Category Archives: Fantasy

A wild new Narnia: Wildwood by Colin Meloy

wildwoodThere is something extra nice about a thick book, don’t you think? There’s the promise of having lots of story in there to draw out over many wintry evenings. That’s exactly what I did with Colin Meloy’s Wildwood. I missed this one when it came out, but now I’m lucky to be able to follow it up right away with the second in the series, Under Wildwood.

I had a good feeling as soon as I read the first line of this story. It’s a great opening:

How five crows managed to lift a twenty pound baby boy into the air was beyond Prue, but that was certainly the least of her worries.

After her little brother is kidnapped by the crows, Prue must travel into the Impassable Wilderness in search of him, a vast and mysterious area on the edge of Portland. She doesn’t go alone. On her way she runs into Curtis, a boy from school, who travels with her into the woods. What they find there is beyond belief, a whole other world peopled with talking animals, powerful and dangerous people, and magic. Curtis is captured, taken prisoner by the Dowager Governess, who has evil plans that don’t stay secret for long. Prue soon discovers that war is brewing in Wildwood, and her brother’s fate is tied to the outcome.

The story is quirky and lively, with a cast of characters who are modern and familiar all at once. You will cheer for Prue and Curtis, as they transform from believable ordinary kids who might live down the street from you, into the heroes of a remarkable adventure. The Dowager Governess will certainly remind you of the White Witch, but as much as there are shades of Narnia here, it’s not too much, it just creates a comforting feeling, like a new pair of slippers that feels a little like your favourite old pair. Meloy’s tale is an original, and one that seems perfect for reading aloud, close to a Christmas tree. Carson Ellis’s illustrations could not be a better fit for such a cool, memorable book. It will certainly be just right for any ten-year olds on your list this year (and maybe even for their hip parents).

Wildwood is published by Balzer + Bray.

The Spindlers

Gosh it’s nice to read such a good yarn, because that’s how I’d describe Lauren Oliver‘s new middle grade novel, The Spindlers. It’s the kind of book you want to escape into, curled up under a blanket on a chilly day. 

When the spindlers steal Liza’s brother’s soul, only Liza knows what must be done. She descends Below to rescue Patrick’s soul, to an otherworldly place filled with strange creatures. Some are helpful, like the lumer-lumpen, who light the woodland paths, and the nocturni, the caretakers of human souls. Others are terrifying, like the scrags, the shape-shifting lizard-like minions of the spindler queen. Oliver’s book has all of the trademarks of a fine quest story, and as Liza makes her way, relying on her wits and the help of those she meets, the narrative will call to mind some of the best-loved books about venturing to other worlds, such as Coraline, Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland.

There’s something comfortable about recognizing the conventions of a particular type of story, don’t you think? It’s a mixture of feeling reassured and delighted, like when it’s getting close to Christmas and you start taking out all of your most loved decorations and setting them up around the house. “Oh yes, there you are!” you think when you unwrap your favourite ornaments after months of forgetting about them. So in The Spindlers, when you first meet the eccentric talking rat Mirabella, you soon see that she will be Liza’s guide on her adventure and it starts feeling like the story is falling into place in a way that is familiar and magical at once. By the time I reached the last part of the story and it became clear that it was going to end with a “test of wills” where Liza would have to outsmart the spindler queen in order to win her brother’s soul, I was a very satisfied reader. I love that plot element of many quest stories.  

What I think is special about The Spindlers is that Oliver manages to offer readers a conventional quest structure, but with more than enough creativity in the world and characters she has imagined to make the book feel different and memorable in its own right. I’d say it’s less frightening than Coraline, but just as captivating. I think it could be quite something in a graphic novel format too. Iacopo Bruno’s striking cover certainly gets me wishing that there were some illustrations scattered throughout the book. A gorgeous new adventure that belongs right next to some of the great classics, The Spindlers will be winning over readers for a long time to come.

The Spindlers is published by Harper.

