Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier

Son of the Shadows, by Juliet Marillier, was published in 2001 by Tor. It is the sequel to Daughter of the Forest.

It is from [Sorcha’s] sacrifice that her brothers were brought home to Sevenwaters, and since then her life has known much joy. But not all the brothers were able to escape the spell that transformed them into swans, and even those who did were all more—and less—than they were before the change. It is left to Sorcha’s daughter, Liadan, to take up the task that the Sevenwaters clan is destined to fulfill. Beloved child, dutiful daughter, she embarks on a journey that opens her eyes to the wonders of the world around her…and shows her just how hard-won was the peace that she has known all her life. Liadan will need all her courage to help save her family, for there are forces far darker than anyone could have guessed and ancient powers conspiring to destroy this family’s peace and their world. And she will need all her strength to stand up to those she loves best, for in the finding of her own true love, Liadan’s course may doom them all…or be their salvation.

Rating: 4/5

Son of the Shadows is almost as enthralling as Daughter of the Forest, marred only by the amount of plot convenience Marillier puts in. The story is gripping, the characters, especially Liadan and Bran, are memorable and well-developed, and the world is mystical and beautiful.

Son of the Shadows is not a fairy-tale adaptation, but rather a continuation of Marillier’s original world from the first book, expanding on the plot threads and conflicts and characters. I like the idea of setting up a world through a fairy-tale adaptation and then expanding on it with an original story later on. Though the plot is self-contained, there are definitely some more threads that will be picked up, presumably, in the third book, as Marillier has been setting up some sort of confrontation between all the different forces at work since the first book (though it’s much more prominent in this one).

I do think the title is a little misleading or misnamed. The person it seems to be referring to only shows up twice, and while the second time is rather a big reveal, I’m not sure if it warrants naming a whole book after him. Then again, there could possibly be multiple “sons of the shadows,” so maybe that’s what Marillier was going for.

The Sevenwaters books have been gripping and wonderful so far. I thought that Son of the Shadows had a few too many plot conveniences, but at the same time, Marillier did make them all work, somehow, though it’s still a little eyebrow-raising. Adult fantasy is always a hard genre for me to just pick up and start reading, so I’m glad that Marillier’s works have been a stand-out in that regard. I’m looking forward to reading the next book!

Recommended Age Range: 16+

Warnings: Violence, death, sexual situations, rape.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale

“You are strong, Liadan. I cannot tell you if and when you may be called to use this gift. Perhaps never. It’s best you know, at least. He would be able to tell you more.”

“He? You mean—Finbar?” Now we were on fragile ground indeed.

Mother turned to look out of the window. “It grew again so beautifully,” she said. “The little oak Red planted for me that will one day be tall and noble, the lilac, the healing herbs. The Sorceress could not destroy us. Together, we were too strong for her.” She looked back at me. “The magic is powerful in you, Liadan.”

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

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

The Blackhope Enigma by Teresa Flavin

The Blackhope Enigma, by Teresa Flavin, was published in 2011 by Candlewick Press.

For centuries, Blackhope Tower has remained an enigma. Rumors abound that skeletons have been known to mysteriously appear in the middle of a labyrinth found in the most famous of its rooms—The Mariner’s Chamber. When fourteen-year-old Sunni Forrest visits the tower and watches as her stepbrother, Dean, disappears, seemingly into the painting itself, she goes in search of him—and finds herself drawn into the heart of the Blackhope Enigma.

Rating: 2/5

I very nearly stopped reading The Blackhope Enigma about a third of the way through it. The writing is amateurish (needless descriptions and explanations, melodramatic villain lines, clunky action and lots of telling rather than showing), the characters are forgettable (also, don’t ask how many times I pronounced Sunni’s name as SOON-EE rather than SON-EE because of the spelling), and the whole thing hinges on a premise that is barely explained and not incorporated well.

