The Lioness and Her Knight by Gerald Morris

The Lioness and Her Knight, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2005 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight.

Rating: 3/5

The Lioness and Her Knight is, I think, the longest of Morris’s books so far, retelling Chretien de Troyes’ The Knight of the Lion. It is, perhaps, too long, with the characters spending too much time in one place, but it is stuffed full of events. The protagonist is Lynet and Gaheris’s (from The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf) daughter, Luneta, who sets out on her own adventure with the fool Rhience and her cousin Ywain. The title has a double meaning: there is a literal lioness with a knight, but Luneta is also a figurative lioness.

The protagonist being the child of the main character in another book earlier in the series does raise the question of “Just how old are these characters, and is that realistic to the time period?” but I’m sure Morris didn’t intend for us to think so deeply on that subject. Instead, he uses old characters as a beacon of familiarity, anchoring the book in his established world even as he introduces new characters.

Like I said, the plot is long, and entirely too long is spent on Luneta in Laudine’s castle. There’s also some rather odd side adventures that happen that are important to the plot, but add to the length of the book, slowing the pace. There is, however, fabulous character development on all sides, with the exception of Rhience, who remains enigmatic and the source of dry wit throughout the book.

The length of the book is slightly made up by the fantastic ending, which legitimately made me laugh out loud at several points (a rarity even with humorous books). While Morris has similar humor throughout the books, making things more predictable with each entry, he is at the top of his game in the last 30 or so pages.

The Lioness and Her Knight was too long, though I can’t really say what could have been cut or trimmed since a lot of what happened functioned as important to the plot or to the development of the characters. I struggled with the pacing and the length of time spent in certain places, though by the end of the book things started picking up more. Still a consistently good entry, but not my favorite.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Epic by Conor Kostick

Epic, by Conor Kostick, was published in 2004 by Viking.

Rating: 2/5

For some reason I felt like reading books about video games, so a trip to the library rewarded me with Rush (which I hated) and Epic, which reads much more like fantasy than the former and is much more clearly inspired by MMOs and tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons.

Epic takes place in a post-apocalyptic (maybe? It’s not abundantly clear. All we know is that it’s called “New Earth” and Erik and the rest live in a Scandinavian area) Earth where issues and conflicts in real life are resolved in the fantasy game world of Epic. Honestly, I’m not really sure what people do on this New Earth in terms of government, jobs, or anything; there’s mentions of farming, solar panels, some sort of exile jail, and a university, but other than that, Erik and his friends basically have nothing to do except play Epic.

The writing is awkward in many places, full of baffling details, flowery and Victorian descriptions, and blindingly obvious summations. At one point Kostick literally calls two of his characters “protagonists,” as in “the two protagonists walked down the street.” Excessive amounts of detail are poured into describing Epic, with great emphasis placed on how different Erik’s character is from the “gray colorless polygons” of everyone else’s (gray, colorless, polygons are all words used over and over to describe other characters). It reads very much like a tabletop game and much less like a novel.

The plot is understandable insofar as motivation and action go, though so little is revealed about New Earth that the reader just gets swept along in the characters’ emotions without really knowing the reason why. Why was Harald exiled, why does it matter, where is he, what’s the deal with this government? Who knows? Now read more about this cool video game world.

It’s also incredibly difficult to swallow that a world could ban violence so effectively that even one of the villains blanches at the thought of doing anything outside of the game. And one has to wonder with the ending of the book if such a world could even sustain itself anymore without its largest “get out your violence in a way that won’t affect real people” foundation, or without any sort of currency, apparently, or even jobs.

If you like tabletop games (and the way they’re written) and you don’t mind loose worldbuilding, you’d probably enjoy Epic. There’s apparently a sequel or two, as well. I didn’t enjoy it nearly enough to pick up the others, however.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction, Fantasy

Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

Five Children and It, by E(dith). Nesbit, was first published in 1902. I read the 1999 version with full color illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky.

Rating: 3/5

C. S. Lewis was a huge fan of Edith Nesbit’s, and I can tell from reading this book just how much she inspired him in his own writings. Now, I’ve read a Nesbit book before—two actually, The Enchanted Castle and The Railway Children. However, this book was published five years before the other two, which might explain the slight difference in narrator voice. I don’t remember the narrator in either of the latter two books being quite so pronounced as in Five Children and It.