Scumble

I loved Ingrid Law’s debut, Savvy. If you haven’t read it (you should!) it’s about a girl named Mibs who comes from a family of extremely unusual folk. Turning thirteen in the Beaumont family means that you may develop an astonishing gift – a savvy. A savvy might be the ability to control the weather, or electricity, or to move mountains. When Mibs turns thirteen, a whole lot happens and Mibs begins an adventure full of excitement that is well beyond any wild savvy she could have imagined. A book with a concept that is so creative, so much fun, and so captivating makes you excited for whatever the author comes up with next.

Scumble is what’s next, and it was as delightful and absorbing as Savvy. It begins nine years after Mibs’s story as her cousin, Ledger Kale, is right about to turn thirteen. Like Mibs, he has n of what he’d love to have as his savvy. He wishes for super speed, but instead, ends up with a savvy that seems to be all about destruction. In spite of his dangerous savvy, Ledger heads on a road trip to Wyoming for a family wedding. Needless to say, his out-of-control power wreaks havoc and when a nosy and crafty girl reporter witnesses the chaos, Ledger realizes that he may be responsible for exposing his family’s unbelievable talents. He has to learn to “scumble” – to control his savvy – if he is going to get on with his life and keep his family’s amazing abilities secret.

Law has a lot of talent. Her stories move along at a great clip, and even though this one was long, it never lagged. I think a great part of that achievement lies with the characterization. Even the characters who appear in only a few scenes are memorable and you wish you could spend more time with them. The supporting cast is so colourful and quirky. We can only hope that Law has some stories imagined for them as well. Her language offers a lovely balance of rich and arresting imagery and down-home warmth. You’ll sink right into it. Of course, her creativity continues to impress. As much as it is a rollicking great tale, Scumble is also a pretty deep book about struggling with who you really are, discovering that what seems to be your curse might really be a gift, and that “sometimes things have to come apart before becoming something different – something better.”

I don’t doubt that Law will manage – by some remarkable savvy-like gift – to produce something just as wonderful for all of us to read next. Don’t miss Scumble.

Scumble is published by Dial Books.

Forest Born

I cannot tell you how much it pleases me to have seen over at Shannon Hale’s blog that this:

is going to be released in a hardcover version like this:

Hooray for Alison Jay’s gorgeous artwork! All is as it should be with the world. When I was reading Forest Born last week, I was bemoaning the fact that the Bayern covers went from beautifully evocative and unique, to cheap-looking and a little bit laughable due to cheesiness. I had no idea that the series was still being made available with the original cover art, in the U.S. hardcover editions. In celebration, I have just ordered Enna Burning and River Secrets to go along with my Goose Girl (a little pre-birthday prezzie to myself), and will be sure to snag Forest Born when it comes out in October. Won’t they look pretty all together on my desk, in pride of place?

Which brings me to Forest Born… It is astonishing that I had an ARC of this book for a year and a half before I finally got around to reading it. Astonishing, and wrong. I adore the Bayern books, and I cannot wait to own all four so that I can indulge in the absolute treat of reading them one after the other all the way to the end. I am delighted to report that this, the fourth book in the series, is in many ways as satisfying and captivating as its three predecessors. If you’re a Hale fan, I doubt you will be disappointed in Forest Born.

This time, the story is Rin’s, Razo’s younger sister. In the beginning, she is unsettled by the growing feeling that she is suddenly out of place in the home she has always loved. The trees have always offered her solace and peace, but her connection with the forest seems to have changed. Where once she felt calm, she now finds only ugliness and fear. So Rin leaves the forest and heads to the city, to serve in the royal court. Adventure and danger soon follow, and Rin comes to know that she possesses a power that could be more destructive than anything she has ever known or imagined. 

It doesn’t have the humour of River Secrets, even though Razo does feature in the plot, and brings laughs with him. Hale succeeds brilliantly in making Rin a complicated, sympathetic character. You really feel like you are inside her head as you move through the story. Her struggle and her sense of isolation creates a strong emotional impact as you read. You want her to find her way and feel happy in herself. Of course, it wouldn’t be Shannon Hale without lovely poetic turns of phrase and some terrific action and just enough romance to make you dream of being a part of the world of the story too. Rarely do books absorb me in the way that these have. When I read a Shannon Hale fantasy, I feel like a kid again, when I used to hole up for hours and hours in my room reading and reading until I’d finished the whole book, completely forgetting about the “real world” and never wanting the characters to leave my mind.

