Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor – by Xiran Jay Zhao (Review)

Zachary Ying #1

Fantasy, Middle Grade

Margaret K. McElderry Books; May 10, 2022

349 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

6 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Zachary King is the only Asian kid at his school in small-town Maine. While he never exactly fit in in New York, here Zach is truly aberrant. What he wants—what he craves—is to fit in, something that he’s spent all his time and energy trying to do.

Which is, of course, when he discovers that he’s the chosen host for the First Emperor of China.

The bad news is that the only reason the Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) has left his eternal paradise is that China—and the world—is in danger. The worse news is that only Zach (and a couple other vessels hosting Emperors) can save it, preferably in time to save Zach mother, who’s had her soul stolen. The worst news is that to save it they must return to China: the place Zach was born, the place he lived before the government killed his father. The good news is that the revelation makes his problems seem pretty petty by comparison.

Only the mission is off to a bad start.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang, rather than manifesting within Zach, has instead possessed his AR gaming headset. Meaning that the Emperor cannot make use of his heavenly powers, nor his ability to, say, speak Mandarin. Thus Zach must rely on the help of his new allies Simon and Melissa (the hosts for the emperors Tang Taizong and Wu Zetian (李世民 和 武曌)) if he’s to save the day.

But things are more complicated than Zach could possibly imagine. Which he must make sense of if he’s going to save his mother—and the world.

“No,” Qin Shi Huang replied, “I was a regular person in my mortal life. I mostly relied on the cooperation of my ancestors in the underworld to plug the portal. But after I transcended my physical flesh—“
“He died taking mercury pills that he thought would make him immortal,” Tang Taizong quipped.
“So did you!” Qin Shi Huang yelped without looking at him.
“Allegedly! Sources differ!”

Huangdi (黃帝) was a mythical (and possibly historical) Han Emperor who ruled early China in the mid-3rd millennia BC. While primarily remaining a hero out of myth and legend for thousands of years, lately he’s been a bit co-opted by the Han nationalism movement, which is completely different from Chinese history. I mean, it’s part of China’s history, but the Han are not what makes China China. In Taiwan, the Yellow Emperor stands as a symbol of reunification with the mainland, as he’s still worshipped there. And—let’s just say it’s complicated. Chinese history is complicated.

And somehow, the author decides to make him the bad guy. At least, initially, until the world devolves into a haze of grey on grey madness—a little bit heavy for a kids’ book. I mean, that’s seriously ballsy.

Not uninteresting, just not my kind of book. It was rather muddied in the middle by the amount of different plots and deceptions—made the story hard to follow. The info dumps of everything from technology to Chinese history and mythology slowed things down a little, but were spaced far enough apart that they didn’t overly ruin the pacing. Unfortunately, with so many of them throughout the text, they further obfuscated an already muddy river that seemed to be flowing in too many directions as it was. What I mean is that not only was it really hard to keep up with the story, it was even harder to find out what was going on. And once I got lost I pretty much stayed lost, despite rereading sections to figure it out.

It definitely delivered on the promise of a Yu-Gi-Oh style tale. Zachary Ing and the Dragon Emperor reads like a cross between Yu-Gi-Oh and a Chinese History lesson. Except one with all the really bad bits left out. Honestly, that description doesn’t sound too bad, but the story was mostly more confusing than I’d’ve thought. That said, Yu-Gi-Oh is also more confusing than I thought it would’ve been, so it was likely intentional. There were possessions, virtual games, more possessions, and bizarre twists to up the action even amid an already action-heavy sequence. Problem is, I’m not a huge fan of Yu-Gi-Oh, so this kind of chaotic plot didn’t work for me. I picked this one up because I enjoy the occasional MG adventure, and I really liked the author’s debut novel.

The thing is, for how much this starts like a Yu-Gi-Oh mashup, it dissolves pretty quickly. The corresponding game of Mythrealm is mentioned at first only to familiarize readers with the VR goggles and basics of pop culture—and then dropped in order to relate the trip through Chinese history. Only… with just how much Mythrealm seems to involve the story (at first, at least), I would’ve expected to see more of it. But after the first few chapters it’s barely mentioned again.

I did manage to learn a few words (well, ONE word), though I can’t imagine it’ll ever come up in conversation. Nor will I ever manage to get the tones right.

托夢 (tuomèng) when spirits communicate through dreams

TL;DR / 太長;沒有讀

If you picked up Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor hoping for: a mashup of Yu-Gi-Oh and Percy Jackson; a new and exciting episodic series where anything can happen and routinely does; a MG adventure that tackles tougher issues than good vs. evil and right vs. wrong and delves straight into the world of grey; or a crash course in Chinese mythology and history (depending heavily on what your definition of “Chinese” is)—then, honestly, you probably won’t be disappointed. If, however, you picked this up because you enjoyed the author’s debut, or hoped for something a little bit deeper than the surface layer of Chinese history (of ghosts, legends, and curses), well, you may be slightly less impressed. Regardless, you’re sure to find a well written (if not terribly well organized) story about a boy and his place in the world. It may be confusing at times (because, well, it is) (most of the time, in fact), but there’s never a dull moment, and never any time to take a breath. If you’re able to follow the plot I kinda suspect you’ll love it—but I could not follow it and got left behind. And never really got back on board.

結束

Sisters of Shadow – by Katherine Livesey (Review)

Sisters of Shadow #1

YA, Fantasy

HarperCollins; September 30, 2021

368 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

3.5 / 10 ✪

Beware minor spoilers for the story. Mostly it’s for the romance though, and I kept them vague.

Sisters of Shadow is tagged as an “unforgettable teen fantasy perfect for fans of Shadow and Bone”. Now, while I’ve not read Shadow and Bone (yes, I know, I know), I’m skeptical of this. First about the “unforgettable” part. I found the whole thing very forgettable, thank you. But I really want to focus on the “teen” part. Because other than the whole ’sapphic love’ thing, I’d argue that nothing in here seems very “teen”.