Anyway, the book is about five children (four, really—the fifth is a baby and doesn’t feature quite as much), who discover “it” in a sandpit. “It” is a Psammead, a Sand-Fairy, who grants them wishes. This book clearly influenced Edward Eager’s Half Magic, which is very similar. The children purposefully, and occasionally accidentally, wish for things that of course never turn out quite the way they want. Pounds and pounds of money? Too bad, you can’t spend any of it because no one will accept it. Wings? Well, better hope you make it back before the wish wears off and you’re stuck at the top of a tower with no way down. Baby brother is annoying, so you wish people wanted him around so you could go off and play? Now you have to worry about people kidnapping him right from your arms.

While the premise of the book is easily translatable across years and cultures (Nesbit was British), much of the language and slang is not. The children all have nicknames and the names are used interchangeably, which could be very confusing; there’s tons of British terms scattered throughout the book; and in one excruciatingly did-not-age-well chapter, the children dress up like “Red Indians” to try to prevent some Indians they had wished into existence from scalping them to death.

It’s a good book, and there are many relevant themes and messages that the children learn. However, unless the reader was particularly interested in such a story and could get past the British terminology (fans of Lewis would probably like this book a lot), I can’t see it appealing much to those who would simply casually pick it up. It is, I think, just a little too odd.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight by Gerald Morris

The Princess, the Crone, and the Dung-Cart Knight, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2004 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to The Ballad of Sir Dinadan.

Rating: 4/5                                          

Gerald Morris delivers once again (but what else is new?) with a retelling of Chrétien de Troyes’ Le chevalier de la charrette, a.k.a. The Knight of the Cart, adding some new characters, including the protagonist, Sarah, and bringing back some old favorites, most notably Lancelot (who figures prominently in de Troyes’ work and does so here as well), Gawain, and Terence, and Piers (from Parsifal’s Page) shows up as well.

Morris does a great job of making Lancelot, who was not the hero of previous books and functioned more as a foil or even an anti-hero at times, really shine here. He gives Lancelot just enough remorse and guilt to make him sympathetic, then reminds the reader that Lancelot is a fabulous knight, which combined allows the reader to see him much more of a Gawain-type figure than the sort of brooding, nuisance character he’s been in the past. What’s even better is that Morris nods to all the previous books by having Lancelot at first go by “Jean,” so that readers of previous books immediately recognize who this mysterious “Jean” is and get to revel in that knowledge before the reveal to the characters that Jean is Lancelot.

However, Lancelot is really just a side character to the spunky, determined Sarah, who’s out for revenge for the killing of her mother and her father-figure, Mordecai. Morris throws in a whole heap of an anti-Semitic side plot. He gives a rather detailed explanation in the author’s note as to why, perhaps because the books have been rather lighthearted until now. This book is, undoubtedly, the heaviest of his works simply due to Sarah’s backstory and the complex themes of revenge and remorse that are entangled up with that. I think I enjoyed Lynette, the heroine of The Savage Damsel and the Dwarf, better, but Sarah goes through a much more arduous journey than Lynette and thus learns a whole lot more. This is perhaps one of Morris’s most moral/theme-centric book (perhaps because it is the heaviest?), though it still has the trademark humor and fun of the series.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: Anti-Semitism

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan, was published in 2015 by Scholastic.

Rating: 4/5                                          

Echo tells the story of three children across a ten-year period: Friedrich, in the time of Hitler’s rise to power in Germany; Mike, in the Great Depression of the 1930s in Pennsylvania; and Ivy, in the time after Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 2033 in California. All three children are tied together by a love for music and by a mysterious harmonica that holds the spirits of three lost princesses searching for a soul to save.

Okay, so that last part is a little strange and mystical, but the whole thing together makes for a beautiful story. I’m not sure whose story I loved more, but I think Mike’s story, with his longing for a family and for someone to love him, is the most heartwrenching. Ryan touches on a lot of things besides music: Hitler, Nazis, Jews, foster homes, the segregation of Mexican children in schools in California, the attitude towards the Japanese…there’s a lot packed into the book, and though it is quite long, the story flies by quickly.

