Return to the Old Kingdom – Terciel & Elinor

Lynn: Terciel & ElinorNice things often land on my porch and recently something especially nice arrived. It was an unexpected surprise too—one I didn’t even know was coming. Inside the box was an advanced reader copy of Terciel & Elinor (Harper/Katherine Tegen, Nov. 2021) by Garth Nix, a prequel to one of my all time favorite series, The Old Kingdom series. I read it immediately, no putting it on my to-read stack nonsense! I am happy to report that this was an entirely absorbing and wonderful reading experience! From the very first sentence, I slid effortlessly back into the Old Kingdom. There are few authors who do world building as well as Garth NIx and the world he has been developing since Sabriel published in 1996 has been captivating readers ever since. Terciel & Elinor gives us the backstory of Sabriel’s parents and begins with their two separate story lines.

Terciel is the Abhorsen-in-Waiting to his Great Great Aunt, the Abhorsen Tizanael. The bells came to Terciel, a poor orphaned street child, when his sister, the previous Abhorsen-in-Waiting died. Now a young man, Terciel is learning the art of necromancy, preparing to take his place in time helping to the lay the dead to rest and to assure that the Dead do not arise and walk again.

On the other side of the Wall from the Old Kingdom, 19-year-old Elinore lives a sheltered life in a large estate slowly falling to ruin. Her mother, a cold and distant figure, lies dying. Elinor, who has been raised primarily by her governess and groom, a famous ex-circus performer, discovers that the her house and estate is about to be foreclosed by creditors. Elinor has no knowledge of the magic of the Old Kingdom or of her own deep connections to it. But the wind is blowing from the North and the Dead are stirring and gathering power. Terciel arrives to reveal that evil is present in the house and what has lain in her mother’s bed is not her mother. The plot that awaits them threatens all on both sides of the Wall and Elinor’s life will never be the same.

Richly developed characters, a breathless plot, and masterful setting are all trademarks of this series and Nix provides them once again in this immersive story. Readers new to the series can begin here and fans of the series will be enthralled by this addition. I admit to slowing my reading as I neared the end, I was so reluctant to leave the Old Kingdom behind. And, now, of course, I cannot resist re-reading the rest of this wonderful series once again. See you when I surface!

Cindy: I received this magical package as well and made the mistake of loaning it first to one of our teen book club alumni who had to fight her own mother for it! I got it back quickly, though, as neither of them could put it down, and I add my praise to that of Lynn and my fellow Nix fans. 

Sabriel opened with this line:

“The woman who had staggered into their forest camp was dead, only holding on to life long enough to pass it on to the baby at her side.”

Now we have some of Sabriel’s mother’s backstory, and her father’s, and what a story it is. The Old Kingdom series is for teen and adult readers who don’t care about the romantic triangles prompting readers to choose “teams.” Nix’s female characters are strong and capable and aren’t sitting around waiting for the male lead to save them. His stories demand focus and attention and provide a rich reading experience. The descriptions of the dead use all of your senses (!) but there are touches of humor and wit to lighten the darkness. I’m left wanting to reread the series, too, but I’ll probably opt for listening to them, if only to hear Tim Curry read them to me again! Antici………….pa-tion. 

Magicked Gingerbread & Sourdough Starter Save the Day!

Cindy: Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T KingfisherI’ve baked hundreds of gingerbread people in my day, but I’ve never been able to make them rise from the cookie sheet and dance or fight off invaders, like Mona does in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (Argyll, 2020) by T. Kingfisher. The tag line on the cover (Siege. Sorcery. Sourdough.) tells you most everything you need to know. If you aren’t intrigued by the title, the tag line, and the cover art, this book probably isn’t for you.  I’ll give you a few details, though, since I’m eager to promote this book to everyone who likes a good fluffy biscuit, whether it’s been magicked to be fluffy or got there on its own. Fourteen-year-old orphan Mona works in her aunt’s bakery and in a world where some people have magical talents, she has a way with dough. In the bakery basement lives Bob, a loyal sourdough starter that blurps and fights with the best of the kingdom’s defenders when some mages-turned-evil try a coup against the reigning out-of-touch duchess.

When Mona finds a dead body in the bakery very early one morning, her life becomes, shall we say, complicated. Initially she runs to save her own life after Bob saves her from an attack but eventually she finds herself in a fight to save the kingdom that involves twelve-foot-tall gingerbread golums under her control. As a loyal citizen, and someone who is fighting to be accepted for her differences, she takes on the battle, but Mona is rightfully resentful.  Why are a couple of kids having to get involved with something that adults in power should have paid attention to and handled? Many teens will relate to that sentiment with the non-magical issues facing us today.