And that’s just a personal preference thing, really. If you’re the type of person that thinks homosexuality is wrong—be it religious, or culture, or personal, or whatever—that’s your call, yeah? I don’t want to debate anyone over this. If you’re that kind of person, you’re probably not going to tell your child about it until you absolutely have to, and when you do, just say that it’s wrong and leave it there. Otherwise, I don’t know what the appropriate age to hear about this is. Puberty, I guess? But, see, the ‘sapphic romance’ within… there’s no sex, or anything. Nothing like that at all. Two of the characters do fall for one another, but they don’t do anything more than cuddle. And maybe kiss. It’s implied that they’re together together, and that’s about it. It’s not very heavy or adult, as these things go.

Anyway, the book. The read.

I found it quite boring. But also quite maddening. You’ll see why. At this point, I’ll say the two best things I can about Sisters of Shadow. One—I didn’t hate it. And two—it was a pretty quick read. Now, I realize none of those things are all that flattering. And from the above rating, you probably know there’s a bit of a rant incoming. So. Um I guess. Read on to find out more?

In the prologue, Alice is kidnapped.

Shortly after, we meet Lily Knight. The adventure starts when her uncle, Alf—who seems like a fantastically nice human the entire time we see him—just tells her that she alone has to go rescue her friend (yes, alone; no one can go with her), because Alice is her responsibility. Serious, wtf. I don’t even remotely understand this. Much less how Alice is somehow Lily’s responsibility. They’re friends, not lovers.They’re both humans. They’re not related. Alice isn’t a pet.

At first I suspected it was poorly worded. Then it was reiterated. “Alice is your responsibility”. Because.

And so the journey begins. And it’s… not great. And here we come to my main problem with Sisters of Shadow.

Nothing happens.

Okay, okay, stuff DOES happen. It just never feels important. It never feels epic. It never feels REAL.

Adventures and journeys aren’t always fun. That’s kind of their thing. There’s always a problem, somewhere. No matter how well you play it. And when you don’t plan it, one would think that there’d be problems all around. That’s the whole allure of reading about epic quests and adventures, especially spontaneous ones; stuff goes wrong all the time, and it’s up to the characters to deal with these, frequently in creative or inventive or roundabout ways.

Every problem has an immediate solution, one she never has to do anything about. When Lily finds out how far it is to the ocean she gets dejected about the walk—and a horse appears. It just wanders up, pre-saddled and ready to ride. No further explanation. People go out of their way to help her through her journey, for no reason. (Yes, I realize this is a thing that some real people do. But everyone that helps her does so immediately and for nothing. Everyone.) Later, when Lily reaches the ocean, there’s a boat handy. When she reaches the lighthouse, there’s a dark-eyed boy who takes her in and feeds and waits on her. He’s even her own age and—yes, this is the actual romance. At least it takes Lily some time, if not any actual effort. Alice’s romantic other is literally the first person she meets.

Now, I will say that the ending is decent. Things almost feel real, consequential—and maybe that’s reason enough to read the sequel. Not for me, though.

Billed as a coming of age fantasy, Sisters of Shadow features two young women around the age of adulthood (Alice is 17, I presume Lily’s about the same). They just never act like it. Lily never acts any older than 13 or so. In the beginning, honestly it’s a bit younger. Alice is a little better, though not much. None of the others they meet around their own age are any better either. So. If this had been written as a late Middle Grade fantasy—I think it would work out great. For teens or middle-grade. Other than the same-sex romance (which I’ve already gone over), there’s nothing explicit or adult about this.

There might be a good story in here, somewhere. Heck, you might well have found it already, and are reading this review—shocked, annoyed, incredulous—that I didn’t see it too. But I did do my homework on this one. I checked the ratings, I skimmed reviews. Some people loved Sisters of Shadow. Some hated it. But most people thought it was meh. Not terrible, not great. That’s about the size of it. This wasn’t a terrible book, though it also wasn’t good. I’d even say it was meh if it hadn’t been so boring. If something had ever happened to change my mind about it. If anything had ever made me want to continue it, or the series. It did read quick, though I never felt invested. I did finish it, but I skipped around a bunch. But this definitely wasn’t for me. You might like this, or not. It’s $3 for an ebook, if you’d like to take a chance on it. Maybe you’ll love it. Maybe you’ll hate it. Or maybe, like the majority of reviews I’ve seen, you’ll think it was all a bit bland, a bit forgettable.

The story will continue in Sisters of Moonlight, due April 14th, 2022.

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows – by John August (Updated Review)

Hey, if you read my original review of Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows way back in 2020—well, welcome to Round #2! At the time I remember saying that while the book wasn’t great, I’d address its problems later, depending on what was done to resolve them in the following entry.

Well, it’s been over a year and a half since the latest Arlo Finch book came out, and it appears that no fourth book is following. Needless to say that I’m disappointed. So it’s time to revisit this series and wrap up our thoughts on it, while saying a few choice words about just how it ended.

There are some spoilers following, so if you’d like to avoid those, just skip to the TL;DR.

Now, I’m not going to get into the original meat of it, so if you need a refresher, you can find it in the original review HERE (I’ll tack on this update to the end, so if you just wanted to read the whole thing there that’s totally an option) (alternatively, if you want to just skip to the TL;DR because this is Middle Grade or it doesn’t concern you, well yeah, you could do that too, I guess).

While originally planned and purchased as a trilogy, the Arlo Finch series had the potential to provide so much more mystery and adventure than three books could give them. As such, while the first and second titles in the series were highly entertaining, the third book—Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows—fell flat. Partly because it came at a crossroads for the series and in Arlo’s character arc; partly because it wrapped up the series; partly since the book tried to wrap up so many threads, while ultimately accomplishing very little. The problems I had in my original review notwithstanding, the Kingdom of Shadows was a conclusion wrought with issues—from what it set out to accomplish in the first place, to what story it managed to tell at the end.

Let me just say that while I didn’t see this coming, I really should have. But I didn’t know going into it that the Kingdom of Shadows was planned as the last book in a trilogy. And so the ending (when it just up and ended) made very little sense to me. Looking back on it, and knowing that it was the planned conclusion… it makes even less sense.