The last part of the book takes place years after all three children’s stories stop, and tells how they are united through music. Because each children’s story ended on a cliffhanger of sorts, the epilogue also backtracks and details what happens afterwards—though that, I think, was my least favorite part because it made everything anticlimactic and the ending felt rushed as a result.

Despite its small flaws, Echo is a beautiful story about music and the connections it can cause between people with separate lives. It won a 2016 Newbery Honor, losing to Last Stop on Market Street, and it boggles my mind as to why (nothing against the latter book—just in my mind, there’s a clear winner, and it’s not the picture book).

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, slight Fantasy

The Ballad of Sir Dinadan by Gerald Morris

The Ballad of Sir Dinadan, by Gerald Morris, was published in 2003 by Houghton Mifflin. It is the sequel to Parsifal’s Page.

Rating: 4/5                                          

The Ballad of Sir Dinadan combines two Arthurian legends into one: Culloch, of “How Culhwch Won Olwen” and the story of Tristram and Iseult, uniting them with the character of Dinadan, a minor character in the latter story who is transformed into the main character here. He’s a different sort of character than the others in the books before him. The others were squires, but Dinadan is a knight, though you easily forget that because he doesn’t really consider himself a knight, but more of a minstrel.

Morris has a lot of fun with these legends, accentuating the foolish nature of Culloch’s tasks and the love between Tristram and Iseult. Morris, I think, doesn’t much like Malory, or perhaps he’s more willing to show how silly some of the legends can be, as this entire book revolves around Dinadan and more serious knights sighing and shaking their heads at the antics of Culloch and at the ridiculous Tristram.

There’s also some fun with the other side characters brought in from the legends, such as sir Palomides, the Moorish knight, and Lady Brangienne, Dinadan’s if-I-wanted-to-marry-I-would-marry-you partner. Morris is consistently funny and entertaining with each book, and none of them have gotten old in terms of formula. This series is a lot of fun and I’m learning a lot about Arthurian legend!

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

The Marvelous Magic of Miss Mabel by Natasha Lowe

The Marvelous Magic of Miss Mabel, by Natasha Lowe, was published in 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

Rating: 4/5

This book was so cute! Combining magic, school, and a 1900’s setting (technically 1897 I suppose), The Marvelous Magic of Miss Mabel was a delight to read from beginning to end. It combined a girl’s school with 1900s’ education and expectations with magic and a dash of modern thought. This book is apparently a companion to two other books, though it’s not at all necessary to read those. I didn’t, and I had no problems following along.

Lowe manages to make a smart protagonist who’s naturally good at magic still stumble and fumble her way through the novel, though most of the flaws in Mabel’s character mostly comes from her own ideas and thoughts about herself rather than her actions. She is, perhaps, just slightly too successful, but Lowe hits the balance of smart and showing it, but not so smart that everything is easy and the book is boring. Mabel’s biggest gift is in her potential, and Lowe does a great job of showing that potential even when Mabel accidentally turns her mean governess into a cat.

There are, perhaps, a few too many overtly modern sentiments present. Mabel, as the smart, rules-breaking protagonist, pushes the envelope in terms of convention and female expectations, and it’s just a bit too obvious of a thing to happen for it to be really enjoyable unless you like that sort of thing. I’m 100% over the “let’s all wear pants in the era of skirts!” female protagonists, and there’s one too many scenes in the book focused on it, though at least Lowe makes it relevant to her story and setting.

The big rescue scene is the other part of the book that fell a little flat for me. There’s just so much mechanical description to it that I got bored, and everything was pretty pat-and-dry. It felt pretty emotionless rather than tense and exciting. Then again, I’m sure the intended audience would probably really enjoy it. It just wasn’t what I like out of big rescue scenes. Even so, I did really enjoy The Marvelous Magic of Miss Mabel, and I’ll likely pick up the companion books to read at some point.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes by Jonathan Auxier

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, by Jonathan Auxier, was published in 2011 by Amulet.

Rating: 3/5

My favorite part of Peter Nimble was the extremely clever and cheeky narration. Forget Peter, forget Peg, forget Sir Tode…the narrator was the real star of the show. From sly hints about big plot reveals to calm descriptions of otherwise strange and fantastic concepts, the narrator became a character in his own right. He revealed just enough to get the reader to say, “Oh, you sly dog,” but not enough that everything felt spoiled.

