Category Archives: Fantasy

Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke

Cornelia Funke is a big-name children’s author.  She’s had two of her books turned into films (Inkheart and Thief Lord) and for a few years when Harry Potter and magic ruled the shelves, Funke was all the rage with the under 13 set.  And I still think she’s a big name, though her previous book, Reckless had a much quieter reception than usual.  I have to admit I come late to Funke – Reckless was the first novel I read by her, and now Ghost Knight is the second.  Ghost Knight is a return to her usual target audience and tone – a light fantasy adventure story for 8-12 year old readers, though not without some scary moments.

Set in Salisbury, England, Ghost Knight takes advantage of all the legendary hauntings in the city and its cathedral.  The main character, Jon Whitcroft, has just been sent to boarding school in Salisbury by his long-suffering mother.  With all the furore of an eleven-year-old, Jon hates his mother’s new boyfriend, “The Beard.”  His attempts to sabotage their relationship seems to have made him very unpopular in the family – and his latest stunt has resulted in him being packed off to boarding school.

The story really gets going when Jon is chased through the school grounds by a evil-looking gang of ghosts intent on killing him.  None of his classmates can see them, but thankfully his attractive schoolmate Ella, who has experience in these matters, believes him and offers to help.  Together they summon the spirit of Sir William Longspee to help, and together the three face a vendetta and a mystery dating back several centuries.

As I said, this book is fun and rather charming.  The illustrations are beautiful, and would make it a very pleasant read for most 9-11 year olds (and their parents).  What I found frustrating is that the plot seemed to have mostly resolved itself about 2/3 of the way through the book.  Though there were still mysteries to solve, there was no big climax at the end.  Instead there were a number of smaller climaxes scattered through the last two-thirds of the novel.  So while I was pulled along enough to finish Ghost Knight, I wished the suspense and pace had been more intense during the last hundred pages or so.  Also odd was the narration, which told the story from the future.  One got the feeling that an adult Jon was narrating in a wiser voice-over, much like The Wonder Years.  This led to some so-so foreshadowing, but mostly it took another chunk out of the suspense and supposedly life-threatening situations.

I wish I had read Inkheart to know how Ghost Knight compares.  For me, this was a decent read, with some nice imagination and ok characters.  However, I wanted it to be just a little bit better and more-attention grabbing throughout.  Perhaps I’ll have to  bite the bullet and watch that terrible Brendan Fraser movie after all?

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Wisdom’s Kiss by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Wisdom’s Kiss is an odd little book.  I did enjoy reading it – it is very whimsical and clever.  The storytelling was unusual enough to add a degree of freshness to what might otherwise be a hackneyed fairy tale.  Several characters tell the story in a diary style, or as a memoir, and there are other chapters written up like encyclopedia entries and a play.  Each character’s very individual voice makes for an interesting series of observations on the plot – from the level-headed and kind-hearted Queen Mother Ben, to the opinionated Princess Wisdom (“Dizzy”), and to the pompous and self-involved performer “Felis El Gato, Impresario Extraordinaire, Soldier of Fortune, Mercenary of Stage and Empire, Lord of the Legendary Fist of God, Famed Throughout the Courts and Countries of the World and The Great Sultanate: The Booted Maestro”.  Admittedly, several of these voices (like the last two) were rather annoying and I found myself feeling very grateful that they were interspersed with so many others.  In particular, the play was entertaining with its out-dated and purple language – full of asides and overly-dramatic speeches.  The one aspect of the form that I didn’t enjoy was the tendency to introduce some unfamiliar thing with a mention, and then have it fully explained in a following chapter written as an encyclopedia entry.  It was both a bit obtuse (because I felt like I was missing something) and too explicit (because by the time the encyclopedia entry came along I felt like I had pieced it together).

In terms of the plot: there is Princess Wisdom who finds herself engaged to a man she doesn’t love and whose mother is after the kingdom.  There is Fortitude, a maiden who can intuit the future and who has been in love with a young fellow named Tips, now a soldier, her whole life.  Throw in an emperor, a circus, a conspiracy or two, a giant golden orb, a cat and a bit more magic, and you have yourself an entertaining fairy tale.  I wasn’t able to predict the exact climax, or one of the pairings, and that was a nice feature.  Again, for a fairy tale type story, I found the plot relatively fresh.