The conclusion itself is open-ended, with the final scene acting as both a finale and a beginning of sorts. As the precursor to a new book, this would’ve proved effective. As a final well, finale, it does the opposite. Instead of a cliffhanger ending to be resolved in the next installment, the Kingdom of Shadows uses a Sopranos-style moment—had the show ended a half-hour sooner. Or for the people that don’t know what this means: it ended in the middle of a scene, with quite little (to nothing) being actually resolved. Yes, the antagonist from the second book has been defeated. Yes, Arlo’s dad is home. Yes… actually no, that’s pretty much it.

So, basically, we’re just expected to believe that these two things will fix all the world’s problems. Arlo’s dad is just not in trouble anymore—because that makes perfect sense. The Eldrich just magicked all those problems away for… what reason, exactly? Even if it had made any sense for them to have that power, their rationale to do so didn’t make any more sense. Even less, actually. And with the tag-line of the book coming down to:

Arlo must make an impossible choice: save his friends and family, or save the Long Woods.

I mean, he doesn’t even manage either of these things. The Long Woods is still doomed. He didn’t save his friends or family in any reasonable way—the book was just like “well, it’s about that time, so I guessed our hero must’ve saved the day” and wrapt up without anything really being finished. This book makes about as much sense as my last three November novels have, and I ended each one with: “and then they all died”, regardless of what was happening. Don’t even get me started on the dragon.

The dragon that doesn’t really do anything, but then gets freed at the end and… the world is totally fixed. Because. Because magic fixes all problems, so we don’t even have to get into all the how’s and why’s or explain anything in detail. It just works. Because magic.

Have you ever sat down with your kid and told them “I know that you tried your best and didn’t succeed but magic magic magic you win and everything is perfect!”

…did that work? Honestly asking.

Not only am I disappointed by the lack of coherence, but as I reread it now, I notice more and more how rushed this conclusion feels. Not only the conclusion—the entire book. The premise itself doesn’t even really work. The enemy we just defeated in the previous book magically escapes and undoes everything in the blink of an eye? It’s not like you can just rebuild a death star by snapping your fingers. It’s like the author was brainstorming and only came up with “I know I just concluded this storyline in the last book but imagine this—maybe all that stuff didn’t happen” and just went from there. It’s just all… lazy.

TL;DR

If you skipped this very healthy, very understandable rant—you don’t know what you’re missing. Every now and then, we as readers should reflect on our biggest disappointments and vent a little, as it’s the only resolution we’ll ever get. I don’t regret any of the complaints above, as they were all perfectly reasonable requests despite the book only being intended for middle-graders. I work with elementary school children all the time and if you think that your explanation of “and everything was magically fixed because magic” will still fly when they’re that age, you’re probably not ready to be a parent. Not only was the conclusion sans resolution, the entire book itself felt rushed, and the premise completely undid half the stuff the last book worked so hard to accomplish in the blink of an eye. I don’t exactly regret rating this at a 3/5, but had I known it was the planned conclusion—as opposed to the de facto one—I would’ve roasted it over the coals earlier and saved myself some time.

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows – by John August
• Original Rating – 3 /5 ✪
• Updated Rating – 1.8 /5

Bridge of Souls – by Victoria Schwab

Cassidy Blake #3

YA/Middle Grade, Fantasy, Paranormal

Scholastic Press; March 2, 2021
Scholastic Audio; March 2, 2021

304 pages (hardcover)
5hr 36m (audio)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

3 / 5 ✪

Contains spoilers for City of Ghosts and Tunnel of Bones—Cassidy Blake #1-2!

Review for City of Ghosts • Review for Tunnel of Bones

Cassidy Blake has survived some pretty crazy situations: the Red Raven of Edinburgh, the poltergeist haunting the Paris catacombs, even the prospect of dying. Through it she’s met horrible specters, curious ghosts, interesting humans, and even her best friends Jacob and Lara. But New Orleans might just present her toughest challenge to date, for what Cassidy meets her might just be death itself.

Following her success in Paris, Cassidy was confronted on a train station platform by a skull-masked specter, one that was there one moment and gone the next, something that she sensed on BOTH sides of the Veil.

And this thing seems to have followed her to the Big Easy.

While initially Cassidy isn’t sure what this thing is, soon enough it becomes clear that this spirit is not a ghost at all but a servant of death, one that seeks to reclaim her life—the very life that she cheated it out of when she cheated death.

But how does one defeat death? Cassidy and Jacob have no idea—but someone might. In New Orleans, while her parents hunt long-dead serial killers and arsonists, Cassidy seeks out help from the only folk that might help her escape death a second time: the mysterious Order of the Black Cat.

In many ways the Adventures of Cassidy Blake have read like a decent serial. Each week (or in this case each year) features a new location, new situations, ghosts, but retains the same overarching plot. In this way Bridge of Souls is a little different. Pretty much from the first chapter, the series picks up where it left off. No, not on a platform in Paris, but in the same situation that we left there: the confrontation with an emissary of death. And… go!

Thus the story begins, and pretty much follows this plot-line throughout. Yes, there are a few side stories going on, what with her parents’ series filming a bit about serial killers and other horrible deaths in the city. But primarily this book addresses Cassidy and Death, and what their inevitable confrontation might hold.

At first this might sound like a killer story. But in practice it falls a bit flat.

Part of this is due to the size restraint. Bridge of Souls, like the two preceding it, are not long stories. Book #3 is actually the longest of the series to date, clocking in at just over 5 and a half hours. Print-wise, it’s maybe 300 pages, but that’s being generous. The ebook length has got to be shorter, but I’m not sure how much. Audio-wise, it’s shorter than both Edgedancer and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This is all a way of telling you that it ain’t very long. And so any story told within its pages probably isn’t going to be terribly complex. Which… it isn’t. Now, it’s not a bad story by any means, it just isn’t all that good. It’s more… meh.

A decent enough entry into the series, Bridge of Souls clears up a major plot-line without really pushing the envelope. It introduces a few new characters—though I’m not sure if they’ll represent anymore than bit parts moving forward. Otherwise, this entry doesn’t really try anything new. Instead it falls back on the same old formula, pretty much a continuance of the adventure that was left unresolved at the end of Tunnel of Bones. That said, it’s an entertaining distraction, another story to fill out the Inbetweeners universe and lore. And while it doesn’t try much new, it does tie up the overarching storyline from the past three books quite nicely.