However, the story does pick up a little and gets slightly more interesting once the characters make their way into the inner-inner painting (there’s the surface painting, then the inner painting where things are alive, and then apparently an inner-inner painting). Of course, then the book adds another melodramatic villain character and the obligatory mysterious handsome sorcerer, so it doesn’t really get any better in quality. But it became interesting enough for me to read it all the way through, though it never passed beyond merely bearable.

I like the idea that Flavin is trying to get across, but unfortunately, she executed it poorly. I think the concept of an enchanted painting is a good one and if Flavin was a better writer the book as a whole would have been a much better success. But Sunni, Dean and Blaise never become more than stock characters, stumbling around a world that is a good idea conceptually but poorly designed and implemented. I never get any sense of real danger from the villains or the world and the ending is clunky and contrived. The Blackhope Enigma is certainly an enigma—I still don’t know how I managed to finish reading the entire thing.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Realistic, Middle Grade

“All you knew was that we had disappeared—not how we got in.”

“Well, let’s just say we looked at it from a new angle and got a result.”

“But I asked Mr. Bell about Corvo and the painting after Sunni and Dean had disappeared, and he didn’t tell my anything. Why would he do that?”

“Knowing Lorimer, it was so you wouldn’t get too curious and follow the others into the painting,” Angus said. “He was trying to protect you.”

“From what?” asked Blaise.

“From never getting out again.”

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

A Tangle of Gold by Jaclyn Moriarty

A Tangle of Gold, by Jaclyn Moriarty, was published in 2016 by Arthur A. Levine. It is the sequel to The Cracks in the Kingdom.

His visit turned out to be ridiculously brief. Madeleine and Elliot barely talked before word came that he and his father would be bundled back to Cello. On the train platform, Elliot didn’t snap out of the distant fog he seemed to be in. And Madeleine’s nose bled—again!—just as she tried to say good-bye. Now she’s mortified, heartbroken, lost—and completely cut off from Cello. Cello, meanwhile, is in crisis. Princess Ko’s deception of her people has emerged and the kingdom is outraged. Authorities have placed the princess under arrest and ordered her execution. Color storms are rampant, more violent than ever. And nobody has heard the Cello Wind blowing in months. But Madeleine can’t let go of Cello. It gave her a tantalizing glimpse of the magic she’s always wanted—and maybe it’s the key to the person she is meant to become. She also can’t let go of Elliot, who, unbeknownst to her, is being held captive by a dangerous branch of Hostiles. What will it take to put these two on a collision course to save the Kingdom of Cello, and maybe to save each other?

Rating: 4/5

I’m going to jump right in with my absolute favorite thing about A Tangle of Gold: it has one of the best plot twists I’ve experienced in a long time. Looking back, I can see now how all the pieces line up and all the hints and clues that were scattered along the trilogy. In the moment, though, when things were happening and I was wondering what on earth was going on and starting to roll my eyes at the ridiculous/ “poetic” descriptions, Moriarty drops that piece of amazing plot reveal right in my lap. I actually gasped and said, “No way!” out loud, and not many books get me to do that. And the best thing was that it made so much sense but wasn’t so obvious that I saw it coming a mile away—because I didn’t see it coming, at all.

The biggest complaint I’ve had about the Colors of Madeleine trilogy so far is the voice of the characters. However, in A Tangle of Gold, either there was less of it jarring me out of the book or I simply noticed it less. Maybe the plot reveal made me look at the book more favorably. I will say, though, that some things happened that I had a really hard time swallowing. Like Princess Jupiter’s magical abilities manifesting because of plot convenience. And Elliott’s brainless decisions while being with the Hostiles. And that whole thing with the Circle and immortality. And, made slightly more tongue-in-cheek by Belle’s reaction, the whole thing with Jack revealed at the very end. Also, the ending was jarring because it ended so abruptly and not particularly as satisfying as I thought it could be.