This book flew under the radar for me until a friend read it and raved about it. When I read Kingfisher’s story about the long fight to bring this story to print, I wish I’d been able to send some gingerbread men of my own to help her. At any rate, I’m thrilled to have found it and read it, and dare I hope for a sequel??? Did I mention that I loved this absolutely charming book?

Lynn:  Cindy is absolutely right about this delightful book! I had it on a to-read list but it certainly wasn’t on my active radar. Thanks to an on-the-ball friend who insisted we read this!

If you are looking for something that is the perfect recipe for a summer escape, this book is the delicious answer. Having used a sourdough starter in my past and watching my daughter-in-law now giving it away to everyone, I laughed out loud at Bob—every sourdough baker’s nemesis. And who would imagine a gingerbread cookie army?

Great characters, a fairy-tale trope baked to perfection, and plenty of humor sprinkled on top—this is a satisfying treat that mustn’t be missed!

Cindy & Lynn: Readers, have YOU read anything else by T. Kingfisher? We are placing library holds as we post this; what should we read next?

Not Your Ordinary Fantasy – Oddity

Lynn: Oddity by Eli BrownAre the fantasies being cranked out right now all blending together for you? Not sure exactly which one you read last? Me too! Somehow so many of them look exactly alike and I’m having a hard time figuring out which girl-with-a-sword book I read.  Happily, I have something for you that really stands apart. Hugely enjoyable and something of an oddity itself, Oddity (Walker, 2021) by Eli Brown  is very different from what has been crossing my desk lately. Eli  Brown has created a richly imagined alternate world in which the Louisiana Purchase never happened and the “Louisiana War” has reached an uneasy peace, dividing the lands between Bonaparte, the eastern colony states, and a strong confederation of Native American tribes.

In this land a type of magic exists in which enormously powerful objects are determining the balance of power. Such things as time-traveling matches, a rag doll with unstoppable power, and a pistol that always hits the target create a fascinating scenario although the magical systems are never explained. A cast of characters equally as unusual and engaging continue the intrigue.

Clover Elkin has long been fascinated by Oddities and longs to become a collector just like her mother was. Clover and her doctor father live on the border of French Louisiana and there are frightening signs that the uneasy peace may be ending. Clover’s father hates Oddities and blames his wife’s death on them, forbidding Clover from pursuing her dream. One day as Clover and her father are returning from a call to a patient, they are accosted by a band of strangers who shoot and kill the doctor. As he dies, he urges Clover to take his medical bag, protect the Oddity inside and take it to the Society of Anomalogists. On her journey, Clover meets and gathers some unusual allies including a general who is a talking rooster, a young medicine show con artist, and a hat that steals people’s deepest secrets. The unique world building and wildly eccentric cast of endearing characters make this a stand out book. Best for a good reader willing to follow a complex plot, this is also a door opener for kids to the alternate universe genre.

The book also features outstanding design and production including eye-catching illustrations by Karin Rytter that add to the overall appeal. The door is definitely open for a sequel and that is something I would love to see!

A Pura Belpre Honor – An “Army Kid” and the Vieja

Lynn: Nestor’s dad is deployed to Afghanistan and Nestor and his mom have moved AGAIN. This time they’ve moved in with Nestor’s abuela instead of to another army base. Nestor loves his abuela (and she is a great cook!) but this is the 10th time he’s been the new kid in school. How long before he has to move again? In The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Farrar, 2020), debut author Adrianna Cuevas explores the worries and struggles of kids with an active-duty military parent but also spices her story with a nail-biting supernatural adventure.

Nestor misses his dad deeply and worries about him, writing him letters that he keeps bright and positive but he also resists getting too comfortable in this new school, knowing he will have to move again. But this time might be different. Nestor quickly makes some friends and just as quickly gets drawn into a scary situation. Animals in town are disappearing, there is something terrifying in the woods and the townspeople are suspecting Nestor’s abuela of being a witch. Nestor and his friends set out to rescue the animals and solve the mystery. And, oh yes, Nestor has a secret gift – he can talk to animals and that just might be the key to everything.

Fast-paced and quickly immersive, this is a real treat to read. Well developed characters and an intriguing plot will keep kids racing through the pages. Nestor’s voice is immediate and authentic. South American folklore adds a terrific element to the tale. Readers from military families will appreciate Nestor’s struggles as will kids from so many families across the US who change schools often. A great addition to library collections, this will make a great book talk! Congratulations to Adrianna Cuevas for winning a Pura Belpré Author Honor Award!