My only other issue with this was the prose. Sometimes—most times even—it was fine. Normal. But then it just up and changed, often for no reason that I could tell. Became clipped. Short. Maybe like Cassidy was panicking, and this was the author’s attempt at imbuing some kind of tension into the situation? I’m not sure. It was just odd.

Audiobook Note: As usual, Reba Buhr does a great job bringing Cassidy Blake to life! In fact, all her voices were quite good, especially Lara, Jacob and others. I can’t imagine anyone else as the voice of Cassidy Blake, nor anyone else I’d like to give voice to this series but her. A good reader, if you’ve never heard her before—I’d certainly recommend her narration.

TL;DR

Again, a decent entry to the series, Bridge of Souls clears up a major plot-line without really trying anything new or different. It’s the next episode in the serial; one that uses the same formula, background, and script. Sure, there’s a different setting, some new characters, a guest star or two, and maybe a new enemy. But it’s mostly the same. Therefore, it’s mostly good. Just not great. An adequate entry to the series—one that fans of it will love and haters of it will probably forget. So… should you read Bridge of Souls? I mean… yeah, probably. If you’ve read the first two, you might as well. Maybe this will lead us in a new direction, or maybe the new bits that were introduced in this book might take center stage in the next. But while Bridge of Souls is an interesting addition that might pay dues later on down the line, it really isn’t much more than a decent enough way to spend an afternoon now.

Minor Mage – by T. Kingfisher (Review)

Standalone

Novella, Fantasy, Middle Grade

Red Wombat Studio; July 30, 2019

185 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Oliver is a minor mage. Though only 12, he’s the town mage of a backwater hamlet, one that has seen no water in quite too long. Therefore they’ve dispatched Oliver and his armadillo familiar to the distant Rainblade Mountains to bring back rain. Armed with his three spells—one of which controls his armadillo allergy, another that ties people’s shoelaces together—he sets off with only the vaguest idea of what awaits him.

What follows is a rollicking adventure filled with peril, sarcasm, armadillos, and times when it’s perfectly alright to miss your mother. It also teaches a valuable lesson about not overextending oneself and keeping armadillos as pets.

“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

During a year like this one, full of deceit, jealousy, plague, anxiety, mayhem and more—it is good to have a nice, charming tale every now and then. Not that Minor Mage is always cuddly and cute. Yes, it has its moments of adorability, but it’s also a tale of reality, friendship, and coming of age. All told with an offhand humor that belies the danger lurking around every corner, often in stiff contrast to the drought, death, and darkness all around. While it is definitely told in Vernon’s distinct voice, mixing dark sarcasm, light cheer, reality and more, the wit and sarcasm has an almost Pratchett-esque feel at times (which is really the highest praise I can give it), without ever becoming anything too comic or glib. (Now if you were unaware that T. Kingfisher is actually just Ursula Vernon… spoilers, I guess?)

Whether it be “screaming bone harps”, “cheeping baby armadillos”, or “possessed potatoes”—the story delivers some frightfully odd one liners, that somehow turn out to be the most normal thing in the world later on. Well, maybe not the MOST normal thing.

All in all, I found Minor Mage to be one of the most lovely stories I’ve read this year, not lessened any by the fact that it is a children’s tale. While I was slightly put off by the ending (more when it ended, rather than the way it did), there’s still more than enough for me to recommend it, even if you aren’t one to usually go for Middle Grade.

TL;DR

While it’s not a deep dive into fantasy, Minor Mage is a welcome distraction from the world for however brief it is. Filled with interesting characters, light (and occasionally dark) humor, life lessons, and a very real sense of adventure—it’s the tale you didn’t know you needed quite as bad as you did.

The Adventures of Rockford T. Honeypot – by Josh Gottsegen (Review)

Standalone

Middle-Grade, Fantasy

OneLight Publishing; June 23, 2020

219 pages (ebook)

2.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to OneLight Publishing and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

When I first saw the Adventures of Rockford T. Honeypot, it called to mind one of my favorite series when I was younger: Redwall by Brian Jacques. I loved how the animals wore clothes, swords, lived in castles, sang songs, ate wondrous food, lived exciting lives. The adventure in them made me yearn for it in my own life, and steered me on the path that would define my future. While at first the book seems anything but a fun, simple adventure, the story quickly shifts to the story of Rockford T. Honeypot—told via flashbacks by the now elder Rockford to his great-grandson. It details the young chipmunk’s life in Kona Valley, growing up with his mother Emma, father Clarence, and several brothers, all also named Clarence. Rockford was not like any of his brothers, being more careful, sensitive, and obsessed with cleanliness. Because of this, he was very often singled out, even picked on by his brothers and other bullies in the valley. He favored spending time with his mother, unlike his brothers, and found his first and best friend in her.

But it was because Rockford was not like his brothers that his father came to rely more and more on the young chipmunk. Good with books and numbers though the Clarences never were, a young Rockford soon rose through the ranks of his father’s business, even managing it when his parents went away for a season. But it turned out that not even a proper love of numbers and cleanliness translated into anything approaching business experience. By the time his parents returned, Rockford had bankrupted the business, leaving the Honeypots destitute. And thus did Clarence Honeypot—patriarch of the clan—disown his youngest son, leaving Rockford alone while he took his family elsewhere.

And so, Rockford—alone and untested—set out to find his way in the world. His life would take many turns, suffer many trials and travails, but Rockford would face each head on with a bold face, an iron will, and a bottle of lemon hand-sanitizer. Thus begin the adventures, and who knows where they may lead?

First, I’d like to address the present day. As I mentioned, an elder Rockford tells his tale through a series of flashbacks, in-between returning to the present day for… posterity? Some unknowable reason. I found these interludes painful, almost unreadable. I actually began skipping them, as the language was just painful—some amalgamation of “what the kids today say” and what the author thought the kids today say. The language of the flashbacks reminded me of what someone who’d seen one silent generation flick might write to try to approximate it. As a result it’s awkward, but passable. Luckily the language evens out as Rockford gets older, to the point where I didn’t have an issue with it later on. Sadly, the language in the present day never changes.

