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)

3 / 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.

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.