However, A Tangle of Gold might be my favorite of the trilogy if only for that marvelous bit of plot weaving that Moriarty did throughout the entire trilogy leading up to that plot reveal. You’re likely not to be disappointed by this book if you enjoyed the other two, and while some things become a little convenient with our heroes and there’s still a kind of pretentious, fake voice to the teenagers, particularly Belle, it’s a good finish to the trilogy. If only the ending had given just a little more closure.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

That night, Madeleine lay on her couch-bed and felt the silence rising up from the flat downstairs. It joined the darkness in her own flat, injecting it with shots of deeper darkness.

A thread of burning colours was coiling through her veins. A hot-oil rainbow. It smelled like ink spilled from permanent markers, the high, poisoned sweetness of it.

She was going mad.

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

Stolen Magic by Gail Carson Levine

Stolen Magic, by Gail Carson Levine, was published in 2015 by Harper. It is the sequel to A Tale of Two Castles.

Elodie, the dragon Masteress Meenore, and the ogre County Jonty Um are all on their way to Elodie’s home island of Lahnt. Just five weeks before, Elodie left for the town of Two Castles with nothing but a single copper in her purse, and now she is returning a professional dragon detective’s assistant and friend to a count! Elodie has barely set foot on Lahnt before she learns that it is in terrible danger. The Replica, a statue that keeps a deadly volcano from erupting, has been stolen from its mountain home. If the Replica isn’t found in three days, a mountain will be destroyed and its inhabitants will be killed. And when Elodie is left without her companions, she has to use her wits to try to unravel a tangled web of lies and save her island home.

Rating: 2/5

I didn’t think Stolen Magic was half as good as A Tale of Two Castles. It has that “tacked-on sequel due to popular demand” feel to it, where the author tries to recapture the essence of the first novel and fails. The plot tries to be a decent mystery but there are so many characters introduced all at once that it’s hard to follow and the world seems small and cramped compared to the first novel. There’s also way too many logical leaps done at the very beginning, with Elodie immediately jumping to “The Replica’s been stolen!” even though there’s really no believable way she could have reached that conclusion as quickly as she did. In addition, the entire book pretty much takes place in one area, and most of the time the characters are simply talking at a table.

Even Levine seemed to realize how inactive the plot was, and so interspersed the mystery aspect with snapshots of Jonty Um, andeventually Meenore, helping the inhabitants of Lahnt escape to safety. But those are so obviously placed there to increase the pace that it makes the book seem sloppily put together. It also makes it so that the reader knows some things before the characters, which I never like because that sort of anticipation as the reader waits for the characters to catch up is rarely done well. It tends to become more irritation than anticipation.

Stolen Magic is, in a way, aptly named, because it steals the magic found in the first book right out of existence and turns it into a trudge of a mystery that’s only slightly interesting. All the “bee” characters introduced all at once made things hard to follow, there was too much talking across tables and too many back-and-forth accusations, and the whole thing felt rushed and poorly done. Sequels written years after the first book are rarely done well, because they often tend to reek of fan service and poorly-conceived thinking and plotting. And, unfortunately, it looks like even Gail Carson Levine, as divine as some of her books are, is not immune to this sort of blunder.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

“Might the thief escape in your absence, Madam, now that the blizzard has ended?”

“He wouldn’t get far on foot in this snow. If he wanted a horse, he’d have to come here.”

“He or she wouldn’t get far. If he or she wanted…Lodie, can you forgo sleep tonight?”

She nodded. She’d done so before for IT.

“High Brunka, can you show Lodie in secret where the Replica had been kept?”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2t1XQqV

Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke

Dragon Rider, by Cornelia Funke, was published in 2004 by Chicken House.

Firedrake, Ben, and their furry friend, Sorrel, are in search of the mythical place where dragons can live in peace forever. Together they embark on a journey that takes them to magical lands where they meet marvelous creatures—and one ruthless villain. Along the way, they will discover allies in odd places, courage they didn’t know they had, and a hidden destiny that changes everything.

Rating: 3/5

Dragon Rider is not a bad book by any means. It is a fairly entertaining, suspense-filled tale of a dragon’s search for a home and the people, animals, and magical creatures that help him along the way. There’s a villain who is suitably villainous, a spy, a djinn, and lots and lots of travel. There’s nothing remarkably wrong with it nor are there any large flaws beyond character likeability (a subjective area, anyway).