I had so many issues with the story itself. Here are just a few. (*) The chipmunks and other animals live in tree houses and ride on hawks and geese and do other things that would suggest they’re the regular size. But then they have individual tiny greenhouses that grow things like pineapples and pecans, how exactly? Are they miniature trees? (*) There are lawyers and court cases and legal terms in this book. They’re even like, a decent part of the plot. Why? Either children are a lot more boring than I remember, or this is a mistake. Also, the lesson seems to be that “it’s bad to sue people, unless you do it”, which is… just dumb. (*) The chipmunks live in the jungle in pine trees with monkeys and bananas and… for a book that has a child that points out the inaccuracies of everything, it’s skipped over that some of these things don’t overlap. (*) “Bullies are always bullies and can’t ever change” seems to be another lesson that really isn’t great. (*) All of the animals can talk to one another, except for the ones that can’t. Which is not explained.

The story is listed as Middle-Grade, but seems to be built so that both younger and older children will appreciate it. Problem is—the plot is probably too juvenile to appeal to older kids and the lexicon is too high to appeal to all but a few of the younger ones. In trying to relate to a bigger audience, it actually excludes more readers.

TL;DR

The Adventures of Rockford T. Honeypot is a decent distraction at first, but is ultimately annoying. It’s never a great adventure, though it visits a lot of new, different places. The lessons are sometimes vague, other times glaringly obvious, but mostly just strange. It presents more questions than it answers, and mostly just settles with “this is a happy ending, don’t question it”. My advice to the author: drop 90% of the present day stuff—the interludes, the story-telling, the tweeting and posting and hashtags. In fact, do a complete overhaul on the language. Either keep the legal stuff or change it, but don’t leave it as is; it’s honestly painful to read. Please rework the character of little-miss know-it-all. She’s not endearing. Don’t try to expand your audience—you don’t have enough action, adventure or mystery in this to pull it off. Either explain more things about the world or don’t explain anything—but you can’t have it both ways. If I could offer the reader some advice: Probably skip this one. I know it debuts with a pretty low price tag, but it’s really not a steal. Maybe try Redwall instead, it’s always a classic.

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows – by John August (Review)

Arlo Finch #3

YA, Middle Grade, Fantasy

Roaring Brook Press; February 4, 2020

314 pages (ebook) 7 hr 20 min (audio)

1.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Warning: Contains minor spoilers for the previous Arlo Finch books.

Arlo Finch is back—but something has changed.

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows is the third book in John August’s series surrounding the young lad, Arlo, after his family move to the secluded town of Pine Mountain, Colorado. While the previous two entries in the series dealt with the exciting adventures of Arlo and his friends, the Kingdom of Shadows attempts to add more drama and suspense by throwing Arlo’s data-mining father into the mix, in an adventure that will change the fate of both the Long Woods and the Real World. But where the previous two books succeeded by trying to encapsulate children’s adventures while adding a bit of action and flair, the third book falls short by trying to do too much while ultimately delivering about the same sense of resolution. Ugghhh—I’ve tried to write this intro half a dozen times and it still sounds bad. Just… bear with me, yeah?

After an adventure at summer camp spanning thirty years, Arlo is back home in Pine Mountain, preparing to face a new school, new teachers and new challenges. In Rangers he is training hard, ready to leave Squirrel for a new rank—but has to compete with new additions to his troop, new techniques, and harder tasks than ever before.

But first, Arlo is going to undertake the most dangerous adventure he’s ever conceived. He’s going to rescue his father, bringing him home to Pine Mountain by traversing the Long Woods. But the Eldritch have plans for Arlo, and the way is already not without its dangers. Enemies—old and new—are all around him. Arlo must rely on his two best friends, his fellow Rangers in Blue Patrol, and his family to see him through it. And even with all of them on his side, it might not be enough.

Okay, so it’s a short blurb. The book actually contains two adventures: Arlo’s mission to rescue his father, and then whatever the Eldritch want. They’re loosely connected later in the text, but for all purposes, they’re really two separate tales. Coming into this I was expecting a rip-roaring gauntlet spanning from Colorado to China and back, with the Eldritch, the government, enemies new and old alike taking shots at Arlo in-between. What I got instead was one adventure, then a break, another adventure, and then a loose connection that sets up a conclusion somehow neither here nor there.

In terms of an adventure, Kingdom of Shadows is a typical Finch special. That is it blends enough action, drama and fun in a bag to create an enjoyable, entertaining, PG adventure. I had no more trouble getting into and through it than usual, which is very little. I had issues with pieces along the way, which I’ll get into in a minute. But the adventure itself, the setting are just as good as usual, the story no harder to read.

I had more issues with the book itself than usual, while taking into account that it is a middle grade story, after all. The first has to do with the story itself. But I’ve already discussed this a little. It’s mostly the pacing that I object to, and the plot. The starting one adventure, then another, only to blend them later on but somehow conclude neither adequately. The pacing gets going early only to slow and never build itself back up to the level it leads with—even during the exciting boss-fight toward the end.

My main issue with the book is Arlo’s father. Clark Finch is a hacker of some sort—never described fully as Arlo himself doesn’t understand it. In fact, Arlo doesn’t understand computers or technology much at all. Instead, he regards it as akin to magic. This is incredibly convenient in the story as there’re parts where Clark will whip out some device, give some generic techno-babble and then magic up a solution to whatever problem they face. As a reason for his exile, it’s a good, modern idea. As a plot point, it’s incredibly lazy—like having the main character carry around a bottomless sack full of whatever it is he might need. Other than this hacker persona, Clark really doesn’t seem to have much of a personality at all. He’s just… there.

Which brings me to my next point. Arlo, by this point, is in seventh grade—making him somewhere around 12-13. But he’s as much of a child as he used to be. The book clearly disagrees with this assessment, going out of its way to compare how he approaches problems now, versus how he would’ve in his year before Rangers. But this mostly regards things that he’s learnt, not any maturing on his part. And yeah, I understand that my maturity level didn’t improve between the ages of 10-14. It CHANGED, but didn’t exactly improve. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that there should be some kind of character development at this point. But there isn’t. Arlo still goes through the same, simple, straightforward steps when he gets in trouble. While his skills have improved, the process itself hasn’t. And by this age, I would’ve liked to see some evidence of development, even if it’s just regression.