Other than that, the book as a whole was okay. The plot had an interesting concept and I enjoyed the world and characters. Auxier has the sort of humor that I like to see, since it elevates mediocre to better-than-average, which is precisely the case here. My one complaint was how much of the plot hinged on adults being incompetent and dumber than children, but at least Auxier kind of explains that in a decent way. But it’s clear he had a blast writing this book, and a lot of the side characters have very memorable voices, like Frederick the dogfish, and some of the detail and description were light and humorous as well.

I can’t say this book blew me away, but I appreciated the narrator, Auxier’s voice apart from that, and most of the characters. Though Peter was the hero, I felt the true stars of the show were the side characters. I can definitely see this book delighting younger readers—it’s non-stop fun with some cool magical concepts and a plucky young hero and his odd sidekick. What’s not to like about that?

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

The Long-Lost Home by Maryrose Wood

The Long-Lost Home, by Maryrose Wood, was published in 2018 by Balzer + Bray. It is the sequel to The Unmapped Sea.

Rating: 4/5

It has been a long time since I’ve read The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place. The Unmapped Sea came out in 2015, which is when I read it. So, naturally, five years later, picking the final book, I remembered very little of the major plot points.

Luckily, Wood does a really good job of gently reminding the reader of what’s important. There was never a time in the book when I felt my lack of memory was preventing me from understanding what was happening. I was able to thoroughly enjoy the conclusion to the series and remember why I loved this series to begin with: the great humor, the narrative asides, and the fantastic art.

Every character gets a chance to shine: Penelope and the Incorrigibles, of course, and Simon, but Lady Constance and Lady Fredrick get their moments, as do Mrs. Clarke, Old Timothy, and the rest of the side characters. Even Edward Ashton/Judge Quinzy, the villain, gets some moments, and the way he is dispatched fits within the style of the series. We also get some new characters, whose appearance answer lots of questions that were raised throughout the series, and some old ones return.

All in all, I really enjoyed this series, and despite the gap, this last book did a lot to remind me why I loved the first four so much. Witty, unique, with a good plot that manages to last over 6 books because of Wood’s ability to unveil little things at a time while also including little sidestories that enhance rather than take away, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place is a clever and fun series.

Recommended Age Range: 8+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Historical Fiction, Fantasy

Supernova by Marissa Meyer

Supernova, by Marissa Meyer, was published in 2018 by Feiwel and Friends. It is the sequel to Archenemies.

Rating: 3/5

*minor spoilers*

Though Supernova has the best cover art of the trilogy, I found it the weakest in terms of plot and resolution. It’s not that the climax and characterization aren’t satisfying or well-developed—they are, though I thought the book could have been 100 pages shorter—but everything revolved too much around underdeveloped concepts and too-quick reveals. The whole concept of the “star,” which Adrian plucked out of Nova’s brain (????), was not very well explained, and there were so many plot reveals that they started getting tiresome after a while. One of the biggest plot reveals I called from five miles away; Meyer never did anything with the reveal, either, so it felt pointless.

The most irritating thing was the ending, though, which is the sort of ending where everything is forgotten and everyone gets along (though this is maybe indicated not to be true with the epilogue). It just seemed extremely unrealistic to me, and absolutely none of Nova’s problems with society were answered or even addressed adequately (also, Meyer isn’t very consistent with what she has a problem with—in the first two books, it was making nonprodigies rely more on themselves, whereas in this book Nova is just angry at prodigies abusing their power). Instead, everything is disguised by a “the villain is dead and now we can all live together in harmony, conveniently forgetting what we were at odds about before said villain appeared” ending.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I actually had a hard time putting it down. But I did think there were more problems with this book than the first two books. Some of the things Meyer does in this book should have been a little bit more clear in the first two books, or better explained in this book (I really did not understand the whole star thing). The reveal about Phobia was interesting, though, as was the Magpie reveal (which is the one I called from five miles away and wish was better explored in the earlier books rather than entirely out of left field). Overall, though, I did enjoy this trilogy a lot.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: LGBTQ+ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction/Fantasy