The Crescent Stone by Matt Mikalatos

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.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Fantasy

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

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Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller

Daughter of the Pirate King, by Tricia Levenseller, was published in 2017 by Feiwel and Friends.

Sent on a mission to retrieve an ancient hidden map—the key to a legendary treasure trove—seventeen-year-old pirate captain Alosa deliberately allows herself to be captured by her enemies, giving her the perfect opportunity to search their ship. More than a match for the ruthless pirate crew, Alosa has only one thing standing between her and the map: her captor, the unexpectedly clever and unfairly attractive first mate Riden. But not to worry, for Alosa has a few tricks up her sleeve, and no lone pirate can stop the Daughter of the Pirate King.

Rating: 1/5

Daughter of the Pirate King reminded me of what I hate about certain young adult novels: one-dimensional characters, predictable romance, uninspiring prose, and way too many lingering gazes and “almost but not really” intimate moments.

Let’s start with the main character, Alosa, who’s this “I can take care of myself” female protagonist. And she can, for the most part, at least in the fighting department (which, by the way, when described by Levenseller, never seems as if it should actually work). She’s one of those “super strong, super tough, I can beat up lots of people and kill without thought” female protagonists. Of course, once she runs into her love interest, she meets her match, at least in terms of cleverness if not strength. That’s part of the attraction (of course), although it’s mostly his looks and his sensitivity (of course). But since a perfect protagonist doesn’t really make for a good plot, there are times when Alosa is remarkably dumb and/or rendered incompetent just so that the plot can progress; then, she returns to her normal capability as if nothing odd has happened.

There’s also the “requisite” attempted rape scene, because of course there is. And that’s where the author really runs into a snag because she’s framed Alosa as the type who can take care of herself. So, Alosa does take care of herself because she’s the type who doesn’t need a man to rescue her. However, then she gets angry at Riden for not helping her, despite her repeated insistences that she can take care of herself, and it seems as if Levenseller also wants the reader to get mad at him, too (or not? It’s hard to tell). That’s inconsistent narrative; either 1.) Riden should have helped her because he was right there, and doing nothing was abhorrent or 2.) Alosa doesn’t need a man to rescue her, no matter what’s happening. If you get mad because Riden didn’t help, then you must think it’s all right for men to rescue women (gasp!), and it’s an acknowledgement that Alosa can’t do everything (which is fine).

I’m not sure if that was understandable; I just thought it was interesting how Levenseller has a woman rescue herself from a situation, like people love to promote, then describes the woman getting mad at a man for not helping, when people usually decry scenarios when women need rescuing by men.

Or maybe we need to start acknowledging the fact that helping people, regardless of their gender or their ability to take care of themselves, is something that’s morally good and that we should actively strive to do.

Anyway, moving on to the plot: it’s fairly interesting if you remove the romance, though Alosa does absolutely nothing to further her goal once she’s on the ship and simply has flirty exchanges with Riden. There’s a reveal at the end that’s a bit obvious, and other than that it’s fairly straightforward and predictable. There’s attempts at humor, mostly in Alosa’s continuous “witty repartee” and, of course, the dreaded romance, which I really don’t want to talk about because it’s so unoriginal.

Daughter of the Pirate King was a book that I started out hoping I would enjoy, only to get more and more annoyed with each page. I almost stopped reading it halfway through, but I need to have some low ratings on this blog, after all.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

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

2017 Newbery Medal: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelly Barnhill, was published in 2016 by Algonquin Young Readers.

Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the Forest, Xan, is kind. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna’s thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge—with dangerous consequences. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Deadly birds with uncertain intentions flock nearby. A volcano, quiet for centuries, rumbles just beneath the earth’s surface. And the woman with the Tiger’s heart is on the prowl…

Rating: 2/5

I’ve heard many, many good things about The Girl Who Drank the Moon. I was excited to read it because of those good things, and also because the cover is gorgeous, and also because I like it when fantasy novels win Newbery Medals. However, I think a case of “high expectations ruin things” struck because I ended up not enjoying the book as much as I thought I would. I wasn’t disappointed, per se, simply…underwhelmed.

