Posts tagged ‘Magic’

The Witch Boy

Witch BoyTitle: The Witch Boy
Author/Illustrator: Molly Knox Ostertag
ISBN: 9781338089516
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2017.

“I don’t understand why Juniper and Hazel and them can all learn how to talk to trees and make potions and do spells and I can’t. It’s not fair.”
“But, Aster, that magic isn’t for you. How many times do I have to explain that?”
“But I want to learn it!”
“Women and men have different types of magic, and witches pass down their knowledge from mother to daughter. That’s how it is and how it’s always been, my son.
But it’s not like there’s nothing for you! Soon your shapeshifting will begin, and with it, the ability to see demons and to fight them. You’ll be one of the men.” (7-8)

In an insular community in the woods, a family of witches and shapeshifters pass along their skills to their daughters and sons, respectively. All except for Aster, who is more interested in learning magic and spells then shape shifting. When first one, and then multiple, young shapeshifters go missing, the family rallies to find them, but they still don’t stop to listen to Aster’s findings. Past problems come back to haunt them, and Aster might be the only one who can figure out what’s going on in time to stop it.

I find myself evaluating my views about this book. I originally felt that this is a relatively heavy-handed, thinly-veiled allegory of coming out as transgender, which a number of reviewers and bloggers have mentioned. However, I am reminded of Tamora Pierce, who wrote the Alanna series about a girl becoming a knight and assuming the disguise and role of a boy in order to accomplish her goal. Upon reading that series when I was younger, and even today, it never dawned on me to make those same assumptions about Alanna. Alanna was simply a tomboy, much like myself at that age, who enjoyed pursuing hobbies that were typically deemed masculine. Aster, in the same way, doesn’t want to be a woman, he just wants to do things that are identified in his society as feminine. That’s not transgender, but instead it’s fighting societal stereotypes of gendered activities.

I think the difference between my perception of Alanna and Aster is not only the modern day awareness of non-gender conforming actions, but also the use of this characteristic in the stories. Alanna’s story, while dependent upon keeping her identity a secret, has other traits that appear throughout the story, such as her impulsiveness, reluctance to ask for or accept help, her fears and hopes and dreams and motivations. Aster wants to do what “girls” do and has the magic of a witch inside of him, even though everyone else perceives him as a shapeshifter and expects him to be a shapeshifter. He seems quiet, but he is dedicated to his family, even though they continue to deny him his desires. That’s the entirety of our knowledge about his personality. The story is dependent upon the “I want to do what I’m not allowed to do” troupe with very little backstory or explanation of how or why events proceed as they do. His entire purpose is to be recognized as someone who can perform feminine tasks, which doesn’t yield itself to much engagement from readers.

There are a number of additional questions regarding the background of the characters. They all seem to be related, but there is no information about where the in-laws came from and how people who married into the family acquired their powers. What prompts these disappearances to begin now, after all these years? Even after the cause of the disappearances is discovered, the culprit’s consequences are left unresolved. As already discussed, the transgender analogy is not quite the appropriate term, but if you insist on using it that label also falls apart at the end, where one of the characters claims to have a little bit of both witch and shapeshifter. Is that a nod to individuals who identify as pansexual or intersex? Instead, I think it’s meant on commentary that men and women can pursue tasks regardless of if they are seen as masculine or feminine in nature.

The artwork is similar to a lot of the graphic novels produced by Graphix, with solid, digital illustrations. I’m beginning to hope that in the future we see more variety in the artwork of graphic novels done by that company. They have good stories, but there is a sameness that is starting to make their work distinguishable from other publishers. The scenes where we discover the cause of the boys disappearances are appropriately scary and thematically colored in a wash of red, definitely distinguishing it from the more cheerful and vibrantly colored outdoor daily scenes.