My preference is still Dianna Wynne Jones or Ella Enchanted author Gail Carson Levine for this type of book.  However, Wisdom’s Kiss was fun and reasonably unique.  Good for those young, clever readers looking for a magical tale (9-12).

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Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Shiver has been all the rage for the past couple of years among the teen vampire/werewolf fan set.  And I can see why: it’s got the same obsessive relationship stuff (almost but not quite as chaste as Twilight); the same star-crossed species theme; and a similar paranormal ethos.  Like Bella, Grace abandons friends and family (though, to be fair, her family abandoned her first) to be with her non-human boyfriend all the time.  She also watches him go wistfully, wishing she could transform herself in order to be like him.  Meanwhile, Sam the wolf (like Edward the Vampire) would give anything to abandon his supernaturalness and just be human.  Both boys also quake with repressed sexual desire for their loved ones (though SPOILER Sam’s release comes a lot quicker than Edward’s, and without marriage – which, frankly, I found refreshing).

I didn’t mind Shiver, but it certainly didn’t rock my world.  The concept was not bad – humans bit by werewolves transform according to the temperature, which mostly leads to human summers and wolf winters.  There are a lot of inconsistencies in this setup (what if you move to Florida where it’s always warm?) and the execution (Sam’s transitions initially don’t make a lot of sense)… but gradually most holes seem to be mostly filled by the end.

I read Shiver slowly, so by the end it did seem to be a bit of a slog for me.  I found myself just wanting it to be over, and having a pretty good idea of where it was going (I think one major thing surprised me.  The rest, not so much.)  But I think if you read it all in one go, you’d enjoy it a lot more.  Good for Twilight fans, though not nearly as captivating.  Unlike Twilight, though, I didn’t feel vaguely dirty when I finished Shiver.  The main character has a lot more agency than Bella did, and though she moons over Sam, they have a pretty interesting connection and it’s not quite as mindless (or repetative) as Bella’s mooning over Edward.

That said, I did think Wolf Blood by N. M Browne was a whole lot more interesting take on the werewolf dynamic.  Really great, strong characters driving that – with some good substance, and an even stronger connection to the real animals than Shiver  (even if it did drag a bit in the middle also).  (And for a better book about the cold, read Iain Lawrence’s spectacular Winter Pony).

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Half World by Hiromi Goto

Half World is one of those books that I pick up from time to time from the Children’s section where I work.  I find a poor, neglected volume that is due for return to the publisher, but which I can’t send back before at least trying first. I was somewhat surprised to find Half World on my returns list – not only is it an award-winner with an amazing cover, I was sure it had enough buzz to propel it along.  But life is tough at my bookstore – often without a staff member to love and recommend it, a book will die an undeserved death.  This is why I constantly lament the imbalance in my time/book ratio in life.  This time my efforts were rewarded – I found Half World to be a solid, satisfying fantasy with enough unusual elements to make it very enjoyable.

I loved the setup for Half World: there are three realms of existence: the Spirit Realm, the realm of Flesh, and Half World.  These realms are meant to be interconnected – we pass through Flesh to Spirit, or to Half Life if we must cleanse ourselves of something.  After a stretch in Half World we find release as a spirit; when our energy begins to flag we are reborn as flesh.  But somehow these realms have become disjointed: the spirit realm is drifting away as spirits forget their connection to flesh and slowly fade from existence; the flesh world is filled with dismay and discord without the release provided by the other two worlds; and those in half life are trapped, repeating their trauma and reliving their nightmares for an eternity.

In comes Melanie Tamaki, an unhappy fourteen-year-old who has been neglected by her mother and outcast by her peers.  Melanie doesn’t know that she belongs to two realms: her mother became pregnant in Half World and journied to the Wold of Flesh to raise her daughter.  Now, fourteen years later they are both being called back to repay a debt and to account for the impossibility of this life that was created in Half World.