I’ve read a Barnhill book before (The Witch’s Boy), and I described Barnhill’s writing style as “really interesting,” a style that “I wasn’t sure whether to love or hate.” And that still holds true for this book. At times, I thought the writing was really beautiful. And then, at other times, I thought it was far too random, or too strange, and tried too hard to be poetic (all the mad woman’s scenes were like this). All of the “normal” scenes were fine (I actually really enjoyed the vibe of those scenes, a little quirky/whimsical), but the minute magic was introduced, things fell apart a little, at least for me.

The story also was a little underwhelming, in that the beginning stretched on for far too long and the solution happened too quickly. Once the ruined castle was introduced, I was hoping for some sort of “let’s do things properly this time and save the world” plot, but instead Luna stares at a witch in an extremely anticlimactic conflict (I don’t expect my kid’s stories to have brilliant magical battles, but still, I thought the villain would put up more of a fight). There’s also lots of things Barnhill included that I thought were never fully explained (which is possibly why I was expecting more out of the abandoned castle).

 In addition, the message seemed oddly simplistic, and was also combined with a strange “we are all one” theme that was conveyed in that strange, floaty writing style that I didn’t really enjoy. I like beautiful writing, but a lot of the times I feel as if authors, in their attempts to write things in memorable ways, go too far and end up losing some solidness (Maggie Stiefvater writes this way; Barnhill does it slightly better). It’s hard to describe what it is that I mean.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon has a beautiful cover and at times beautiful writing. However, in some scenes I felt the writing became too over-the-top. The plot is fairly simplistic, with an uneven pace and an anticlimactic finish, and the message is simplistic as well, in addition to being vaguely New Age-y and strange. I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book more, as I really have heard lots of good things about it.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Fantasy, Children’s

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

Fairy Tale Friday: Hunted by Meagan Spooner

Hunted, by Meagan Spooner, was published in 2017 by Harper.

Beauty knows the Beast’s forest in her bones—and in her blood. She knows that the forest holds secrets and that her father is the only hunter who’s ever come close to discovering them. But Yeva’s grown up far from her father’s old lodge, raised to be part of the city’s highest caste of aristocrats. Still, she’s never forgotten the feel of a bow in her hands, and she’s spent a lifetime longing for the freedom of the hunt. So when her father loses his fortune and moves Yeva and her sisters back to the outskirts of town, Yeva is secretly relieved. Out in the wilderness, there’s no pressure to make idle chatter with vapid baronessas…or to submit to marrying a wealthy gentleman. But Yeva’s father’s misfortunes may have cost him his mind, and when he goes missing in the woods, Yeva sets her sights on one prey: the creature he’d been obsessively tracking just before his disappearance. Deaf to her sisters’ protests, Yeva hunts this strange Beast back into his own territory—a cursed valley, a ruined castle, and a world of creatures that Yeva’s heard about only in fairy tales. A world that can bring her ruin—or salvation. Who will survive: the Beauty, or the Beast?

Rating: 3/5

It’s nice to have some fodder for my Fairy Tale Fridays again! Hunted is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” set in Russia, complete with Russian fairytales. Yeva, the daughter of a merchant who recently lost his wealth, has to go after her father when he doesn’t return from hunting one day. In the woods she encounters a Beast who takes her back to his ruined castle when she becomes injured.

Hunted plays out very much like the familiar Beauty and the Beast fairytale, though there is some added lore with the Russian fairytales, and hunting is a predominant theme. Spooner really amps up the idea that Yeva/Beauty is the one saving the Beast, but it’s not as annoying as this sort of reversed trope can be. The added lore helps flesh out the retelling, though it does get confusing at the end, and adds even more magic to the original. My favorite “Beauty and the Beast” retelling will always and forever be Robin McKinley’s (for nostalgia purposes, mainly), but Hunted is, in my opinion, quite unique in the way it transforms and adds to the original.

I had to chuckle at the nod to Stockholm Syndrome that Spooner makes in this book. It’s a great moment because Spooner herself has to avoid the same complaints people make about “Beauty and the Beast” while retelling the fairytale. I actually don’t know how successful she is, personally, as I’ve never really had a problem with that aspect of the fairytale, but having that time where Yeva didn’t realize that her friend was the Beast helped, as it more fully illustrated the human/beast divide that is central to the book. It also made Yeva’s falling in love with the Beast more realistic, as she had those moments of humanity to fall back on.

