change at a whim—no one bats an eye when the tournament format is changed last minute to suit the evil teacher’s desires (and this teacher is one of about three teachers at this so-called famous school), and this teacher apparently didn’t even have to fill out any forms or discuss it with a council or anything. In addition, there seems to be no sense of structure or discipline—students go or don’t go to class, are allowed to leave the school apparently at any time and come back at any time, and don’t seem to be on any sort of schedule or regimen (despite the reference to timetables).

Then again, there’s only three teachers, so how are they supposed to keep an eye on all of these wandering students, anyway?

Plus, Matharu’s stark, black-and-white, all rich people are corrupt worldbuilding grows tiresome after the –nth instance of telling rather than showing.

And don’t even get me started on the number of comma splices in every single dialogue.

I wanted to like The Novice, but its Wattpad beginnings are too obvious, and its worldbuilding and character flaws too numerous, for me.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence, death.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Psky3o

2004 Newbery Medal: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, was published in 2003 by Candlewick.

Rating: 2/5

I must not like Kate DiCamillo as an author (though I remember liking Because of Winn-Dixie). I didn’t like Flora and Ulysses, and I didn’t like The Tale of Despereaux, despite the latter’s place as a beloved children’s novel and one of the few that have had a film adaptation.

I really don’t know what it is about DiCamillo that I struggle with. Flora and Ulysses and The Tale of Despereaux are very dissimilar to each other. So, perhaps it is just the books and not the author herself.

What didn’t I like about Despereaux? Pretty much everything. The grating narrator “address the reader” asides, the simplistic themes, the annoying protagonist (yes, I found Despereaux annoying), the villain, the unwitting sidekick…all of it combined created an unpalatable mess that I could only barely tolerate. It was the type of book where, if I had my way, I would take forever to finish reading it because I dreaded it so much, but I forced myself to finish it so I could move on to a more exciting book.

However, Despereaux is still not bad enough for a 1/5 rating, and that’s because I acknowledge that this read had a lot more to do with me than it had to do with the book. I don’t like magical realism, I don’t like breaking-the-4th-wall narrators, and I don’t like simplistically obvious messages about light and dark and courage. Plus, the ending was extremely anticlimactic. However, I did like the introduction of complicated words and ideas that the narrator explained, and parts of the novel were, if not enjoyable, at least tolerable—so long as the narrator stayed out of things.

I’ve described lots of Newbery Medals as mediocre, and The Tale of Despereaux is one of the few that I’ve actively disliked, though I wouldn’t call it mediocre. I suppose it’s just an acknowledgement that tastes can vary among readers—even with award-winning books. The Tale of Despereaux is well-written and far from average, but, simply put, I just didn’t care for it.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy, Realistic

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2X8Gvaw