Once it gets going, Half World becomes one of those child/teen-goes-to-a-strange-world-and-saves-it-then-returns-home-with-a-solution-to-his/her-original-problems book.  It’s such an overused plot that I have become quite impatient  with it.  Unless the book is special – we’re talking Narnia special – then I get very bored and annoyed.  I think I find these books tedious because they always end the same way – the world is saved and the character returns home with more than they originally sought.  If the ending is going to be that predictable, then I darn well want the main story to be unique and fascinating.

In this case, it was almost fascinating enough.  There is not much that is truly unique about Half World, but it does contain some great elements capably combined.  The feel is very Neil Gaiman, with a disturbing alternate world and some kind and clever guides (I’m thinking Neverwhere and Coraline in particular).  It has just the same level of threat and violence that you would find in one of his books.  The great villan (I won’t ruin his secret, which is one of the best parts of the book) is Mr. Glueskin.  In his gloopy, sticky and disguisting appearance, he reminded me of Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, and slimy, depressed Howl.  These are wonderful authors to borrow from, and Hiromi Goto does a good job of creating a similar feel, but with a concept that stands all on its own.

The main character was interesting – Melanie has a good heart, but trouble remembering things, and she has never fit in.  I am actually quite pleased to see that there is a sequel coming out next spring because I’d like to see her grow up – there was just a hint of what she could become in this novel.  I would also enjoy seeing her in love, and being loved by someone romantically.  I think she could be remarkable if she was ever in her own element (I’m not sure what that would be though – she navigates our world and half world well, but doesn’t belong to either).

So I have been won over, and the book will stay on our shelves.  I enjoyed the Japanese elements and fantasy that borrowed from Asian sources.  There were amazing illustrations, and an interesting enough tale and characters to keep me moving through the well-drawn (though familiar) plot.

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Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

This is one of my old favourites – the Alanna quartet by Tamora Pierce.  In order, the books are: Alanna, In the Hands of the Goddess, The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, and Lioness Rampant.

I actually saw Tamora Pierce once.  Years ago when I was working at a bookstore as a cashier, I worked an in-store event where she appeared.  Having never heard of her, I was mildly amused to see dozens of teenage (and some post-teenage) girls pack in to see a mild-mannered middle age woman discuss a series of fantasy books she had written (I don’t know why, but I always expect fantasy authors to look more dramatic, or toned.  I forget that these are people who enjoy escapist fiction for a reason).  I kind of dismissed it as fluff at the time, but was eventually persuaded by a co-worker to pick up the series a few years later (at another bookstore).  And of course I loved it.  At that point, I would have happily joined the excited teens clutching books and eager to see Ms. Pierce.

Recently I found most of this series in a bargain-bin at my local library – they were clearing them out, shame on them!  Their loss was my gain and for about $1.50 I had three quarters of the series.  I put them on my shelf for later… and it turned out to be only two weeks later that I decided to read them as a present to myself.

Alanna of Trebond is about eleven when the first book starts, and she is about to be sent off to a convent to learn how to be a lady; her twin brother Thom is to be schooled as a page, then a squire, then a knight for the realm of Tortall.  However, Alanna has other plans.  She convinces Thom to switch places, and the two disguise themselves and slip away from their absent-minded father – Alanna to knight school, and Thom to the convent where he will learn to be a magician. However, only boys can become knights, and in order to realize her dream, Alanna must disguise herself as a male, putting herself at great risk.  Though the obstacles and challenges she faces as the smallest and weakest page are many, her stubborn dedication pays off and she rises through the ranks.  The first two books follow her years at school as she becomes a knight and makes friends with Jonathan, the crown prince, and George, the disreputable but loyal King of Rogues.  The last two books chronicle her adventures during the first couple years of her knighthood as she saves numerous people and kingdoms.