If you haven’t read these books, you don’t know what you’re missing. Read them all – tacky covers or not. You couldn’t ask for more entertaining stories.

No Passengers Beyond This Point

You should know Gennifer Choldenko for her wonderful Newbery Honor winning title, Al Capone Does My Shirts, and the follow-up read, Al Capone Shines My Shoes. Her new novel, No Passengers Beyond This Point offers us another story about family, home, and sibling relationships, but this time with a fantastical twist.

The story opens when India, Mouse, and Finn find out that they have less than 48 hours to pack up their things because they have to go live with their Uncle Red for a while. This is happening because after a long struggle they’ve finally lost their house to foreclosure and now their Mom plans to stay put to keep working while the kids head to Colorado and Uncle Red. None of the kids want to leave, but they don’t have a choice, so they get on a plane and leave behind home as they know it. When they arrive, they aren’t where they were supposed to land. They are in a mysterious place that is unlike anywhere they’ve ever imagined, let alone been. What’s strange, gets even stranger, and the kids discover that the only way they’re going to get home is if they don’t give up on each other and use all their smarts to work together.

Choldenko succeeds in creating a great dreamlike quality in the novel after the kids arrive in the weird new place called Falling Bird. There are shades of the strangeness of Alice in Wonderland and Oz in the way that they are stuck in a world that seems at once wonderful and at the same time, kind of frightening. The dreamlike quality to the story can sometimes get a little confusing, but I think that most kids will persist because they will want to discover what happens next, and also they will be engaged by the three-voice structure. This brings me to what I see as the real strength of the novel, beyond the imaginative premise: the characters’ voices. It is tricky to have a story told by three characters and have all three characters demonstrate individual, rounded voices. Choldenko is great at capturing how kids really talk and think. You will fall in love with Mouse, the genius little sister who is at once vulnerable and quirky and way too smart for her age. India might be a little bit too much the stereotypical grouchy teen older sister, but she becomes slightly more complex as things go along. The ending leaves lots of questions. Some readers may find this frustrating, but I don’t think that the end is necessarily unsatisfying. It seems to fit that a book that keeps you asking questions the whole way through doesn’t have a tidy “happily ever after” conclusion.

No Passengers Beyond This Point is suspenseful, a little spooky, heartwarming, and quirky, with an ending that is sure to get kids talking.

No Passengers Beyond This Point is published by Dial.

Dust City

There have been a lot of urban fantasy novels published lately. It is possible that some readers may be just a teensy bit done with them for a while. I promise you that Dust City, by Robert Paul Weston, is special. I also promise that there are no werewolves in this book. Honest. You should read it, and not just because the cover is so awesome which will make you want to carry it around, facing out, as you walk down the street, stopping every so often to spend a little time staring into the spooky wolf eyes. You should read it because it is gripping, clever, richly imagined and thematically complex.

Henry Whelp isn’t just any wolf. His father is the wolf who killed Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother. It’s hard enough to be a wolf in Dust City to begin with, but it’s way harder when everyone expects you have murder in your blood, and they’re just waiting for you to lose it, like your dad. For a while, Henry has been keeping quiet in a Home for Wayward Wolves outside the city, but after a murder in the home he breaks out. He’s looking for answers. He wants to find out once and for all what really happened the night his father became a murderer, and he thinks it may have something to do with Dust, a mind-altering drug sold on the black-market in the city. He also hopes he might discover what happened to the fairies, who disappeared and took their powerful fairy dust with them, inspiring thaumaturgical companies to create an entire industry to provide synthetic dust to an increasingly addicted populace.