The one part that really bothered me was the epilogue. That’s when Spooner’s modernist interpretation came roaring to the front, even more so than in Yeva’s clichéd retreat from married life and “boring” conventions of the time. To be honest, the entire end of the book unraveled my enjoyment of it, as that’s when it started to get the most loose in terms of plot and pacing. I suppose I shouldn’t have forgotten that Spooner is also the co-author of a book that I despised for its presentation of a romance relationship, but I guess I’m eternally hopeful that relationships will be portrayed in actually healthy ways as opposed to what society thinks is the best way to show them.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2JGv1DY

The Dragon’s Tooth by N. D. Wilson

The Dragon’s Tooth, by N. D. Wilson, was published in 2011 by Random House.

For two years, Cyrus and Antigone Smith have run a sagging roadside motel with their older brother, Daniel. Nothing ever seems to happen. Then a strange old man with bone tattoos arrives, demanding a specific room. Less than 24 hours later, the old man is dead. The motel has burned, and Daniel is missing. And Cyrus and Antigone are kneeling in a crowded hall, swearing an oath to an order of explorers who have long served as caretakers of the world’s secrets, keepers of powerful relics from lost civilizations, and jailers to unkillable criminals who have terrorized the world for millennia.

Rating: 2/5

I was fairly interested in The Dragon’s Tooth when I started the book, hoping that the title would promise Actual Dragons at some point. I had liked 100 Cupboards enough to give Wilson a try again (especially if there was going to be dragons!). The beginning seemed pretty interesting, too, if fairly formulaic: unassuming young boy meets stranger, is handed a Mystical Object, and is almost immediately chased by Shadowy Figures.

It’s after that point when the book descended very swiftly into quirky fantasy territory, and my interest and excitement plunged with it.

Also, there are no dragons.

By the time Cyrus and Antigone got to Strange Base/Secret Lair/Pseudo Hogwarts, I knew that the rest of the book would be difficult for me to finish. Every person Cyrus and Antigone met sounded stilted, and the incomprehensible jargon and blather that was disjointedly thrown in to make things more mysterious and worldbuildy got annoying, fast. Cyrus makes odd decisions, overly eager at one point and overly cautious at the next. His squabbles with Antigone slow the pace of the book down and do nothing but create obstacles (as well as solidify Antigone as a useless character) for Cyrus to either obey or reject, depending on what the plot requires.

In addition, the villain is cartoonish and strange and almost too powerful, in the way where you wonder, if things are so easy for him to accomplish, why he hasn’t done anything before that particular moment in the book (like, if it’s so easy to get to Secret Base (I forgot the name), why in the world hasn’t he done it sooner?) Nothing about the world Wilson created makes sense, and things are poorly explained.

I think Wilson was trying to go for “quirky fantasy” and went way too far, taking “quirky” into “incomprehensible mess.” I actually don’t think I would have minded quite so much if there had been one less strange character, and especially if the villain hadn’t been so cartoonish. If the villain had been a serious villain, rather than what he was, I think I would have been able to stomach The Dragon’s Tooth a little bit better.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

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

The Capture by Kathryn Lasky

The Capture, by Kathryn Lasky, was published in 2003 by Scholastic.

Pushed from his family’s nest by his older brother, barn owl Soren is rescued from certain death on the forest floor by agents from a mysterious school for orphaned owls, St. Aggie’s. With new friend, clever and scrappy Gylfie, he uncovers is a training camp for the leader’s own nefarious goal.

Rating: 3/5

Guardians of Ga’Hoole was one of my favorite book series growing up. I don’t remember how I discovered them (maybe the first few were given as a Christmas gift?), but I ended up getting every single one that came out. My favorite part about them (at least, the first six) is the gorgeous illustrations that adorn the inside front and back covers.