Elatsoe – Ghost Dogs, Murder, and a Lipan Apache PI for Teens

Lynn: It is rare to find a book that is wholly fresh and original with a voice at once authentic and unique. it is even rarer for that book to be a debut, yet masterfully crafted and uniquely plotted. In Elatsoe (Levine Querido, 2020), Darcie Little Badger’s power with story, character, world building, and setting took my breath away. In a year when I have struggled with focus, Elatsoe held my attention utterly and her voice and this story will stay with me. This is truly brilliant writing and its mix of mythology, Lipan Apache culture, fantasy, and murder mystery is like nothing I have ever read before.

This is set in an alternative American southwest. Seventeen-year-old Elatsoe plans to become a paranormal investigator when she finishes school but those plans get a kickstart when her cousin Trevor is killed in an apparent car crash. Trevor appears to Elatsoe as he is dying, begging her to protect his family. Elatsoe, her friend Jay, and her ghost dog Kirby investigate and are convinced that Trevor was murdered. Little Badger seamlessly weaves Lipan Apache culture and mythology into a gripping blend of mystery and carefully constructed fantasy, complete with daily magic and an array of monsters. Along the way, Elatsoe deals with her own grief and steps up to take her place in a long line of protectors for her people. Characters are richly developed and the portrayal of a supportive family and respect for traditions is especially heartening.

Little Badger breaks into the taut sense of the mystery with insertions of traditional stories, and while this slows the pace, it heightens the immersion into what makes Elatsoe the person she is. A reader’s patience is rewarded as all these pieces come together into a remarkable whole. The pleasure of this book is enhanced by the striking quality and beauty of the book design. Levine Querido has done an exceptional job, including the black and white sketches by Rovina Cai that begin each chapter.

I was reluctant to leave the book and while I see no indication that this might be a series, I hope that Darcie Little Badger will bring Elatsoe back in future PI cases.

Left-Handed Booksellers of London – Please, Mr. Nix, We Want Some More

Lynn: Have you ever read a book that feels as if it has been written specifically for you? That is exactly how I feel about The Left-Handed Booksellers of London (Harper/KT, Sep. 2020) It is as if I had a wonderful conversation with Garth Nix about fantasy books and he immediately wrote this marvelous book with all those elements in play. I’ve always loved Garth Nix’s work. The Old Kingdom series is one of my all-time favorites but The Left-Handed Booksellers feels special. An urban fantasy set in an alternate England with bookshops that are far more than bookshops and booksellers with special gifts keeping an eye on the magical elements of Britain. What urban fantasy fan, bookstore-loving reader could possibly ask for more?

Susan Arkshaw has grown up with a single mother who often seems to be so distracted or inward-focused that she seems absent. Yet Susan’s childhood has been a good one, bolstered by a recurring comforting dream of being guarded by unusual beings. Now 18, Susan has earned a place at a prestigious art school in the fall but she is leaving for London early, on a mission to track down the father she has never known anything about. Her first stop in London is with her most concrete prospect and it is a spectacular disaster. With the stab of a silver pin, a strange young man dispatches the man Susan came to see. Suddenly they are pursued by creatures out of legends and nightmares into a place outside of the world Susan knows.  The young man, Merlin St. Jacques, is on a search too, and their paths seem linked. Incredibly, Susan discovers a world of legend, myth, and magic that exists alongside her own, and policed by the Booksellers of London. The Booksellers possess special gifts and abilities. The left-handed, such as Merlin, have more physical gifts for combat while the right-handed have more intellectual gifts. Together, they keep the supernatural world more or less in check. But something has knocked the system completely out of order and Susan may be the key to it all.

This intelligent, inventive, and immersive story is a pure pleasure to read. The writing flows so smoothly, the characters are wonderfully developed individuals (complete with flaws and quirks) who grow and change through the story. The plot is compelling with perfectly placed twists and chapter-ending cliff-hangers and the magic system and world-building are simply superb. I read this as slowly as I could manage and still, the book was done before I was ever ready to stop reading. I loved the touches of humor, the comments on writing, publishing, the book world, and the expertly managed story arc. The resolution was completely satisfying but left me yearning to stay in this incredible world.

My only complaint is that the jacket blurb says this is a stand-alone book. Please, Mr. Nix, more, please! The booksellers of London and this brilliant world are just too good to leave behind!

Cindy: Merlin is a great character, and like Lynn, I’m hoping this isn’t the end. I’d love more of him, Susan, and the Booksellers of London. Merlin laments being denied access to the customers, mostly being assigned to moving stock around. He even pleads to be put in Special Orders, “That would be better than the stockroom.” His cousin, Vivien, replies, “You would get cross checking Books in Print and destroy the microfiche reader…” These and other nods to the professional bookseller world are fabulous for the book nerd readers amongst us.