When I read them the first time, the love triangle between Alanna, Jonathan and George made me charge through the series.  Which was her perfect match and who would she end up with?  (Perfect for Hunger Games fans who wouldn’t mind fantasy)  Unfortunately, the relationship issues in the book also make it hard to recommend.  I’m never quite sure what age it is written for.  As the first one starts off, you think – “ah, a perfect book for a 10-12 year old” – just the write tone and dificultly of language and plot.  However, as it goes on it gets more complex and she begins sleeping with the men in her life (though there is never any detailed description of course).  Rather like how Harry Potter becomes very very dark as the series progresses.  I kind of love that she actually sleeps with them and it’s an issue of course – but not a huge huge one.  In her mind there’s no wrong in sleeping with someone you love – the world doesn’t end, and in itself it isn’t a holy grail.  But I do have a hard time recommending it to 10 year-olds and their mothers as a result…

There is a lot of action and just stuff in these books.  They are great fantasy/adventure, but their plotting is admittedly awkward, and the conspiracy leading to the climax in the last book is still confusing and full of plot holes on the second read.  However, that shouldn’t stop anyone from reading Alanna.  The main character is so strong and amazing – I really would love all pre-teens to read these.  The books date from the 1980s, and there have been many iterations over the years.

Recently they have been repackaged, and while I find the new covers kind of distastefully Disney (Alanna is like a gigantic tinkerbell minus the wings and plus the sword.  Why is she glowing??) – maybe it will appeal to teens today.  They remain my favourites, and I very much look forward to my next trek through this excellent series.

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Witchlanders by Lena Coakley

I didn’t have high expectations for this book, though the beautiful cover immediately grabbed me.  But it has blown me away – this is my favourite YA fantasy in quite a while.  It is insightful, smart, innovative, and well written.  I can’t tell you how pleased I am to have found it.  From the ending it seems there will be sequels, and I am looking forward to following more of this story.

Witchlanders very much has a classic fantasy feel to it.  There is magic, peasant technology, and age-old enemies.  Ryder is a young man trying to hold his family together following his father’s death.  His mother’s increasingly erratic behaviour and dependence on Maiden’s woe – a flower that gives the power of prophesy, but is addictive and poisonous – is destroying the family balance.  When she foresees terrible events, Ryder refuses to believe in her or the magic of the witches who claim to protect his people.

The second point of view is the voice of Falpian, a young man sent into exile along the border by his disappointed father.  Falpian is one of the Baen, the old enemy of Ryder’s people.  The Baen’s magic is in song, though Falpian seems to have no skill in this art.  As Ryder and Falpian draw closer, an intangible connection between the would-be enemies grows stronger, and becomes a powerful bond that neither expected to find.

I won’t give away any more of the plot – but the themes of this book are incredible.  The brutality of war; the nature of difference, prejudice and ignorance; the necessity of challenging those in power who would lead without question; the subjugation of women; the importance of faith; and the connection of living things are all strong themes running through this book.

Witchlanders does what fantasy and sci-fi should do best – take us somewhere unfamiliar to remind us of our own world and its problems.  Unlike many YA fantasies that I have read, it doesn’t just skim the surface of magic/action/adventure – it digs deep and poses questions for the reader.  Here are two quotes that stopped me in my tracks:

“‘No,’ he said. ‘He is not on our side.  But Skyla, are we only allowed to care about people who are on our side?'”

“Do you think anyone is born a killer?  Do you think I was?  Trust me, I know what I’m asking.  An assassin’s first murder is himself.  He kills the man he was.”

[My apologies to Simon and Schuster – I’m not actually checking these quotes against the finished manuscript as I’m supposed to.  I’ll just have to hope they’re in the finished copy!]

Added to the complexity of ideas is the complexity of the characters.  Not only are the two main characters well-drawn, they have very conflicted but believable loyalties and impulses.  And the range of other character is satisfying. Most are a mix of bad and good: some intent on following orders; others follow an inner sense of what is right or a loyalty to a particular loved one; others are wrong-headed and misguided, but again are doing what their experience and world view tells them is right.  I don’t think anyone is truly evil, though many evil actions are performed.  Nor does everyone gets what they deserve – innocent or kind people are harmed and some awful people are never punished.  Some readers may find this frustrating; some might see it as simply an open door for a sequel (which I’m sure it is); I again found it a nice reflection on the unfairness of life and the unique ability of those in power to stay in power whatever their actions.