It’s been a while since I’ve read them and a lot of details have escaped me, so it was almost as if I was reading The Capture for the first time (almost).  From the beginning, Lasky develops the “owl culture” of the Ga’Hoole series, complete with slang, profanity, and detailed information about owls themselves (such as species, flying, eating habits, etc.). The world is a post-human world, populated entirely by animals and it seems the only “sentient” ones are owls (to be honest, I’m not sure it’s revealed to be post-human until later in the series…this book reads as straight up “fantasy animal world”).

The series, as far as I can remember, is divided up into multiple arcs, so The Capture sets the stage for the first arc. St. Aggie’s is introduced, with its penchant for brainwashing (“moonblinking”) and desire to obtain the mysterious flecks, more valuable than gold (it’s not obvious, but there are several clues in this book that the flecks are iron). The mysterious, mythical Ga’Hoole Tree and the legendary Guardians of Ga’Hoole are the hopeful destination and the incentive of the characters. And of course, our intrepid band of heroes are introduced: Soren and Gylfie, the main two characters for the majority of the book, and then Twilight and Digger, who join up with them at the end of the book.

The Capture is a good start to the series, introducing a lot, setting up the world, and leaving enough mystery to carry on to the next book. The world is a little odd to get used to, at first, and the characters are sometimes a little bit stilted in dialogue (perhaps due to the oddity of the world). The villains are straight-up cartoonish and melodramatic, and they’re not present enough in the book in order to really seem as a legitimate threat (although, granted, the biggest enemy in this book is moonblinking). However, a lot of good groundwork is sown here—The Capture is, at its heart, merely a set-up story for the world Lasky is going to develop throughout the series.

I’m excited to reread this series again because in my memory, I thought the series should have ended at book eight (possibly six, even), but Lasky continued, (presumably) due to popularity. I’m looking forward to rereading everything to see if, yes, I still think that way, or if there is some merit in the last half of the series. And, of course, I’m eager to see if I will still enjoy the series as much as I did when I was younger.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: Violence

Genre: Children’s, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2lux0S8

100 Cupboards by N. D. Wilson

100 Cupboards, by N. D. Wilson, was published in 2007 by Random House.

Twelve-year-old Henry York is going to sleep one night when he hears a bump on the attic wall above his head. It’s an unfamiliar house—Henry is staying with his aunt, uncle, and three cousins—so he tries to ignore it. But the next night he wakes up with bits of plaster in his hair. Two knobs have broken through the wall, and one of them is slowly turning…Henry scrapes the plaster off the wall and discovers doors—ninety-nine cupboards of all different sizes and shapes. Through one he can hear the sound of falling rain. Through another he sees a glowing room—with a man strolling back and forth! Henry and his cousin Henrietta soon understand that these are not just cupboards. They are, in fact, portals to other worlds.

Rating: 2/5

100 Cupboards is a quirky, almost absurdist, fantasy. The premise is that Henry, who has gone to stay with his aunt and uncle, discovers that underneath the plaster in his room are many different cupboards. He soon realizes that they are portals to other worlds and—of course—that some of the things in those worlds want to come out. When his cousin disappears into one of the worlds, Henry must go in and get her—and not let anything else back out.

His sidekick/partner is his cousin, Henrietta (not sure why there’s all this fascination with the name, or variations of, Henry), who is rather annoying most of the time. I don’t have a lot of patience for impatient, headstrong characters. I mostly end up getting annoyed that they rush in and mess things up most of the time with their rashness. Henry himself is all right. He’s got the right sort of mystery about him, and though he’s timid, he’s brave when he needs to be. However, the plot revolving around his parents seems pointless (why not just make him an orphan?), and some of the things that are revealed during the course of the book aren’t as smooth or as clear as they could be.

This is the sort of book where I started out really interested and then gradually became less so as things became weirder. I thought things were a bit rushed at the end, and some of the worlds and characters that Wilson introduces seemed out of place. I don’t really have any desire or interest to find out what happens next. I thought the premise was interesting, but I would have much preferred it if it had simply been a “crawl into cupboards and explore other worlds” type of fantasy, rather than a “you let something evil out and now must save everything” type of fantasy. The introduction of that part is where things fell apart in this book, in my opinion.