However, Dragon Rider lacks something which makes it truly great. I’m not sure if it’s wonder, charm, imagination, or what, but there is a flatness that runs throughout the book that makes it one step short of enticing. It never goes beyond; it always stays comfortable and safe. I’m not sure if it’s because this is one of Funke’s first books (okay, more like fifth, but it’s still one of her early ones), if it’s the translation barrier (this was first written in German), or if this is just how Funke writes, but there is definitely some depth or something missing that is noticeable to someone who reads as many books as I do.

I remember quite liking this book as a kid, and I think I read it a couple of times, but, strangely, I barely remembered it—it didn’t have nearly as powerful an impression on me as some of the other books I read when I was younger. Maybe it has something to do with the flatness of the whole book, the rote-ness of it, the imaginative aspect of it that is so formulaic it loses its imaginativeness, if that makes sense.

Also, Sorrel was annoying.

I enjoyed Dragon Rider, but it didn’t grab me. It did nothing to make me remember it and, sadly, it did nothing to make me want to grab another book by Funke and dive in. I’ve actually read The Thief Lord, Inkheart, and Inkspell, many years ago, but I don’t have an inclination to reminisce; I didn’t before reading Dragon Rider and I don’t now. That doesn’t mean I won’t read another Funke book; it just means I’ll be hard-pressed before I pick one up.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: N/A

Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade

Gilbert leaned slightly forward and whispered, “You’re not the only ones looking for the Rim of Heaven.”

“What?” gasped Sorrel, taken aback.

“Ravens have been turning up here for years,” Gilbert went on, still in a whisper. “Very peculiar ravens, if you ask me. They ask questions about the Rim of Heaven, but what they’re really interested in is the dragons said to be hiding there. Naturally I haven’t told them anything about the dragons in my dear cousin Rosa’s part of the world.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2sn4qE3

Valour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal

Valour and Vanity, by Mary Robinette Kowal, was published in 2014 by Tor. It is the sequel to Without a Summer.

After Melody’s wedding, the Ellsworths and Vincents accompany the young couple on their tour of the continent. Jane and Vincent plan to separate from the party and travel to Murano to study with glassblowers there, but their ship is set upon by Barbary corsairs. It is their good fortune that they are not enslaved, but they lose everything to the pirates and arrive in Murano destitute. Jane and Vincent are helped by a kind local they meet en route, but Vincent is determined to become self-reliant and get their money back and hatches a plan to do so. But when so many things are not what they seem, even the best laid plans conceal a few pitfalls. The ensuing adventures is a combination of the best parts of magical fantasy and heist novels, set against a glorious Regency backdrop.

Rating: 4/5

Valour and Vanity is much better than I remember Without a Summer being, though, granted, it’s been a while since I’ve read the latter. It’s a delightful heist novel, though the heist itself does not take place until the last third of the book, and the build-up to the heist is slow, yet never a trudge, and filled with appropriate tension and mystery. While the reason Jane and Vincent need to pull off a heist seems overly elaborate, it’s acknowledged by the characters and seems warranted due to the circumstances.

I prefer fantasy novels that, if they have complicated magic, it makes sense and is explained well. I don’t understand the glamour aspect of Kowal’s world and I don’t think I ever have or ever will. Kowal explains it often enough, but I’ve never been able to grasp the concept. I’m not sure if that’s a flaw in the design or simply a flaw in my understanding. It does make things a little hard to understand, and read, when it gets to the technicalities, such as the glass glamour spheres the Vincents are working on and all that complicated glamour stuff they do for the heist. Kowal at least makes it to the side of “understandable enough to pass muster,” though the system still seems confusing overall.

The previous two books in the series seemed a little more complicated and far-reaching than this one, and I really enjoyed the more simple nature of Valour and Vanity. Odd to say of a heist novel, I know. It further developed and resolved some storylines from the previous books, but the scope did not seem as large, nor did there seem to be so many interacting characters and storylines. There was much more of a focus on the development of Jane and Vincent’s characterization and relationship, done wonderfully well. This was probably my favorite book after the original, and it’s not even because of the heist, though that was well done. The characterization is delightful and that, above all, is what made me enjoy Valour and Vanity so much.