Though I clearly loved it, I recognize that Witchlanders is not for everyone.  It is high fantasy (though there are no dwarves or elves), and there is almost no hint of a love story.  Most won’t have the same reaction as me, and might experience only luke-warm enjoyment.  That said, I think the action and voices are strong enough to interest most people who are well-disposed to fantasy.  I sincerely hope that many people do give it a try, and that it is not lost or neglected in the mass of dystopian fiction making its way through the market right now.  Lena Coakley has created a gem, and it deserves a few moments to shine.

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Earwig and the Witch by Diana Wynne Jones


This is a fantastic new primary book by one of my all-time favourite authors, Diana Wynne Jones.

If you haven’t already read her Chrestomanci series (particularly Charmed Life and The Pinhoe Egg), or Howl’s Moving Castle, then you should run out and get them. Now.  Right now.  Why are you still reading this?  Go get them!!  She was absolutely delightful, and has been in the biz for a long time (Charmed Life was written in 1973 – I was so sad to hear she had passed away March 2011).

Admittedly simpler than her books for older readers, Earwig and the Witch is about a young orphan named Earwig who is very good at getting her own way.  Though she has a “delightful” personality, she rather rules the roost at the orphanage and is not at all interested in being adopted.  Nevertheless, she is… by a witch (in poor disguise) named Bella Yaga and a nine-foot man named Mandrake who sometimes has horns.  Mandrake in particular is classic Diana Wynne Jones – he is a stern and smouldering presence through much of the story, until he (spoiler!) turns out to be an old softy.

A charming and fun book for young readers – I wish there were going to be more to look forward to.

 

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The Girl Who Could Fly by Victoria Forester

This has been our number one hit in the kid’s section at my book store for weeks and weeks now.  And it’s had no staff assistance; I think it’s selling mostly on cover art and concept alone.  So finally I thought I should take a look and see what all the fuss was about.

I had low expectations (because I’m snotty like that sometimes), but I did enjoy it – more than I thought I would.  It’s fun and clever, though quite dark.  The plot is well done and capably told.  It’s certainly interesting and has some decent characters.  A very solid book.  It didn’t blow me out of the water, but I can see why it’s so popular.  One thing I did notice, is it’s got a lot of influences, or reference points.  As a Stephenie Meyer quote on the cover points out “It’s the oddest/sweetest mix of Little House on the Prairie and X-Men…”  She’s quite right: and I’m going to give you a summary of the book using the various references I found (I’m sure there are more).  Be warned: there will be spoilers!!  And also realize that this isn’t meant to be a criticism – I think you could do the same for many books… pick them apart and look at where the author might have got their ideas (enough people have done it for Harry Potter, that’s for sure).

Anne of Green Gables: Not sure if Forester has read this Canadian classic, but her main character Piper McCloud is young Anne all over.  She talks and talks and talks of nonsense, completely annoying/baffling those around her.  She lives on a farm with an old couple (her parents rather than an adopted family of a spinster and her bachelor brother) who are quite reserved and traditional. Oh, and there’s some very meddlesome neighbours.

Sarah, Plain and Tall/Little House/any other Newbery-winner -type-book about a young girl on a farm (there are dozens):  The narrow-minded folk in the town; the spark and heart of Piper; the gruff love of her family – all very much these rural heartwarming books.

The Sheep Pig/Babe: A wife who talks a lot, and a very silent husband.  Again – very Anne of Green Gables also.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Some of the weirdness is a little reminiscent; but mostly, Piper learns to fly by throwing herself at the ground.  Just like Arthur and his attempts to fly by missing the ground.

Catch-22: After she flies in front of the whole town and causes and international stir, Piper is picked up by the I.N.S.A.N.E. agency (surely another acronym might have inspired some trust?) by Agent A. Agent whose last name just happened to be Agent. Very Major Major Major Major.