100 Cupboards has a really good premise, though Wilson doesn’t always execute it as well as he could. Some of the mysteries were interesting, and some of them fell a little flat. The book as a whole is a bit quirky and odd, and doesn’t always hit the right notes. I can see some people really enjoying this book, but for me, I’m not interested in reading any more than I have.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Realistic

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

1994 Newbery Medal: The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Giver, by Lois Lowry, was published in 1993 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Life in the community where Jonas lives is idyllic. Designated birthmothers produce newchildren, who are assigned to appropriate family units: one male, one female, to each. Citizens are assigned their partners and their jobs. No one thinks to ask questions. Everyone obeys. The community is a precisely choreographed world without conflict, inequality, divorce, unemployment, injustice…or choice. Everyone is the same. Except Jonas. At the Ceremony of Twelve, the community’s twelve-year-olds eagerly accept their predetermined Life Assignments. But Jonas is chosen for something special. He begins instruction in his life’s work with a mysterious old man known only as The Giver. Gradually Jonas learns that power lies in feelings .But when his own power is put to the test—when he must try to save someone he loves—he may not be ready. Is it too soon? Or too late?

Rating: 4/5

Confession time: I’ve never read The Giver before. Even after years of hearing people tell me how great it was, even after the hype surrounding the movie and the renewed interest in the book it brought, I never read it. So, this was my first time reading The Giver, and I got to see firsthand whether or not I thought it was as good as people told me.

And the verdict is…mostly. It’s mostly as good.

The message behind The Giver is excellent. Lowry shows the importance of feelings, memories, and choice through the chilling world of the community, where everything is predetermined and feelings are suppressed. While this sort of utopia sounds good on paper (a place where there’s no animosity, injustice, inequality, etc.), the reality Lowry shows makes it clear that the utopia is actually a dystopia, and that in the effort to make things peaceful, the community has dehumanized life and people and sucked out all the color and diversity and humanity that emotions and choice bring to people. The message is clear and easy to understand, making this an ideal book to talk about the importance of freedom with children.

The one blip on the radar for me is that the world, plot, and ideas are simplistic, and, at times, confusing. Vague, hand-wavy “science” has accomplished the colorless, emotionless life of the community. However, the Giver and, in turn, Jonas, have powers of memory that border on the magical, not the scientific, and Jonas’s ability to “see beyond” also seems more magical than not, making the world a strange blend of science fiction and fantasy, but not really selling either genre. In addition, the structure behind the idea of a Receiver/Giver of Memory is hazy at times, and it’s not clear why, once Jonas has left the boundaries of the community, the memories return rather than stay with him.

Lowry builds the chilling world of The Giver well; by the end, the people seem like robots, or maybe just unfeeling, emotionless shells. However, occasionally her world is less than airtight in development, especially regarding the whole foundation of memory, and it fluctuates between science fiction and fantasy with no clear line or explanation. It’s a book ripe for discussion, and even if it is simplistic, at least it’s a profound simplistic.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Children’s

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

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Pax, by Sara Pennypacker, was published in 2016 by Balzer + Bray.

Pax and Peter have been inseparable ever since Peter rescued him as a kit. But one day the unimaginable happens: Peter’s dad enlists in the military and makes him return the fox to the wild. At his grandfather’s house three hundred miles away from home, Peter knows he isn’t where he should be—with Pax. He strikes out on his own despite the encroaching war, spurred by love, loyalty, and grief, to be reunited with his fox. Meanwhile Pax, steadfastly waiting for his boy, embarks on adventures and discoveries of his own.

Rating: 2/5

As you might expect from the summary, Pax is one of those animal separation stories that is meant to be heartbreaking and full of “I have to find my animal who’s like my friend/family!” moments, complete with tears and angst. It reminded me a lot of The Fox and the Hound, except if the hound was a boy and there weren’t years between their separation. I’m not a huge fan of animal stories that have animals with their own point of view, but I must admit that Pax has a very tolerable fox point of view, much more focused on accurate animal behavior and language than on making the animals seem like humans.