It’s a nice story, but I feel like the commentary on it’s merits might be misguided. A sequel arrives on shelves later this fall, so we’ll have to see if more character development occurs. Aster’s new friend Charlie takes center stage alongside Aster on the cover, so maybe more interplay between their two lives and worlds will give us more interest and insight in their personalities then the one-dimensional portrayal provided.

rainbow books From HB 6-2016I’m making an effort to review stories centered around gender during June, in recognition of June being LGBT Pride Month. Stay tuned for more.
Image used from Horn Book’s 2016 Pride Month Kickoff

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The Marvelwood Magicians

Marvelwood Magicians.jpgTitle: The Marvelwood Magicians
Author: Diane Zahler
ISBN: 9781629797243
Pages: 188 pages
Publisher/Date: Boyd Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights, c2017.

“Stand there, and look at the pendulum,” Master Morogh ordered Bell. Bell planted himself in front of the metronome, and Master Morogh started it up. Click-clack, click-clack it went, back and forth. Mattie watched Bell fearfully. It took only a couple of moments for the light to leave his eyes. Like the frat guy and the woman before him, his expression went slack and lifeless.
“No!” Mattie said again. She started for the stage, her heart pounding. “Bell, come back here!” But Bell couldn’t hear her. […]
“Bell, wake up!” Mattie cried. There was something wrong here, something very wrong. (90-91)

Mattie Marvelwood’s big mouth and mind-reading have gotten her in trouble again, resulting in her gifted family being fired from the traveling carnival where they worked.  They think themselves lucky when they stumble across a circus, with ringleader Master Morogh instantly adding their acts. The circus has two tigers, an elephant, and another family, with a daughter who instantly becomes Mattie’s friend. But something isn’t right, as one entertainer after another begin to lose their talents. Some are more ordinary, like singing and tumbling, but the Marvelwood’s abilities are more magical in nature. Suspicious that Master Morogh might be the mystery manipulator, it’s up to Mattie to save the day, without losing her own abilities in the process.

With the recent popularity of The Greatest Showman, I wonder if there will be an influx of people looking for circus themed books.If they are young enough, you can give this title to them.  The cover reminds me of the classic cover of The Great Gatsby mixed with Kehret’s Danger at the Fair for some reason, but it’s tamer than both of those books. Mattie is understandably weary of strangers due to her talent of mind-reading and predictably frustrated that her life and family aren’t normal. There is some diversity, with Mattie’s dad being Scottish and her mom being “India Indian.” The mystery is not a “who done it” but more of a “will they get away with it” as about half way through the story you know who is to blame for the missing abilities. Besides Mattie, most of the characters are one dimensional, acting to emphasize aspects of plot or Mattie’s personality rather then develop their own attributes, only being identifiable by their act or relationships to each other. Mattie’s own feelings of her mind-reading talent changes drastically, from exasperation to acceptance in very little time, but the conclusion is solid and ties up all the loose ends. A fast read, entertaining but not very memorable, emphasizing that no matter the circumstances the show must go on and you can trust your family, even when they aren’t related by blood.

Korgi: Problem with Potions

I originally intended to post these in October, but the end of the year got away from me. Since I can’t draw, in honor of Inktober 2017 I searched out a graphic novel to fit each daily theme presented. Now that October is over, I finally have a chance to catch up on my blogging. Here’s my submission for the theme from October 12th: shattered.

Korgi 4 Problem with Potions.jpgTitle: Korgi Book 4: The Problem with Potions
Author/Illustrator: Christian Slade
ISBN: 9781603094030
Pages: 116 pages
Publisher/Date: Top Shelf Productions, c2016.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken a look at Korgi, to the point where I reread books 1-3 before progressing to the fourth book in this series. Readers realize that Ivy and Sprout don’t always have the perfect relationship that we’ve previously seen, as Sprout gets into a jar of food, tracks footprints over the floor, and breaks a dish before finally getting thrown out of the house by Ivy. It’s then that reoccurring characters the creephogs receive some of the spotlight, as they mistakenly supersize, spotify, and stupefy poor Sprout. Ivy gets him some help, but meanwhile the two brothers we finally met in book three are out for revenge, and wake a skeletal unicorn in their efforts.

