Betsy and Janie, the middle-grade readers, are joining forces today to tell you about three brand-new fantasy series for middle-graders. Betsy reviews the first two, Janie the last:
Jinx by Sage Blackwood. HarperCollins, 2013. 368 pages. Age/interest level: 4th-8th grades. Jinx is a delightful new fantasy series for middle grade readers with an older magician, an untrained apprentice, fantastic creatures (witches, trolls, werebears), solid world-building, a suspenseful quest, and dramatic plot twists. It’s hard to say which part of this novel was the most well done. Jinx is a very likable hero for whom the reader can’t help but cheer. Simon, the older magician, is surly and suspicious; we’re never quite sure we can trust him. The Urwald seems a truly magical place; Jinx can even feel the trees with his toes. The supporting cast of characters are each unique and complex. And the bad guy is really, truly creepy.
Blackwood succeeds in keeping the reader in the dark, though, as to who the good guys (and bad) really are. A shred of doubt pricks at the back of your mind: can we trust the witch? What about Simon? What about Jinx’s friend? What is the trouble that is approaching that only the trees seem to know about? I appreciated how complex the good/bad issue is: isn’t that the way life is? It’s sometimes hard to tell who we can trust. The devil is the father of lies and quite good at deception.
The close of this book is open-ended enough to hint at future books (and yes, there is one coming out in early 2014!), but resolved enough that it could stand alone. That’s a hard ending to pull off, and it makes this book that much stronger for it. All in all, this is an intriguing new fantasy series, and it will appeal to fans of high fantasy. I, for one, will be reading book two!
- Moral/worldview rating: 4 (out of 5)
- Literary rating: 4
Mull, the author of the popular Fablehaven series, is back with a new fantasy series for his young fans: Spirit Animals. In the world Mull creates, 11-year-olds drink a special Nectar during a coming-of-age ceremony, and the fortunate ones call up and bond with a spirit animal. Only those that succeed in calling up a spirit animal are able to join the elite Greencloaks. Spirit animals, once bonded to their humans, can go dormant in tattoo form on their human, or become active and, through their spiritual connection, assist their humans in various endeavors. Wild Born introduces readers to four young people who have each just called one of the famous Four Fallen: four spirit animals that were once part of the Great Animals and who fell in an epic battle for the planet (Erdas) centuries previously. Prophecies have indicated their return as well as the return of the Devourer–the main evil dude–and his cronies. Will the Four Fallen and their young human partners be able to help the good forces of Erdas defeat the Devourer once again?
A fun series for those who love animals and a good fantasy read, Wild Born will no doubt please Mull’s existing fans and garner some new ones. The world building is not as strong as great classic fantasy (in fact, Erdas and its continents bear a distinct resemblance to Earth), the characterization falls into classic stock character types, and the plot is a touch predictable in parts. Still, for those young readers in their own devouring stage, the ones who can read an entire fantasy series in an afternoon, this will no doubt be a welcome new experience. The idea of spirit animals is unique and one kids will likely enjoy.
**updated 9/13/13 to add: See Betsy’s comment below for more information on this unusual series.
- Moral/worldview rating: 3.5
- Literary rating: 3
This new animal-fantasy series stars an earnest young amphibian with a noble pedigree and heroic dreams that far exceed his size. Readers may be reminded of Matthias of Redwall, an earnest young rodent with heroic dreams, etc.–and that might not be amiss. Instead of Cluny the rat and his weaselly minions, it’s Lord Marmoo and his scorpion hoards (assisted by Jarrah the spider Queen), who threaten the peace and serenity of Amphibiland. It all shakes out in a rather routine but entertaining manner, with some clever twists on the froggy paradigm, such as getting “ponded” instead of grounded, or “catching two flies with one lick” in place of the familiar proverb about killing two birds. The full-color illustrations are reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons, and there’s some thematic fluff about following one’s heart, but it’s a harmless diversion for middle graders (especially boys) who are clamoring “What can I read next?”
- Moral/worldview rating: 3.5
- Literary rating: 3
For more middle-grade fantasy, see our reviews of The Emerald Atlas, the Wingfeather Saga, The Dragon’s Tooth, Small Persons with Wings, Artemis Fowl, The Unwanteds, A Tangle of Knots, Cardboard, and Tuesdays at the Castle. Animal fans will also like Mr. and Mrs. Bunny and our collection of “Mouse Tales.”