TL;DR

While it still tells a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows pales in comparison to its predecessors, promising a greater sense of drama and suspense and illusion, but delivering on little of it. The sense of fulfillment is equal to past books; no more, nor less. While the story regarding the Eldritch and the Long Woods is a good one, and the adventure to and from China entertaining—the two don’t blend well together, fighting one another for control of the book. Each would’ve made a good read on its own, but together they fell short of a complete story, failing to deliver a satisfactory resolution. Despite the fact that Arlo is now in 7th grade, little has changed from when he first arrived in Pine Mountain. He’s older—technically—and has different skills, though it’s difficult to see any character development. I know this is a Middle Grade book, but I would’ve liked to see SOMETHING. Though it falls short of perfection, short of its predecessors, and feels somewhat lacking upon completion, Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows is a worthwhile read for fans of the series. Hopefully from here it will just go upwards, but only time will tell.

NOV 2021 UPDATE

Hey, if you read my original review of Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows way back in 2020—well, welcome to Round #2! At the time I remember saying that while the book wasn’t great, I’d address its problems later, depending on what was done to resolve them in the following entry.

Well, it’s been over a year and a half since the latest Arlo Finch book came out, and it appears that no fourth book is following. Needless to say that I’m disappointed. So it’s time to revisit this series and wrap up our thoughts on it, while saying a few choice words about just how it ended.

There are some spoilers following, so if you’d like to avoid those, just skip to the TL;DR.

While originally planned and purchased as a trilogy, the Arlo Finch series had the potential to provide so much more mystery and adventure than three books could give them. As such, while the first and second titles in the series were highly entertaining, the third book—Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows—fell flat. Partly because it came at a crossroads for the series and in Arlo’s character arc; partly because it wrapped up the series; partly since the book tried to wrap up so many threads, while ultimately accomplishing very little. The problems I had in my original review notwithstanding, the Kingdom of Shadows was a conclusion wrought with issues—from what it set out to accomplish in the first place, to what story it managed to tell at the end.

Let me just say that while I didn’t see this coming, I really should have. But I didn’t know going into it that the Kingdom of Shadows was planned as the last book in a trilogy. And so the ending (when it just up and ended) made very little sense to me. Looking back on it, and knowing that it was the planned conclusion… it makes even less sense.

The conclusion itself is open-ended, with the final scene acting as both a finale and a beginning of sorts. As the precursor to a new book, this would’ve proved effective. As a final well, finale, it does the opposite. Instead of a cliffhanger ending to be resolved in the next installment, the Kingdom of Shadows uses a Sopranos-style moment—had the show ended a half-hour sooner. Or for the people that don’t know what this means, or are too young: it ended in the middle of a scene, with not a lot being actually resolved. The Kingdom of Shadows takes this a step further, by resolving even less. Yes, the antagonist from the second book has been defeated. Yes, Arlo’s dad is home. Yes… actually no, that’s pretty much it.

So, basically, we’re just expected to believe that these two things will fix all the world’s problems. Arlo’s dad is just not in trouble anymore—because that makes perfect sense. The Eldrich just magicked all those problems away for… what reason, exactly? Even if it had made any sense for them to have that power, their rationale to do so didn’t make any more sense. Even less, actually. And with the tag-line of the book coming down to:

Arlo must make an impossible choice: save his friends and family, or save the Long Woods.

I mean, he doesn’t even manage either of these things. The Long Woods is still doomed. He didn’t save his friends or family in any reasonable way—the book was just like “well, it’s about that time, so I guessed our hero must’ve saved the day” and wrapt up without anything really being finished. This book makes about as much sense as my last three November novels have, and I ended each one with: “and then they all died”, regardless of what was happening. Don’t even get me started on the dragon.

The dragon that doesn’t really do anything, but then gets freed at the end and… the world is totally fixed. Because. Because magic fixes all problems, so we don’t even have to get into all the how’s and why’s or explain anything in detail. It just works. Because magic.

Have you ever sat down with your kid and told them “I know that you tried your best and didn’t succeed but magic magic magic you win and everything is perfect!”

…did that work? Honestly asking.

Not only am I disappointed by the lack of coherence, but as I reread it now, I notice more and more how rushed this conclusion feels. Not only the conclusion—the entire book. The premise itself doesn’t even really work. The enemy we just defeated in the previous book magically escapes and undoes everything in the blink of an eye? It’s not like you can just rebuild a death star by snapping your fingers. It’s like the author was brainstorming and only came up with “I know I just concluded this storyline in the last book but imagine this—maybe all that stuff didn’t happen” and just went from there. It’s just all… lazy.

TL;DR

If you skipped this very healthy, very understandable rant—you don’t know what you’re missing. Every now and then, we as readers should reflect on our biggest disappointments and vent a little, as it’s the only resolution we’ll ever get. I don’t regret any of the complaints above, as they were all perfectly reasonable requests despite the book only being intended for middle-graders. I work with elementary school children all the time and if you think that your explanation of “and everything was magically fixed because magic” will still fly when they’re that age, you’re probably not ready to be a parent. Not only was the conclusion sans resolution, the entire book itself felt rushed, and the premise completely undid half the stuff the last book worked so hard to accomplish in the blink of an eye. I don’t exactly regret rating this at a 3/5, but had I known it was the planned conclusion—as opposed to the de facto one—I would’ve roasted it over the coals earlier and saved myself some time.

Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows – by John August
• Original Rating – 3 /5 ✪
Updated Rating – 1.8 /5 ✪

Tunnel of Bones – by Victoria Schwab (Review)

Cassidy Blake #2

Supernatural, Paranormal, Middle Grade

Scholastic Press; September 3, 2019

304 pages (ebook) 5 hr 5 min (audio)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Trouble is haunting Cassidy Blake… even more than usual.