I will read just about any reworking of a fairy tale. Love ‘em. I was extra excited about Dust City because Robert Paul Weston is uber-creative and accomplished. (His debut verse novel, Zorgamazoo was phenomenal and so much fun. Anyone who can write in iambic pentameter for close to 300 pages without a misstep is a rockstar in my books). The Big Bad Wolf is not the only fairy tale character who makes an appearance here. Henry’s best friend is Jack, a notorious thief with a bag of beans. The gutsy, ass-kicking detective on Henry’s tail is Inspector White, with cherry-red lips and skin white as snow. There are more clever surprises, but I’ll let you discover those yourself. I was prepared for dark, and it was.

Weston’s prose is the kind of work that makes you sure he has put thought into every word and sentence. As I read, there were many moments when I stopped and went back to enjoy his images and his turns of phrase. It’s tight writing that brings the fantasy world vividly to life. The novel as a whole moves at a brisk pace. It’s full of action and imagination, much like Weston’s first book. But what’s different is the grittiness. Much of the story takes place in the underworld of Dust City, quite literally, in tunnels beneath the city which runners use to ferry dust from the warehouse to addicts. There are scenes of violence and torture – nothing that is too much for the audience, but be forewarned. Weston explores the challenges that come when a society is full of all different types of citizens and communities, with different histories, cultures, and degrees of power. It makes for a rich and challenging reading experience which could inspire discussions around the drug trade, oppression, multiculturalism, and justice.

It is exciting and unusual when a writer produces two such unique and different books back-to-back. I can’t wait to see what Robert Paul Weston imagines next. You can hear him discussing the book on a podcast from the CBC. Take a listen here.

Dust City is published by Razorbill in the U.S. and by Penguin Canada in Canada.

This post is cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

Keeper

I LOVE this book. Love. It’s dreamy and magical and gorgeously written. In Keeper, Kathi Appelt has created a more than worthy follow-up to her award-winning Middle Grade novel, The Underneath.

Keeper is about a girl who believes in magic. She believes her mother, who has been gone for seven years, is a mermaid. After a particularly bad day, the day of a much-anticipated Blue Moon, Keeper chooses to go in search of her mermaid mother. She gets into a tiny boat along with her dog, and sets sail, hoping to find answers and solace and a way to mend everything.

What do I love about the book? I love the setting. Keeper lives on this strange little stretch of Texas coast, on a strip of land with only a few houses on it. Appelt brings the Gulf Coast to life so completely that you can smell the salt in the air and hear the surf and picture the sting rays floating under the waves. She devotes such attention to the setting that it’s really more of a character. I adore that.

I love how it’s about one really bad day. All kids can connect to that. The day when every single thing is awful, and keeps getting awful-er, no matter what you do to try to make things better.

I love the animals. There are three wonderful animals in the story: B.D. (Best Dog), Keeper’s loyal companion on her adventure, Captain (B.D.’s best/only seagull friend), and Sinbad (mysterious one-eyed cat). I’m not sure I could say which one of them is my favourite. That’s a good thing. (Warning: for a little while, it looks like something awful happens to one of the animals. It made me have to read really fast to find out if the worst had indeed happened. Don’t worry. Take home message? Dogs should wear life jackets). I’m not sure I’ll ever look at seagulls in quite the same way.

I love that it’s full of love stories – unexpected loves, old ones, lost ones, friendships, the love within families, the bonds we share with animals and that they share with each other. It’s all here.

The beginning of the book has a meandering and repetitive quality to it. You are waiting for something to happen, just like Keeper is waiting for her plan to get moving. At first I wasn’t sure about this slowness. I felt that the story wasn’t getting anywhere. But as I read on, I started appreciating it. As things get going, Appelt weaves in the different elements of the narrative and the backstory so gradually that you appreciate each separate story as it unfolds and joins in with the greater plot.

Keeper sweeps you up. As you read, you can feel all of the elements, the separate threads of story, pulling together. That is a most satisfying feeling, I must say. Love each word. Read this story out loud, and then read it again. It’s a beauty.

Keeper is published by Atheneum.