Another favorite element is the frequent complaints about the dangerously close-to-truth knowledge that ignorant fantasy writers put in their books. Even the Bard gets a slap when Susan compares the information she’s been given by the Booksellers. She asks, “Like Oberon and Titania?” Merlin’s muttered response is “Shakespeare knew too much.”

This story is recommended for high school, but it’s definitely an adult crossover. Lynn and I enjoyed it as thoroughly as any teen will!

Hilary McKay Proves There Is Magic in Reading

Lynn: Passionate readers have always talked about the absorbing magic of books. One of our favorite authors, Hilary McKay, explores that concept in her new middle-grade book, The Time of Green Magic (S&S/McElderry, 2020) set to be published in July. Eleven-year-old Abi is a reader.

“She read while her father dragged into her life Polly as a stepmother, plus two entirely unwanted brothers. She read through the actual wedding ceremony… She read through the year that followed, squashed with three strangers into a too small house. Most recently she had read through the start of a new school. But she had never read a book like this.”

For a few startled moments, Abi was ON the Kon-Tiki in the middle of the ocean. She had never experienced such a vivid feeling of being in the book and when she came back to herself, there was salt on her skin. Was it the book, Abi wonders, or something strange about the new house? This delicious opening introduces readers to Abi, her father Theo, and her newly blended family. Desperate to find a bigger home, the family has moved into a house swathed in green ivy with room for all of them. It is far too expensive for their budget but the house enchanted them all. I was hooked from the beginning and the way this plotline plays out is a joy that avid readers will love.

But there is a lot more going on here! One of the elements of McKay’s writing that I deeply appreciate is the way she gets inside kids’ heads and describes so perfectly what she finds there. That element nearly stole the show for me in this book as we as readers feel every bit of Abi’s reluctance to share her family with her deeply annoying new stepbrothers, 6-year-old Louis’s emotional hunger for an animal/companion all his own, Max’s painful quarrel with his former best-friend or his soul stunning first crush on Louis’s babysitter. The thoughts, feelings, actions, and fears of each character are exquisitely written here as are the intricate and achingly real relationships developing between them. In fact, they felt so real while I was reading that I wouldn’t have been surprised to have had a little green magic bring them walking into my living room! Hand this wonderful story to every book lover you know!

Cindy: We’ve often raved, I mean blogged, about Hilary McKay’s books (The Exiles series is one of my all-time favorite series). Can I rave about the cover on this one? The cat is larger and not quite what I imagined as I read the book, but it will certainly draw in readers. I want my own attic room in this ivy-covered cottage. Lynn describes the book beautifully, but one of my additional favorite parts are the letters Granny Grace sends to Abi from Jamaica. Granny Grace finally was able to pursue her own dreams after caring for Abi during the ten years after her mother’s death. It is she who provides the title when she ends her letter, “So much ivy, so much news! What a time of green magic!” Her letters always come with a pressed Jamaican flower, too, and little Louis is jealous. He’s not a reader and avoids all tricks to get him to read until, finally, a letter comes addressed to him. My heart melted a little. My heart also melted as Max devotes himself to learning French to speak to Louis’s French babysitter, Esmé, in an effort to get this older girl to notice him. Young love. Book love. Family love. Don’t miss this one. “Iffen” you do, you’ll be sorry.

Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth – Masterful Storytelling

Lynn:  Ask a reader what they are looking for in a book and you will get a myriad of answers. Some want to be informed, others seek to be uplifted, diverted, or entertained. Some readers want a thriller, or a mystery, while others want romance, a good laugh, or a satisfying cry. But I am convinced that what is basic to all readers is the love of story. There are few writers working today who tell a better story than Philip Pullman. Since The Golden Compass (Random/Knopf, 1995) burst into the children’s book world, Pullman has enthralled readers. He has also challenged, enraged, confused, and astonished readers at times but his richly inventive books have never failed to weave a story like no other.

His latest, The Secret Commonwealth (Random/Knopf, 2019) has just published and I dropped everything else to read it. I will admit to groaning when I first got it and discovered that it was 633 pages long! As a book reviewer with towering stacks of books waiting to be read, that 633 pages meant that 3 other books got pushed way back in the queue! But Pullman worked his magic again and I was snared from the first word, sinking with exquisite pleasure back into Lyra’s world. I speak from the heart here when I say that I was immediately deeply immersed in the story. 633 pages flew by. I hated having to put the book down, thought about it when I wasn’t reading it, and found every reason to return to it. I’m thinking about it still. Philip Pullman is a master storyteller and this book should not be missed.

