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Review – The Rogue Knight

The Rogue Knight, Middle Grade Fantasy by Brandon Mull

Series: Five Kingdoms #2

My rating: ⭐⭐

I hate that I read this after sharing with a friend how much we both loved the Fablehaven series. The Rogue Knight was such a chore to get through that I started to hate reading anything and couldn’t even take refuge in a better book. It feels uncomfortable to dislike so passionately something as popular as Mull’s books. I know many people who love all of his work indiscriminately and I thought I was in that camp too. But it’s impossible to ignore the entitled perspective just to try to enjoy a book that is a tedious retread of the first book–which was itself dangerously close to outright boring.

After noticing a few problematic elements in the first book, I was apprehensive starting this one. They got much, much worse. Credit where it’s due, it looks like Mull did his best to mitigate and not be sizeist. The depiction of a dwarf knight still felt sizeist to me. And the sexism is twice as bad as in the first book. It is sinister and pervasive. Cole encounters two kids he knew in Mesa, a girl named Jill and his friend Dalton. They are in the same job in different parts of the kingdom. Cole finds them individually at different times and in different places. In both cases, he offers to rescue them. It feels like a comparison is very deliberately drawn between them to imply the conclusion that Jill, a girl, is too afraid to fight for her freedom and instead accepts literal slavery, while Dalton, a boy, exhibits the courage necessary to escape his situation easily and with no visible qualms. This is not unlike when a girl was the one to rat out Cole and get him captured in this first book. It hurts to see casual, thoughtless sexism from the person who gave us Kendra in Fablehaven.

Just as casually, we get a case of a pointlessly antagonistic female character pitted against another female character, in Skye’s mother. Despite the fact that Elloweer is a created world that doesn’t share the real world’s history, she is a sneering, judgmental mother who has money and social position reminiscent of English aristocracy.

“She inherited most of her fortune,” Skye said. “Father worked with a local bank. He passed away more than ten years ago. My great-grandfather was a well-regarded alderman. He accomplished a lot of good for Merriston and for Elloweer. Mother keeps a busy calendar, but doesn’t really do much. She knows everyone, though.”

(emphasis mine) I could break down all of the ways this one paragraph demonises her and shits on women, but I’m just too tired and sad.

Women and girls are largely absent otherwise. Positively portrayed female characters are rare on the ground and tend to be kidnapped or killed. Mira lacks agency and personality when this really ought to be her story. I don’t know why Cole is even there, let alone the hero. He does a better job of not completely forgetting about his enslaved friends this time, but the bar for that was pretty low. Even Jace makes more sense as the main character. Cole is just there to force a fish out of water story that doesn’t work. He doesn’t miss his home or family–he doesn’t even seem to have feelings. He only exists so that people can explain things to him all the time. He gets special powers and everything revolves around him, but it feels nonsensical.

Maybe Mull didn’t know how to present a magical world without having a stock audience proxy who isn’t from the world. He certainly seems to have had trouble crafting the magical world in this book. At a certain point near the end, the illusory magic of Elloweer seems to mimic the matter creation/manipulation of Sambria, when it’s expressly meant to be different.

This series just isn’t as good as Fablehaven. The books are overwritten, the style is clunky and overly dependent on telling, and the characters are boring. There could have been a sense of wonder or noble heroic impulse, but most of that is killed by the unnecessary enslaved friends subplot and the depressingly dull main character. My saddest realisation reading this was that Mull isn’t actually a skilled writer. He has fun ideas and in Fablehaven he proved to be a good storyteller. But in this series, he seems to have focused on just the fun ideas. The best parts of the book are set pieces divorced from character and plot. I don’t even know if he had fun writing this, as the climax of the second book is basically the same as the climax of the second book.

I have the rest of the books and I hate to leave a series unfinished. But I’m just going to shelve it for now.

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Review – Eight Simple Rules for Dating a Dragon

Eight Simple Rules for Dating a Dragon, Romantic Fantasy by Kerrelyn Sparks

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

I thought this would be a fun, quirky story with light-hearted romance, and Fantasy is almost always a good fit for me. Unfortunately, this was very not for me. Not because it’s the third in a series. It can be read as a standalone, as is often the case in Romance series.

Gwennore is an intimate of the previous two heroines. While at a massive birthday party (seriously, the way the Embraced get their magic means that everyone has the same birthday), she and her friend’s three-year-old daughter are abducted by dragons. Gwennore fights for the child’s return and in doing so makes a bargain to help General “Gorgeous” Silas Dravenko investigate the madness and intrigue infesting his kingdom’s court.

The romance is refreshingly based on mutual admiration and time spent together as well as lust. To be fair, the time they spend together isn’t nominally very much because the pacing is such that the entire story takes place over a short time and they do need to be in love by the end. A great deal of the novel harkens back to Old School Romance. The heroine is virginal, has a youthful lack of self esteem despite a strong support system of other women, and there is a strong focus on purity, easily scandalised society, and marriage and children. The Fantasy elements are also rooted in older tropes.