Thus begins Tunnel of Bones, the second Cassidy Blake story, following up City of Ghosts in 2018. Fresh out of Edinburgh, where she tangled with the Red Raven, a spectral lady with aims of becoming flesh reborn. She also met Lara, a girl that can also see and interact with the dead, and whom lets Cassidy in on a little secret. That they must use their power to send the ghosts on, lest they linger in our world and become a danger to it. Enter Paris: one of the most haunted cities in the world.

Not above ground—but below, in the catacombs, ghosts crowd the tunnels, haunting everything and everyone in reach. Fresh into Paris, Cassidy and her parents venture below, filming an episode for their TV show while Cassidy tags along, attempting very hard to slip between the Veil as soon as she’s able. And slip she does. While in the spirit world, Cassidy runs across more than she was prepared for, awakening a very powerful spirit who proceeds to follow her across the Veil.

Thus begins a cat-and-mouse haunting in the center of Paris—where Cassidy is most certainly not the cat. And as a cat, it delights in toying with her, breaking things, and sleeping in the sun. Well… two of those, anyway.

After speaking to Lara, she determines that the spirit is a poltergeist—a ghost of immense power and potential—something that remembers neither who it was nor how it died. Two things Cassidy must discern in order to stop it. And stop it she must—in only a few days. Otherwise, while Cassidy Blake will leave Paris behind, the poltergeist will always remain her problem, her doing, her mistake. And she will have to live with the consequences.

I was torn on City of Ghosts, which I found lacking polish, drama, and shine. I found it rather bland, uninteresting, and short. Tunnel of Bones had more character, polish, but was still short. There’s only so good a story can get in five hours. But Tunnel of Bones surely gets better, quicker than City of Ghosts. To compare the two: Bones had more polish, more charm, more character. Though neither provided the length, the thrill, the immersion that I like in a story.

Again, I found the actual ghost-hunting itself a little bland. Dismissing a poltergeist proved to be more interesting than the Red Raven, but only just. There was no boss-fight (not that I expected one), very little detective work (though there was some), and too much chocolate (only because I can’t eat any). Pretty much like an episode of Danny Phantom—short, less than very thrilling, and over before you realized there was a plot. Was better than the first, though, so it was a step in the right direction.

Jacob is… bland. Lara—who was a cynical, pompous brat in City of Ghosts—actually fleshes out some in this entry. She actually seemed a real person over Bones, something that I did not expect. Something that pleased and encouraged me. Actually may’ve been my most favorite element of the book itself. But while it was something, it was little enough as development goes. Not that there is much character development to speak of, but between the two books there is a little, and Lara accounts for most of it. Cassidy commands the remainder. Jacob… okay, I know he’s a ghost and all, but I would’ve liked to see something out of him. Schwab tries to nudge him toward it in the end, but it’s too little, too late by that point. Might set something up for the third book, but does nothing for the first two. Jacob is actually a little like an imaginary friend; there’s no change, no development—he’s consistent, for better or worse.

There’s one particular event that I need to harp on: late in the book, Cassidy literally mugs a ghost and steals his clothes to disguise Jacob—something that makes no actual sense. We’ve established that ghosts manifest beyond the Veil following their death, and that how they appear in death is directly related to both who they were in life and how they died. It’s their sense of self, basically. One cannot steal someone else’s sense of self and wear it around. And it’s an important plot-point, somehow! If an absolutely ridiculous one.

Audio Note: Reba Buhr is a solid narrator throughout the book. I wouldn’t read the series entirely to hear her voice, but it’s not like it ruined the reading or anything. She was a talented, interesting narrator who enunciated and pronounced everything quite well—both in English and French.

TL;DR

For better or worse, Tunnel of Bones continues on the same path City of Ghosts started, albeit with more polish and shine. There’s even a bit of character development, though not nearly enough. It looks like we’re going to continue in this vein—an episodic, city-to-city, traveling ghost-hunting show. There’s an overarching plot, but it’s thin; as befits a kids’ book, I suppose. Each book so far has shown its own subplot, which has been raced through in the (5 hours of) allotted time. Going forward, I would like to see a little more effort, a little more adventure, a little more intrigue, a little more legwork, and a little… MORE. While Tunnel of Bones is likely better than the original, it still leaves much to be desired. But in terms of readability—it’s good enough; a decent read, that does just enough but little more.

The series continues with Bridge of Souls, expected out in March of 2021.

By some amazing coincidence, I’ve posted this exactly one year after my review of the first one. Huh, weird.

The Fall of the Readers – by Django Wexler (Review)

Forbidden Library #4

Fantasy, YA, Middle Grade

Kathy Dawson Books; December 5, 2017

368 pages (ebook) 7hr 51min (audio)

4.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

So ends the Forbidden Library series. I’ve immensely enjoyed it, and am happy to report that Fall of the Readers was no different! While 2019 was the Year of Django in my book, it seems the future is bright for him. A pair of books out from him this year, with City of Stone and Silence following the debut of Ship of Smoke and Steel that I was a bit torn on. Ashes of the Sun is due out this summer, and my expectations are high. But let’s not (me) get distracted. So, the Fall of the Readers…

With Geryon defeated and imprisoned within a book, Alice reigns over the library. For now. The other Readers, sensing a shift in the balance of power, have come to take Geryon’s realm for themselves. While Alice thought she was prepared for what came ahead, she didn’t imagine just how hard it would be. Soon, the library is under threat. As are all the book realms within it. As are her friends; all the apprentices come under her protection. Alice is outmatched, and she knows it.

So when Ending—Alice and Geryon’s tentative ally—and the library’s labyrinthian, suggests an insane, last-ditch effort, Alice has no real choice but to pursue it. The goal is clear: she must free the labyrinthians, one and all, from their imprisonment. Then, together the free Labyrinthian and young Readers will turn their combined strength upon the elder Readers. And moving forward, the two can work as one to build a better world.