Series of Unfortunate Events/anything by Roald Dahl: in tone, this book is very much going for the tongue-in-cheek style of these comedies and others in this genre.  Plus the adults are wicked and the children unfortunate in their luck.

X-Men: Piper gets hauled off to a secret school for children with special talents (I.N.S.A.N.E.).  They include people who can manipulate the weather; shoot electricity out of their hands; do telekinesis; out-think anyone; etc.  The trick is, here they are encouraged not to use their powers.

101 Dalmatians/Holes/Narnia/Wizard of Oz: The main villan, Dr Letitia Hellion (again, they should have been able to tell this by her name) is very much like the evil female villan in all of these books.  She’s cruel to animals (Cruella); has a funny thing with lipstick (the Warden of Camp Green Lake); seduces children to her side (the Witch from Narnia); and has an unexpected weak spot and a flying thing (Wicked Witch of the West).  I’m sure there’s another half-dozen evil villainesses that could also be cited.

Princess Bride: An obscure one, I know.  But the I.N.S.A.N.E. headquarters is divided into 14 floors; on each is a different group of animal/plant species.  As Piper first travelled through on an elevator, all I could think of was the Princess Bride scene (omitted from the movie) of Inigo and Fezzik travelling through room after room of predatory animals in the Zoo.  Although here the animals are being tortured and experimented on to remove their specialness.

The Odd Couple: When Piper finally teams up with super-brain Conrad to stop Dr. Hellion, it is very odd couple.  He’s a hard-hearted genius (we think), and she’s a soft-hearted yokel.  A very unlikely pair, though only Conrad seems to notice.

Disney: Most anything, really.  In particular, I’m thinking of the cricket that plays a fairly major role.  While he doesn’t talk like Jiminy, he does sing opera (that was delightfully unexpected).

James Bond: A crazy villain with a super-fortress in Antarctica (I think?).  It’s very spy and totally Bond.

Harry Potter: A school for wizar– no- for kids with special powers.  But then, what isn’t Harry Potter in this post-Harry Potter world?  Even stuff published earlier is Harry Potter retroactively, it seems.

The Invisible Man: There’s an invisible man.  Don’t get it confused with Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison like I did; they are very different beasts.  But while we’re on the topic, I highly recommend Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H. F. Saint.  It was an amazing book, and much much better than the crappy Chevy Chase movie they made.

One Flew Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest: Hellion threatens to give Conrad a lobotomy, and the creepy control she has over the facility and the children is very Nurse Ratchett.  She subdues people just like patients from this book/movie.  And the kids behave with kind of the same desire for wild abandon (spurned on by Piper/Jack Nicholson) as the inmates.  It’s actually surprisingly similar to One Flew Over the Coo-Coo’s Nest.

1984/Brave New World/Clockwork Orange: In that characters are brainwashed to forget who they are and what’s important to them.  Here it’s a combination of drugs and physical torture.  Piper wasn’t quite saying that 2+2=5 after her treatment, but she certainly lost herself (for a bit).

Star Trek: The youngest of the children heals Piper by placing his hands on her – there’s a blinding white light as it takes effect.  I’m absolutely certain I saw this on a STNG episode once.

Any Heist Movie/Book Anywhere: There’s a couple of attempted and failed heists in this book, as well as the final revolt.  In addition to being quite spy-y, it’s also quite heist-y.
Hunger Games: Sort of, in that there’s a revolt.  I’m actually grasping because I didn’t pin down as many references towards the end.  It tied up quite cleverly, though the very end was a bit sickenly tidy.

Mysterious Benedict Society: Unusual children that manage to overturn a big evil using their unusual powers.  They end up being a fantastic team and prizing their unusualness.  And because this will have a sequel, just like Benedict.

 

These are just the ones I caught – and most probably don’t really apply… Forester may never have read/seen many of these things.  Or maybe she did.  But you can tell by the quantity and quality of most of the references (some of my very favourite things, ever), that even if this isn’t an original book, it’s made up of some great elements combined in an unusual mosaic.