Plot??? I can’t begin to do it justice. Let’s just say that this is 8 years after The Amber Spyglass (Random/Knopf, 2000) and 20 after the events of La Belle Sauvage (Random/Knopf, 2017). Lyra is now 20, a student at St. Sophia’s College, and deeply miserable because she and her daemon Pantalaimon have quarreled seriously and are barely speaking to each other. Can you hate your own soul? Authoritarianism is rising, there are desperate immigrants fleeing horrors in their homeland, once benign governments shaping information to manipulate their citizens, brutal terrorists, and cynicism and scorn rule. There are journeys and mysteries, love and sacrifice, hope and despair, good people and bad, and of course, the question of the secret commonwealth. This is a magnificent sweeping story and I loved every word. There is also a whopping cliff-hanger that has left me bereft as I try to calculate how long I have to wait till the next book. This reader cannot wait.

Cindy: A few weeks ago, before even realizing that The Book of Dust, book 2, was imminent, I showed the HBO His Dark Materials book trailer to my 8th graders before book talks. Every copy of The Golden Compass circulated, something I hadn’t achieved through my booktalks. The first episode of the HBO series airs November 3rd. Then Lynn alerted me to her reserved library copy of The Secret Commonwealth and I ordered the audiobook immediately. I am happily immersed in the story, about halfway through, and can’t wait to get back in my car each day. Lyra and Pantalaimon’s arguments are fierce and heartbreaking and the narration makes them come painfully to life. Michael Sheen did such a beautiful job narrating La Belle Sauvage that I knew I wanted to listen again. It will take me longer to read it, but as Lynn said, we don’t want this story to end.

New Fantasy Series Starts for Middle School Readers

Lynn: According to our middle school book club readers, there are NEVER too many fantasy series to keep them busy! Yup – they are a bottomless pit of fantasy eagerness. I’m sure you have readers like ours so I’m happy to suggest some brand new series that will delight our readers and yours. Of course this also means they will be bugging us all for the next book in the series the MINUTE they finish the first one!

Anya and the Dragon (Houghton/Versify, 2019) by Sofiya Pasternack

What would it hurt to help the Tsar’s people kill the scary river dragon? Anya thinks it would be worth it to save her family’s home and farm from being taken over for unpaid taxes. Her soldier father hasn’t been heard from and Anya’s Jewish family is often harassed by the villagers. But then the dragon saves Anya’s life and he turns out to be young and nice! What should she do? Pasternak fills her debut fantasy with creatures from Slavic and Jewish folklore and sets this exciting tale in an alternate Kievan Rus.

Touches of humor balance the more serious subjects of antisemitism and oppression. Anya is a strong and determined heroine and Pasternak’s dragon is fresh, inventive and easy to care about. A well-drawn cast of characters and the friendships with newcomer Ivan and the dragon are central to this tale of a lonely girl taught to avoid notice. There’s plenty of danger and adventure here and readers will be eager for the next installment.

 

 

The Changeling (Algonquin, 2019) by William Ritter

A goblin creeps into a nursery with a changeling who is desperately important to the magical world of the Wild Wood. But something goes wrong and he ends up leaving both babies in the nursery. Everyone knows one of the babies is a changeling but it is impossible to tell them apart and Annie Burton raises the twins, loving them both with her whole heart. 13 years later a mysterious letter arrives that leads the twins into the Wild Wood. There they encounter a fantastical array of magical beings including an annoying shape-shifting little girl, a hinkypunk and the Thing.

SO much fun with just the right amount of scariness and ultimate reassurance about the boundless capacity of love and family. I cannot wait to see where this leads next.

 

The Last Chance Hotel (Scholastic, 2019) by Nicki Thornton

Seth dreams of being a great chef like his father who left long ago. But for now he is a kitchen boy at the remote Last Chance Hotel, owned by the cruel Bunn family who take advantage of the lonely boy. Now an important gathering of magicians is taking place at the hotel and the Bunn’s are desperate to please the important guests. Seth creates a fabulous dessert especially for the most illustrious guest, Dr. Tallomius. The magicians meet in secret behind locked doors and Seth hopes his dessert will win him a ticket out of the Last Chance. But when the door are flung open, Dr. Thallomius lies dead on the floor and Seth is the chief suspect.

A little Agatha Christie, a little Harry Potter, but mostly this fun magical mystery is entirely its own original and entertaining story. Lots of engaging characters including a talking cat and a whole school of red herrings!