That was the first of my two problems. This book does not work very hard to be Fantasy. There are basic cookie cutter ideas like elves with pointy ears, murderous trolls, dragons that breathe fire, and royal courts based on the most rudimentary understanding of a Western monarchy. None of these things meld together well, nor do they hold up under logic or examination.

Sad to say, my second problem was with the writing. The voice is oddly juvenile. With the sexual references removed, this could easily be for a younger audience. The vocabulary is limited, overly modern for a Fantasy setting with Western historical influences, and childish. For example, iterations of the phrase “fall for” appear twenty times, and the curse is referred to as “so-called curse” fourteen times. This phrase is also the only use of the word “so-called” in the text. A great deal of time is wasted in repetition and perpetuating misunderstandings or deceit that a child could see through. Ironically, the child character in the beginning doesn’t behave or speak like a real child.

I like this genre. I love Mark of the Tala and the other books in that series. I’ve read a lot more of it in YA, and I’ve liked most of that too. I suppose I just want better commitment to and execution of the Fantasy elements. The romance is fine. He convinces her that she was Beautiful All Along and their banter over the rules for dating dragons is quite cute. And the madness subplot was interesting. It simply wasn’t enough to engage me.

Less picky readers will enjoy the banter between the two romantic leads, the large cast is a lot of fun (I loved Dimitri), and Gwennore’s innocence can be charming.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – The Fire Opal

The Fire Opal, YA Historical Fantasy by Regina McBride

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

The Fire Opal is a fairy tale. Not sure if it’s a retelling or simply told in a sort of longform style of a fairy tale. It’s written in a dry, generally somber manner, yet is quite beautifully poetic. The story also strikes a compelling balance between stark pragmatism of historical fiction and the wistfulness of  a fantasy quest. However, I would recommend it more to people who like reading Andrew Lang’s fairy books or Grim and Perrault than to those who enjoy retellings. Reading it put me in mind of Koschei the Deathless.

Like a fairy tale, not everything is elaborated upon or given a firm foundation. The main character makes obvious mistakes because that’s what fairy tale protagonists do, and she also receives an absurd number of magical items. There’s a romance, but it’s completely bloodless as well as boneless. She meets Fransisco, a Spanish sailor, falls in love immediately, and yearns for him forever after.

The major downside for me is that it’s ultimately pretty forgettable. It’s a swift, smooth enough read, but I actually had to go back and reread bits before finishing because they’d failed to stick in my mind. Two stars means “it was okay,” and I certainly would tell anyone interested to check it out.

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Review – The Phantom Tree

The Phantom Tree, Historical Fantasy by Nicola Cornick

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Alison and Mary are linked across time, both struggling with their own present troubles as well as tragically weighed down by the past. Alison moreso than Mary, but they are both orphans. Being touched by the supernatural only seems to complicate things, though Alison is a sharp survivor who turns it to her advantage, and Mary eventually comes to accept it in herself.

I am an extremely soft mark for this book. On more than one point. Time travel appeals to everyone. I don’t see how it can fail to do so. We all have things we wish undone, or we feel displaced and wish for a brighter better future, or even a simpler past. (Although much as I love history, I don’t believe the past was ever simpler or easier than the present day.)

I’ve always loved the phrase, “the past is a different country.” For all that the two women’s accounts take place in the same geographical country, they are in very different places. That juxtaposition serves to show how much they have in common as the story progresses. Particularly when the action cranks up in the latter third, when answers come in a satisfying avalanche.

Although Mary is resilient, wispy, and delightfully self-aware, Alison is my favourite. She’s strong and smart enough to know that being nice is a luxury that she can’t afford. Consumed by the loss of her son and living in an impossible emotional situation, the fact that she can keep going is inspiring.

There’s a continuous theme of yearning for things that have passed, or simply wishing for them to have gone differently or contributed to a better present. Six or so years after my RA diagnosis, I still find myself prey to these sorts of thoughts. This book portrays the emotions involved in a beautifully genuine way, while anchoring itself and everyone involved in the reality that one cannot undo anything. Acceptance is the true goal.

The Phantom Tree is a lovely piece of historical fiction generously coloured by the supernatural elements. It feels true, which is one of the things that makes this genre is so intriguing.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – Pugs of the Frozen North

Pugs of the Frozen North, funny Fantasy by Philip Reeve, illustrations by Sarah McIntyre

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Thus far, my experience with Philip Reeve has mainly been reading the Larklight series two or three times. This is also a charming book full of confidently offbeat characters and a realistic sense of the importance friendship, belonging, and doing the right thing have to the target audience.