Taken individually, the books are all appealingly cute and perfectly suited for multiple age bedtime reads (so long as everyone can see the pages). But the pacing as a series is starting to suffer.  A new character introduced in the final pages is an intriguing addition, but it’s taken us 10 years to get to this point and we’re still no closer to guaranteeing Sprout and Ivy’s safety. In fact, they are probably in more danger then they were in the beginning now that the “big baddy” has started making appearances in the plot. I’m not sure now why the antagonists from the first two books were introduced to begin with, as their actions seem removed from the overarching story. Also, characters Scarlett and Lump, who we saw in previous books, are still included in the (this time more detailed) character list, even though they don’t even make an appearance in book four. Maybe when the fifth one finally rolls around we’ll get some more answers. The illustrations are still engaging and I’m in love with the disguised resurrected unicorn (does anyone make them as plush animals?) but I do wish we were a little farther along. I don’t think this is the last we’ve seen of these characters, but I won’t guess when the next book will appear and it’s doubtful original readers will still be interested in discovering the overall conclusion.

Egg & Spoon

Egg & Spoon.jpgTitle: Egg & Spoon
Author: Gregory Maguire
Narrator: Michael Page
ISBN: 9781491502167 (audiobook)
Discs/CDs: 11 CDs, 12 hours 51 minutes
Pages: 475 pages
Publisher/Date: Brilliance Audio, c2014. (audiobook) Candlewick Press, c2014 (hardcover)

She is an insane old woman, though Cat, but at least I’m safe in the warmth, and she knows ho to cook. The old woman was ladling pink broth into a bowl whose sides were etched with obscure runes. “Drink up, my dear. I find borscht a wonderful marinade when applied from the inside.” […]
Cat demurred and said, “Who are you really?”
“I’m Queen Victoria. I’m Nellie Bly. I’m Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean — what difference does it make? I’m hungry and I want to eat, so do my bidding.”
“I couldn’t dare take your supper. I have nothing to pay you with.”
“You’re not taking my supper, you’re supplying it.” (141-142)

Gregory Maguire creates a tale reminiscent to the Prince and the Pauper. Even though Ekaterina isn’t a princess, she has many more advantages than Elena, who is essentially starving to death as she tries her best to care for her sick mother after her father has died and her two brothers taken away from home. A lightning strike forces their unlikely meeting, and Elena finds herself in an enviable position when the Ekaterina’s train takes her away from the poverty and towards the Tsar’s palace. She hopes to use that opportunity to reclaim her brother from army conscription, but she doesn’t know that Ekaterina is hot on her trail with her own transportation. In their travels, they realize that Russia might be in more trouble than either girl, and are recruited by the fabled folkloric witch Baba Yaga to solve the problem of melting ice and disappearing magic.

Michael Page’s voice is properly moderated between the high pitched, stereotypical screech of Baba Yaga and the clipped tones of the prince (although he does sound vaguely English and not Russian). Even the two younger girls have slight differences that easily distinguish between the educated Ekaterina and the more rurally raised Elena. The sweeping landscape is described beautifully, and Elena’s situation is especially heart-wrenching when readers realize the troubles behind her meager existence.

Maguire’s tale is less impressive, for if readers are familiar with the story of the prince and the pauper, then they essentially have the plot of the first part of the book. The second half pairs the girls on an adventure to save Russia. It’s discovered that the floodwaters and dampened winter and magic are connected, involving the firebird and ice dragon. I was unfamiliar with the ice dragon legacy, and was intrigued by my introduction to this Russian myth. By the end of the novel, the twist, feel good resolution revealing the cause of the trouble is somewhat moralistic and preachy, encouraging the human race to whine and want less and focus more on reducing the wants of others. It’s an unexpected altruistic message, and while anti-materialists might appreciate the thought, I was disappointed that such a long journey yielded so little action in the conflict.