In theory, it’s a lovely ideal. But full of some pretty big “ifs”. Not to mention a mission that is almost certainly sure to fail. And with the old Readers closing in, Alice and her friends must hurry through it, just praying they have enough time to put the desperate plan into action. Because even if it works—and that’s a mighty big IF—and all of them survive, the old Readers are still a powerful enemy. There may be no way to defeat them, regardless of what Alice and the others do. And, well… Alice has more worries than just them. For even if her plan goes off without a hitch, what assurances does she have that Ending and the others will keep their word?

But then, what choice does she have, really?

As Wexler’s YA/Middle Grade series comes to a close, we’re confronted with some desperate, insane, and equally unlikely plans. Alice has always been an idealist, though in recent books, she’s begun to lose a bit of her luster. Her character development over the series has really been interesting, especially as it comes at a middle-grade level. But with all that has come and gone, Alice’s journey is far from over. And the final book may provide the biggest bombshell yet.

While I was sad to see the series end, I can report that it ends well. None of that cliffhanger or end-of-the-world/everyone-dies nonsense. There’s a bit of melancholy to it, but I don’t want to give any more away, so I’m going to leave it at that.

The pace of the book doesn’t let up. Being the final book in the series, it picks up early and never really slows down. There’re very few issues with lag, or the pace letting up, or even the story going off on a tangent. It’s pretty much straightforward to the end. More than one surprise is in store, and the (shall we say) “biggest” bombshell may not be the last. I didn’t have any problem rolling through this one, despite the fact that I lost my loan halfway through and had to start over a month or so later.

Audio Note: After four books, Cassandra Morris’s rendition of Alice has been perfected. Even halfway through the second book I had come to realize that I’d probably hear her voice in my head if I ever had to just read the books instead of listening to them. And while I didn’t have to (for very long, at least), even a few months between finishing the series and completing its review I can still her her voice in my head while I write this. While I was skeptical of her portrayal at first, I’ve certainly come around. Morris totally nailed Alice here, and I hope to read more of her narration later on!

TL;DR

The final entry in the Forbidden Library series was worth the wait. It was also worth reading the previous three to reach. The combined stories, along with those of its characters came together to create a lovely ending. Alice’s journey was a great one to travel. While her romance was a bit up and down (even here in the final book), her motivations, her story, her development as a character were all amazing. When compared with Wexler’s clunky start to the YA Wells of Sorcery, Fall of the Readers is even more of a triumph, and a must-read for anyone that enjoys middle-grade or even YA fantasy. With fantastic world-building end to end, relatable characters, an inventive setting, and provocative and thoughtful story, Fall of the Readers is a great end to a great series.

Brightstorm – by Vashti Hardy (Review)

Sky-Ship Adventure #1

Middle Grade, Steampunk, YA, Adventure

Scholastic; March 1, 2018 (UK)

Norton Young Readers; March 17, 2020 (US)

352 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Norton and NetGalley for the ARC!

Brightstorm is the debut novel from middle grade author Vashti Hardy. Set in an alternate London (called “Lontown”), it follows a set of twins, Arthur and Maddie, born of adventurer Ernest Brightstorm, who must retrace the steps of his final adventure in order to clear their family name.

When adventure twins Arthur and Maudie Brightstorm receive word that their father has been killed while attempting to reach South Polaris, they think that life can’t get much worse. But, when he is accused of attempted sabotage and disowned by the explorer community, they find out that this nightmare can get even worse. Stripped of their home and inheritance, the Brightstorms are essentially sold off by their de facto legal guardian as housekeepers to the Beggins, a malevolent pair of busybodies occupying a poorer section of Lontown known as the Drips.

In an attempt to recover their family’s honor, the twins must escape domestic servitude, get hired on another expedition to South Polaris, locate their father’s downed skyship, and clear his name. Not an easy task for anyone, but possibly more for a pair of twelve year-olds. Though instead of experience, the twins have each other—which is sure to be the greatest benefit of all.

Officially a middle-grade fantasy, Brightstorm was a fun, rousing adventure so long as I didn’t overanalyze it. So, it’s a kids’ book and I’m not an English teacher—you don’t have to overthink it. I mean, you totally CAN overthink it, but I’m not going to. It’s all good fun. That’s my review—little more needed.

While Brightstorm isn’t perfect, it’s certainly good enough. An enjoyable adventure! Arthur and Maudie are the desirable narrators for a childhood adventure story; with one boy and one girl, they can tell a nice, balanced story that most young children will relate to. That is, it COULD have been a balanced story perfect for both boys and girls, except that Arthur does all the narrating. Not that Maudie plays a bit part or anything—she shares the spotlight with Arthur, solving mechanical puzzles and problems, as well as doing a fair bit of exploration herself. She just doesn’t live the story the way Arthur does. Now, nothing away from Arthur—with his iron arm, the kid is a true survivor, someone who has overcome their so-called “limitations” to lead a rich, fulfilling life, even excelling where so many “able-bodied” people would fail. That being said, I would’ve liked to see more from Maudie’s perspective. Maybe in the next book!

The mystery is… not really very mysterious. It plays out like any starter mystery I could think of. There’s good, there’s evil, and there’s a generally solid line between the two. Likewise, the Brightstorms start low in the beginning, but life gets better the more they progress. Yes, there are a few harrowing parts, but seeing as this is a middle-grade fiction, I really wouldn’t’ve expected any harsh life-lessons at this point. Clues are collected, they all add up nicely and leave very little in the way of loose ends, and the end of the tale sets us up for the next one in a straightforward manner.

TL;DR

If you like exciting, new adventures that are above all else fun—then Brightstorm is your kind of read. This preteen steampunk adventure features a pair of twins as the protagonists, though we only ever hear from Arthur, an oversight that I hope gets corrected in the next book. We even learn a few lessons; the most obvious being that we can overcome any obstacle with friendship, resourcefulness, and sheer determination. If so far you think that this sounds like your cup of tea—then dive on in! It being an adventure with definite British overtones, I can guarantee you that you will hear some funny names and a lot about tea. Now, if you like exciting novels that tell it like it is, feature dark overtones that blur the lines between what’s right and wrong—maybe skip this. This ain’t that kind of book. It’s more straightforward, fun and adventure. Don’t read too much into it.

Don’t miss the next Sky-Ship Adventure—Darkwhispers—due out in February 2020.