Shipwrecked by the sudden freezing of the sea, Shen finds himself alone and saddled with 66 pugs that the captain had said would sell in like hot pies. He finds the Po of Ice, formerly the Post Office where he meets Sika. A misunderstanding or two later, the two embark on the Race to the Top of the World, where the winner will gain their heart’s desire.

This book is best read to/with kids who don’t question the logic of everything and who enjoy random silly things for the sheer awesome factor. Things like shrinksnow and yetis who eat pasta made from snow and hate to wash up. The other racers are a good mix of characters, such as the fashionable Mitzi, the robot-building scientist, and the beleaguered butler serving the nasty entitled son of the last winner. My favourite is Helga, the bearded woman who is kind and pragmatic, and who prefers Winter and the cold.

The illustrations are cute and the message at the end is suitably warming without being kitschy. This book would make a good gift for just about anyone, child or adult.

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Review – Foxheart

Foxheart, Middle Grade Fantasy by Claire Legrand

Series: Foxheart #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

At this point, I think it’s safe to say that I love everything Claire Legrand writes. I love her ideas—this is a story about a witch in a time-travel loop who wants to be a master thief—and I love her characters. But most of all, I love that she so clearly has fun as a writer. There is a chapter called “The Most Stupid of All the Boys, Ever.” This book is funny, sweet, exciting, and all around  delightful.

At first intentionally nameless to the point of being called Girl, a grey-haired orphan grows up in a convent where no one is very kind to her. It probably doesn’t help that she is prone to pranks and grudges. She is called Pig and Witch as well as Girl, and her only friend is a little yellow dog she named Fox.

After the convent is attacked by a magical assailant who might be the vaunted Wolf-King who hunts witches, Girl flees with a mind to becoming the best thief in the Star Lands. At first, it looks like this is the path the story will travel—she takes up the name Quicksilver and meets a hapless boy whose parents are thieves but currently in a magical coma, and the two strike a deal to be thieves together—but then an old woman appears who has a dog just like Fox (but much older) and who knows Quicksilver’s real name. Things get questy from there.

Legrand is fearless in exploring bad things that can happen and in following through with the consequences. Her characters endure, survive, and learn that apologising doesn’t magically fix everything. If someone loses a leg or dies in a Legrand book, they get a prosthetic or stay dead, respectively. Maybe I’ve just read too many authors who love their characters too much, but that feels almost novel in Fantasy. …pun not intended.

Quicksilver is an incredibly active protagonist. For all that she is precisely the sort of feisty redheaded little girl that on might think they’ve seen many times, she is also flawed—slow to forgive, mean, vain—and vulnerable. It isn’t often that I see a child orphan character who actually carries the emotional baggage of that state. Usually it’s just to cut down on the number of extraneous adult characters. Thanks to the strong agency of its main character as well as the aforementioned fearlessness of the writer, twists in the narrative aren’t relegated solely to shocking reveals. Things change, dramatic action is taken.

Reading this book reminded me why I love Middle Grade Fiction in general and Claire Legrand in particular.

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Review – Grayling’s Song

Grayling’s Song, Middle Grade Historical Fantasy by Karen Cushman

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

I think this is half what I wanted Frogkisser to be. The two aren’t similar beyond having a young female protagonist who goes on a road trip with a motley crew to deal with a larger than life antagonist. In this case, the antagonist is technically more larger than life. (Is that grammatically possible?) Too small a point of comparison to help much in deciding whether or not to read it. Whatever, the characters are awesome and it’s a nice simple quest with some roadblocks they have to think their way through and around.

Grayling is the daughter of wise woman Hannah Strong, ordered about and wishing for some time to herself. She gets it when their home burns down and Hannah is rooted to the ground, slowly turning into a tree. Grayling must gather other magic practitioners like her mother for their help in finding Hannah’s grimoire, which hopefully contains the solution.

The others who answer Grayling’s call are motley indeed. An old weather witch who can’t use lightning to fry people, a sullen girl named Pansy, an enchantress who is a literal narcissist, and a mouse. The mouse is my favourite. He gains the ability to speak and shift shapes, whereupon Grayling names him Pook. He reminds me of Killer the rabbit (Calling on Dragons) without being nebbish and obnoxious.

Seriously, Pook should be enough for anyone to check this out. The origin for his “powers” is funny, and his loyalty to Grayling is sweet and endearing. If Disney mascots were more like Pook, they wouldn’t be phasing them out of the formula.

For such a short book, there’s a twisty plot. Grayling is resourceful and clever, and her allies aren’t always helpful. I wasn’t completely surprised by the full antagonist reveal and the ending is a bit too open for me, but it’s still a good quest story with a great main character who matured into an even better one.

As one might expect from Cushman, the writing is excellent and the dialogue is so perfectly old English that it makes the setting with or without description. She does Historical Fiction as if it is a way of life—with passion and brilliant execution. This is a book I’d like to see get a movie adaptation.