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The Tiffin by Mahtab Narsimhan

This was a nice read for ages 9-12.  I particularly love the romantic and unexpected premise.  Every day in Bombay (Mumbai) a group of deliverymen, dabbawallas, carry thousands of boxed lunches – tiffins – to workers all over the city.  Only one tiffin in millions is ever lost – but that’s what happens in this story.  The missing tiffin in this case has an important note in it, and because it is lost a young boy, Kunal, is separated from his mother.  He grows up in very Harry-Potter-pre-Howarts conditions (except worse), until he is finally rescued by a kind dabbawalla named Vinayak.  When he learns of his mother’s existence, Kunal is determined to find her using the powerful network of tiffins and dabbawallas.

Overall, this was a great read and a very good story.  I sometimes was annoyed by Kunal’s actions and the silly decisions he made out of desperation, and the constant forgiveness he always got from those around them.  But he is young and the forgiveness became important to the story’s end, so I forgave it.  Mostly, I loved the dabbawallas and their network.  I enjoyed the sense of dedication and professionalism they had, and their achievement of delivering those hot lunches all over such an enormous city.  So often India (along with many others countries outside of Europe and North America) is shown to be a place with too much waste, inefficiency and nepotism.  So it was nice to see a network that worked like a well-oiled machine.

A very solid and interesting book for its age range.

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Wolf Blood by N. M. Browne

Another young adult Bloomsbury UK title, this one released in July.  I actually very much enjoyed Wolf Blood.  It’s set in the first century AD when the Romans are trying to conquer the British Celtic tribes (for those interested: they succeed despite widespread rebellion by Boudicca and others only to have their power slowly eroded over the next few centuries as Rome falters and finally falls).  The main character is Trista, a very strong female warrior and seer who is plagued by horrifying and violent visions of the future.  While escaping a Roman attack, Trista meets Morcant, a Roman soldier whose mother was a tribeswoman.  Trista quickly recognizes Morcant’s dual nature – he is part man and part wolf.  He is at first unaware of this duality, and subsequently refuses to accept the animal side of his nature. They are of course drawn to each other and end up traveling together as outcasts in this most dangerous land.

So it’s werewolves and historical fiction rolled into one – which, honestly, is a kind of refreshing mix.  Admittedly, I’m a bit of a sucker for historical fiction, and I spent enough time teaching in Britain that this era is particularly familiar to me.  I’m not sure how it will play out in North America – but I suspect that werewolves and Celts will be welcome wherever they roam.

More than the history, however, I enjoyed the rather fresh take on werewolves.  Morcant is not just a sexy human who can take on wolf form (see Twilight); nor is he a man who changes into an uncontrollable beast once a month (Harry Potter and most other werewolf stories).  From the start, Trista can see the wolf alongside the man, and the man alonside the wolf, alternating between who is in control.  In the course of the novel, Morcant goes even further and becomes a wolf and surrenders his human side.  The story is in fact a love triangle between Trista, Morcant, and the female she-wolf who becomes his mate.  The treatment of his senses and thoughts as a wolf was particularly singular.  He is truly an animal, not a wolf-like monster; though there is sometimes a human impulse guiding him.  He and his mate also behave like real wolves – they hunt and enjoy the night, but also avoid humans as a rule (I remember hearing that there have been zero confirmed wolf attacks on humans in Canada.  Ever.  They are not the big bad wolves of fairy tales).  Wolf Blood is certainly the most fascinating treatment of the division between wolf and human that I have read – it felt far more like Call of the Wild than it did Twilight or its many clones.

I admit I did get a bit bogged down in the middle in battles and contant travels through desolate landscapes.  There were also far too many incidents of them gaining clothing and armour and then losing it again, then gaining more and having it taken, etc., etc…  The end also had a rather disapointingly obvious lesson-of-the-week-sum-up-the-message from a Druid (they’re such know-it-alls).  However, despite these flaws, it was honestly worth it for the fantastic writing, the excellent wolf dynamic, and the very strong central female character.

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