The magic in the story is supplied by the magic that the girls encounter through their association with Baba Yaga, who has multiple distinguished and unique traits including her unpredictability, attitudinal house which reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle, sarcastic shape-shifting familiar, and pattern of speech which allude to time travels or future premonitions. She is by far my favorite character in the whole story. I can only imagine the fun Maguire must have had in writing her scenes considering the fun I had reading them. Her nontraditional exclamation “Honey Buckets!” became a term of endearment towards her guests, who while certainly unpredicted are not entirely unwanted, regardless of what she alludes. I find that same sort of unexpected endearment towards her in what ultimately is a overly long, predictable plot. Extreme fantasy and fairy tale/folklore fans might appreciate this exposure of not-often portrayed Russian mythology, but most will probably loose interest before the quest even begins.

A Nearer Moon

A Nearer Moon.jpgTitle: A Nearer Moon
Author: Melanie Crowder
ISBN: 9781481441483
Pages: 150 pages
Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2015.

[…] It was one of Mama’s never-to-be-broken rules:
Don’t go past the bend in the river.
Don’t go below the dam.
Steer far away from the slick.
People said there was a creature that lived beneath the slick lying still as a gravestone on top of the water, a creature that cast a curse on the swamp and sickened anyone who drank it. But Luna didn’t believe in the creature, and she didn’t believe in curses. (10-11)

Luna and her little sister Willow love going out on the water on their pole boat, trying to catch fish in the dam that their village of stilted houses lives over. Only the oldest residents remember the days before the dam mysteriously appeared, stopping the river and turning the bright waters into the treacherous swamp. Luna doesn’t believe in curses until their boat mysteriously dips under the water line and Willow ends up with the swamp sickness. With only weeks until the wasting illness kills her sister and no cure in sight, Luna might have to start believing in magic and miracles.

Told in alternating perspectives, first from Luna’s and then from the view of a water sprite decades prior, it’s at first a little confusing. But very quickly readers will realize that they are similar stories of sisterly bonds and the lengths sisters will go to maintain them. Having just watched My Friend Totoro, the two stories are similar, with an independent pair of sisters who take advantage of the world around them, encounter a magical creature, and have to overcome an illness. Crowder’s writing style and word choice also remind me of Thanhha Lai’s Listen, Slowly, very lyrical and descriptive. Luna’s grandmother at one point “raised her eyes to the ceiling, searching the cobwebbed corners of her mind” which just sounds so poetic.

Luna is a likeable character, who feels guilt over her involvement in her sister’s illness and that it’s her sister and not herself who got sick. She adventures time and again out by herself, or with steady childhood friend Benny by her side, in efforts to cure this disease that everyone else has resigned to the fact that it’s incurable. “It was a supremely stupid thing she was doing. And if the brief history of her life was any indication, if she was set on doing a supremely stupid thing, it was best to have Benny along.” (33) I’m envious of her freedom of movement, as I don’t think my mother would have let me out of her sight after the first attempt, much less the second or third. Any other book would have made Benny and Luna a romantic pairing, but I’m so glad they are just friends here.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sprite’s side of the story. It proves Crowder’s efficiency with words, that she’s able to so effortlessly squeeze two stories into only 150 pages. Perdita is an adventurous water sprite whose twin sister worries about her never-ending ramblings and roving. She and Luna are a lot alike in their independent and inquisitive natures. The stories start decades apart but they finally catch up to one another in the end. I loved the ending, as (if blog readers will allow me one final comparison) just like in Frozen there really isn’t a bad guy, but only broken hearts that once mended heal everything. A beautifully told story.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.jpgTitle: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Illustrator: Portia Rosenberg
ISBN: 9781582344164
Pages: 782 pages
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Publishing, c2004.