Recommended Age Range: 15+

Warnings: Implied sex within marriage.

Genre: Fantasy

“What is it you wish to make.”

“A sphere of cristallo.”

“That’s it? Just a ball?”

“A perfect sphere.” Vincent rolled his shoulders. “I shall need you to hold it quite steady as we cast glamour into it. The glassmaker we used in Binché—”

“I know what I am about, sir. You do not need to instruct me.”

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2t0CqZL

Halt’s Peril by John Flanagan

Halt’s Peril, by John Flanagan, was published in 2010 by Philomel. It is the sequel to The Kings of Clonmel.

Rangers walk the line between life and death every day, but never before has that line appeared so thin or death felt so certain. Hot on the trail of the Outsiders—a cult that’s been making its way from kingdom to kingdom, connoting the innocent out of their few valuables—Will and Halt are ambushed by the cult’s deadly assassins. Pierced by a poisoned arrow, Will’s mentor is near death and in dire need of the one antidote that can save his life. Time is not on Will’s side as he journeys day and night through the harsh terrain to Grimsdell Wood in search of the one person with the power to cure Halt: Malkallam the Sorcerer.

Rating: 3/5

The Kings of Clonmel may have been, in my opinion, the best of the “Part 1’s” of Ranger’s Apprentice, but Halt’s Peril may be the worst “Part 2.” That’s not to say the book isn’t good—it’s Ranger’s Apprentice; of course it’s good. But it lacks the intensity of some of the earlier books and the relatively slow pace throughout the middle of the book—despite the fast paced events dealing with Halt being poisoned—drags the plot on a little. It’s weird to say that a book is slow-paced when it’s at its most intense, every-second-counts moment, but something was certainly off about the pacing of this book. Or maybe the problem is that I found the resolution with Tennyson to be unsatisfying and anti-climactic after the exciting parts that came before it.

Speaking of exciting parts, I haven’t read this book in ten or so years and I vividly remembered one scene dealing with Will and the Genovesan right at the tail end of the poisoning plot. As in, I remembered what happened and what the characters said almost exactly—it was such a pivotal, stand-out moment in the book that it stood out to me and remained in my memory even after ten (or so) years. That part of the book shows just how far Will has come—as well as how far he will go to protect the ones he loves. And that ice-cold statement at the end of that particular chapter. Dang. No wonder it stuck in my brain.

I wouldn’t say Ranger’s Apprentice is declining in quality, but Halt’s Peril was a bit of a misstep in several respects. While it featured a gripping, tense plot midway through the book, the lead-up to that part, and the resolution that followed it, weren’t as good, resulting in me having an oddly dissatisfied feeling when I finished. After all that tension, the ending could not stand up to the rest and felt anticlimactic and overly prolonged. I suppose it was only natural that Ranger’s Apprentice would falter a little bit, and I’m glad it happened nine books in as opposed to sooner, but it’s still a little disappointing.

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

Horace swung the cloak around him delightedly. Even though it was made for Halt’s smaller frame, the Ranger cloaks were of such a capacious design that it fitted him reasonably well. It would be far too short, of course, but on horseback that didn’t matter too much.

“I’ve always wanted one of these,” Horace said, grinning at the cloak. He pulled the deep cowl up over his head, hiding his face in its shadows, and gathered the gray-brown folds around him.

“Can you still see me?” he asked.

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2sOIG6M

The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty

The Cracks in the Kingdom, by Jaclyn Moriarty, was published in 2014 by Arthur A. Levine. It is the sequel to A Corner of White.

