The Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs

The Runaway Princess, by Kate Coombs, was published in 2006 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Rating: 2/5        

The Runaway Princess reminded me a lot of E. D. Baker’s books. It’s a non-serious fantasy about a rebellious princess (*shudder*) who, knowing better than all the adults around her (of course), sets off to complete the quest her father put in place for eligible suitors, thereby “winning her own hand” a la Merida from Brave.

It’s a good thing I recognized this as non-serious, fun fantasy early on, otherwise I would’ve spent the whole book wondering how the logistics of everything worked out. There’s no sense of scale, politics, or even world mechanics, and everything that happens just seems a little too unbelievable to be convincing that it would actually happen. It really starts to delve into melodramatic territory with the “angry parents” side plot.

I can see why a lot of people like this book. Meg is a rebellious, unconventional princess (a very popular trope) who goes against the status quo, befriends the lower class, and somehow knows a ton about the workings of society outside the castle despite never going out much. She’s oh-so understanding and friendly and remarkably capable despite, again, lack of knowledge and training. She knows better than anyone else what the correct way of things should be. Unluckily for me, I absolutely hate that type of character, especially combined with the overused rebellious princess trope.

For non-serious fantasy directed at a middle-grade audience, I suppose it’s a fine book. Again, many people would probably applaud the protagonist (especially considering the audience and everyone’s constant wish for strong female leads [or, at least, what they think a strong female lead should be]). Yet I found the whole book unbelievable, Meg annoying, and the jokes not funny. Coombs took one step too far and turned her non-serious novel into camp.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy


The Singing by Alison Croggon

The Singing, by Alison Croggon, was published in 2008 by Candlewick. It is the sequel to The Crow.

Rating: 2/5        

I’ve discovered why I’ve struggled to get through these books—there’s very little action. Perhaps that’s why The Crow, the book with the most action, was my favorite. The Singing is, as all the books are, far too long, and there’s too much talking and introspection and not enough danger and suspense. Even the final “showdown” at the end with Sharma was anticlimactic.

Maerad also develops far too much power too quickly. There is not a very good balance to her growth in magic; she goes from somehow defeating a giant Elemental (within the range of what we know about her strength) to a glowing person who leaks magic and can destroy bad guys with a single breath, after merely sitting for ten minutes and thinking—or something. I’m not sure what was happening because my eyes were glazing over.

I honestly think if the books were much shorter, and if there were only three books instead of four, the whole effect would have been much better. But there are whole chapters of this book that are unnecessary, or scenes that go on for far too long, and after a while Croggon’s writing style really starts grating. And it’s clear she doesn’t know how to write action, so she limits it as much as she can, which is why so much of the final confrontation is inward rather than outward—but because everything is delivered in the same exact tone, there’s no suspense or tension to the scene. There’s practically no struggle, either.

Hem remains the only interesting character; Maerad is too flat and boring, especially in this book. The problem with making your character super-powerful is that it also makes them super-boring without conflict or struggle to make them interesting. Hem, who was more normal, seemed more alive than Maerad, who spent most of the last half of the book in a daze that wasn’t really all that important to developing any part of her character.

The Singing, and the Pellinor series in general, tries so hard to deliver on epic fantasy, but falls short in terms of pacing, action, characterization, and intrigue. There’s no politics, barely any struggle, and there wasn’t enough editing done to help mitigate that. I’m a bit sorry I spent so much time on these books, honestly, but what’s done is done, and now I know that I can’t stand them (except for The Crow. That one was okay).

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Wolf Wing by Tanith Lee

Wolf Wing, by Tanith Lee, was published in 2002 by Dutton. It is the sequel to Wolf Queen.

Rating: 3/5

Wolf Wing is the last book in the Claidi Journals series, but it feels like it didn’t need to be. In fact, the only thing it contributes, beyond love angst and Girl Power, is resolution about what’s been going on in the House for the past three books.

It’s not that I didn’t dislike the book. I liked it fine. Claidi has as unique and funny a voice as always, and the addition of Thu made for some great fun. We also learn a lot of things about Claidi that are kinda neat, in a “that wasn’t really necessary, but all right, that’s cool” kind of way. And she and Argul finally get married (and then only exchange about ten words to each other, it seems like) and have their happy ending, so there’s that.

However, the whole book just…isn’t that necessary. There are a lot of characters brought back, and a lot of resolution for them, but that all happens very quickly. The majority of the book is Claidi wandering through Ustareth’s created continent by herself, feeling lonely and jealous—or at least that’s what it felt like. Even before that, Claidi was alone, despite marrying Argul. And Lee throws so much stuff at the reader in the end that the whole pace of the book is thrown off. Nothing that was revealed in this book really changes anything from the first three, and it mostly just seems that Lee really wanted Claidi to be someone special, so she wrote a whole book about it. I can’t say that Wolf Wing is bad, as I did enjoy it. But I found it, ultimately, underwhelming and unnecessary.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2lxF0FJ

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