Pennypacker writes beautifully, so it’s a shame that the story has an obvious, predictable plot as well as some subtle-as-a-brick-in-your-face messages about war. The entire middle portion has Peter talking with Vola for pages and pages while Vola gives the message of the book over and over again in increasingly sentimental, nonsubtle ways. We get it, Pennypacker. War Is Bad. The name “Pax” for the fox told us that. I also noticed that while the perils of war were mentioned over and over (and over and over) again, Pennypacker offer no suggestions about how to bring about peace besides not fighting. It’s the same problem that plagued Margaret Peterson Haddix’s The Always War—the message was encompassed completely into “Don’t fight because fighting is bad and destroys people/nature/animals. If you don’t fight, everyone will get along.” Sure…okay.

Pennypacker’s message also hangs on a poorly developed setting. What war is going on during the book? Where does the story take place? It obviously takes place in the US (coyotes), but where and when? The future? Also, why is it so easy for Peter to get access to a war zone? What kind of explosion severs a fox’s leg from its body so neatly that later the leg of the fox can be found, rather than it being mangled beyond recognition if it’s still there at all? Part of getting absorbed into a good book is knowing where the characters are and what sort of obstacle they’re facing so that it solidifies the story into your mind. Pennypacker clearly just wanted to write an anti-war novel featuring animals, so she didn’t seem to put much thought into setting beyond “let’s have some sort of vague war and the cute animals will distract from the utter nonsense of the setting.”

For a book about cute foxes, Pax was an annoying read, what with its over-the-top antiwar message (with no reasonable alternative given), its unbelievable and vague setting, and its too lengthy middle portion with Vola the Philosopher and Moral Voice. The actual animal point of view was well done, and the writing was beautiful, but the delivery, pace, and mechanics of the world were poorly done and poorly conceived.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Realistic

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

The Thickety: A Path Begins by J. A. White

The Thickety: A Path Begins, by J. A. White, was published in 2014 by Katherine Tegen.

When Kara Westfall was six years old, her mother was convicted of the worst of all crimes: witchcraft. Years later, Kara and her little brother, Taff, are still shunned by the people of their village, who believe that nothing is more evil than magic, except, perhaps, the mysterious forest that covers nearly the entire island. It has many names, this place. Sometimes it is called the Dark Wood, or Sordyr’s Realm. But mostly it’s called the Thickety. The villagers live in fear of the Thickety and the terrible creatures that live there. But when an unusual bird lures Kara into the forbidden forest, she discovers a strange book with unspeakable powers. A book that might have belonged to her mother. And that is just the beginning of the story.

Rating: 1/5

I very nearly stopped reading The Thickety: A Path Begins about halfway through, and then through the last half of the book wished I had stopped reading. A Path Begins is a tale about Kara, the daughter of a witch, who finds a book in the Thickety and is swept up into the seductive realm of magic. Only her brother, Taff, keeps her from being totally lost, and along the way she faces more immediate threats than the mysterious forest demon Sordyr.

The worst part about A Path Begins was the writing, in my opinion. Full of melodramatic dialogue, stilted description, and forced tension, it was a bad omen from the start. And it shaded everything in this book with a terrible light—the writing was so bothersome to me that I found it hard to find anything that I liked about the book. Even the setting is over-the-top, with a too-fanatical leader and a world that is so exaggerated in its extremes that it’s farcical. There are too many villains and Kara herself does too many stupid things for me to want to cheer for her.

The plot is also riddled with inconsistencies, like how Kara sprains her ankle and five minutes later is running on it with apparently no pain or problems whatsoever. There’s also the strange flip-flopping between “magic is good” and “magic is bad,” with the final decision between “good witch” and “bad witch” a completely arbitrary one, delivered clumsily, and ignoring the fact that such black and white pronouncements only lead to problems, mostly for the authors writing the characters who then have to explain away their character’s actions in order to fit them into their defined roles.

Really, the story just reads like a man wrote it. That’s not a bad thing, but I oftentimes have more problems with men’s style of writing than women’s. They just have ways of describing things that I can’t wrap my head around, and they also focus on things that I don’t understand why they would focus on.

I regret finishing A Path Begins because it took up a lot of time to read and now I can never get that time back. It was too melodramatic, too stilted, too forced. None of the characters appealed to me and I have no interest in seeing more of the world or finding out what happens next.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Witchcraft, violence.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

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