Princess Ko’s been bluffing about the mysterious absence of her father, desperately trying to keep the government running on her own. But if she can’t get him back in a matter of weeks, the consequence might be a devastating war. SO under the guise of a publicity stunt, she gathers a group of teens from across the country to play to the media in a series of carefully orchestrated photo ops. In reality, each of these teens has a special ability, and together they will attempt to crack the unsolvable case of the missing royals of Cello. Chief among these is farm-boy heartthrob Elliot Baranski, more determined to find his own father than ever. And with the royal family trapped in the World with no memory of their former lives, Elliot’s value to the Alliance becomes clear: He’s the only one with a connection to the World, through his forbidden communications with Madeleine Tully. Together, sharing notes, letters, and late nights, Elliot and Madeleine must find a way to travel across worlds and bring missing loved ones home.

Rating: 4/5

As with A Corner of White, I found the Madeleine sections of The Cracks in the Kingdom a bit too odd, a bit too quirky and pseudo-poetic/philosophical to be realistic or enticing. It fits with the Elliott sections because Cello is a fantasy world and it’s set up as an odd one and so all of that flows together, but when the Madeleine sections stray into that same mindset, it’s jarring. It’s also not my mindset, so perhaps that’s also where the disconnect lies–I have trouble connecting with characters who don’t sound real to me when they’re supposed to be “realistic.”

However, despite my problems with some aspects of characterization, I did really enjoy The Cracks in the Kingdom. I especially enjoyed the Cello parts, because that’s where the plot shined–some of the Madeleine bits seemed a bit tacked on–and the plot itself was nice and twisty and intricate, just the way I like my plots. Perhaps the ending reveal was a bit too convenient, but it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.

In parts, The Cracks in the Kingdom is so odd as to be jarring and Madeleine, Belle, and Jack still do not seem realistic to me. They seem like caricatures of real people, much more like Cello than the world seems to indicate, much more like the world they’re not a part of than the world they are. Luckily, though, the charm and wonder of Cello carries through, redeeming the sections of the book where Moriarty gets especially quirky, and showing off its own quirkiness in a much more natural fashion. The plot promises to be more intricate than the first book (or, at least, more obviously intricate) and it carries through on that promise. I’ll be picking up the last book to see where the story takes us and how Moriarty brings it to an end.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Swearing.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

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

1926 Newbery Medal: Shen of the Sea

Shen of the Sea, by Arthur Bowie Chrisman, was published in 1925 by Dutton.

A series of fascinating Chinese stories with the character of folk and wonder tales in which the author has caught admirably the spirit of Chinese life and thought. Not only are the tales amusing and appealing in themselves, but hidden beneath their surface is the wise and practical philosophy that has influenced Chinese life for thousands of years.

Rating: 4/5

Shen of the Sea: Chinese Stories for Children is a delightful little book of folk tales, something that I think Tales from Silver Lands tried to be and failed. Each folk tale embodies its own humor and cleverness—none of them are straightforward or predictable. There’s some sort of moral attached to each one, but not in any obtrusive way as in Aesop’s Fables.

Shen of the Sea brings a lightheartedness to these early Newbery Medals that has been absent since The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle. The folk tales are simple, but not simplistic, and the language, though crowded with Chinese terms and names, is easy to understand and fits well with the nature of the book. Though I found the characters of each tale tended to blur together, their actions and the plot of each tale did not, allowing for memorable moments from each one.

I enjoy books like these, and this one reminded me of a story I read when I was little, in some sort of story collection, that was similar in style (all I remember is that it was about 7 Chinese brothers who were identical and each had a special ability that they used to save one of their brother’s skin). Though I’m not ranking the Newbery Medals, Shen of the Sea is my second favorite of the 1920s batch I’ve read so far, behind Doctor Doolittle. Let’s hope the 1929 Medal winner will follow in Shen’s footsteps.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tales, Children’s

Who will say that Ah Mee was disobedient? He had been told not to throw his toy dragon through the window. But had his father, Ching Chi, told him not to heave a block through the door? Not at all. Ching Chi had said nothing about blocks, and he had pointed his finger at the window. Nevertheless, Mr. Ching felt almost inclined to scold his son. He said, very sternly, “Ah Mee…”

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