“I have studied histories and biographies of the Aureates to discover how they began,” said Strange, “but it seems that in those days, as soon as any one found out he had some aptitude for magic, he immediately set off for the house of some other, older, more experienced magician and offered himself as a pupil.”
“Then you should apply to Mr. Norrell for assistance!” cried Mr. Honeyfoot, “Indeed you should. Oh! Yes, I know,” seeing that Mr. Segundus was about to make some objection, “Norrell is a little reserved, but what is that? Mr. Strange will know how to overcome his timidity I am sure. For all his faults of temper, Norrell is no fool and must see the very great advantages of having such an assistant!” (222)

Reclusive Mr. Norrell is intent on being the only magician in England, buying up every book on the subject, refusing to take students, even causing the society of magicians to be disbanded in a bet intended to dissuade any potential rivals. But after a more elaborate display of magic, Mr. Norrell finds himself moving to London and years later taking a self-taught pupil named Jonathan Strange. Mr. Norrell rationalizes that if he teaches Mr. Strange, his ideas will be the ones to be spread and there will be no dissenting opinions on the matter. If only it were that easy. As Mr. Strange’s involvement in military matters takes him farther and farther from Mr. Norrell’s influences, he becomes bolder in his practices and disagreements with Mr. Norrell. A feud is afoot, possibly encouraged by forces outside of either magician’s control, one that will impact the lives of others both living and dead.

Clocking in at over 700 pages, this hefty novel is unlike anything I have ever read. Spanning a decade in the lives of the two magicians, the episodic prose is dense, scientific, and old-fashioned in tone and spelling. This is the only novel in recent memory that I have read to include footnotes, especially footnotes that are sometimes so complete they require several pages to conclude. Understandably some parts are more entertaining than others, with huge sections requiring concentration in order to slog through detailed accounts of magical preparation, study, and history. It’s unquestionably one of the most exhaustive backstories of fantastical creation, and the magic invoked by the two main characters is almost incomparable, following the rules outlined in the world building. Some readers may appreciate the thoroughness of the details while others will want to (and most likely will) skip ahead and find the more narrative portions, where the plot progresses more rapidly. An ambitious debut novel certainly, which the back jacket reveals took almost a decade to write, but one that readers need to be in the mood to start and commit to reading, otherwise they may find themselves resenting their efforts to complete the endeavor.

Island of Silence

Island of SilenceTitle: Island of Silence
Series: The Unwanteds #2
Author: Lisa McMann
ISBN: 9781442407718
Pages: 406
Publisher/Date: Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, c2012.

“The attack makes it all to clear: Quill is struggling mightily to accept us–more than anyone had imagined. As much as our friend, High Priest Haluki, is doing to make this transition possible, it is still incredibly hard to introduce new ideas into a society that has been so set in its ways for al these years. […] Clearly, we didn’t expect this kind of violent, organized attack. Clearly, we should have.” (156)

The magical secret world of Artime, filled with Quill’s creative outcasts, has been exposed. Quill is reeling from the death of their leader Justine, and Quillians are fleeing the floundering city for what they see as a promising future in Artime. But the privileged Wanteds of Quill are still holding tightly to their old way of life, and will do anything to restore it. On opposite sides of the fight are twin brothers, with Aaron leading a group of rag-tag Wanteds against Alex’s friends in Artime. Alex wants nothing to do with the leadership position that Mr. Today is offering him, but that doesn’t stop his friends from noticing his absences and resenting his opportunity. When the battle finally happens, will his friends be there to support him in his moment of need?

This is a series where it is quite necessary to read them in order. I would also suggest waiting until the third one has been published before reading this one. The ending here is not a tied up in a bow kind of conclusion, and it leaves you with lots of questions. I thought the first book in the series was a nice, free-standing fantasy, but I was proven wrong yet again. Why do these fantasy series have to always have at least one sequel!? The first one I raved over and book talked till I was blue, but this one just didn’t have as much appeal for me.

That’s not to say that McMann didn’t do a good job, because she did. Aaron’s efforts to build an army are realistic, and eerily reminded me of a Hitler-esque character. He wins over his subjects with food and slowly manipulates their feelings of abandonment to feelings of retribution and indignation. He has a lot of luck when he finally initiates his plan, which I also feel is somewhat realistic since revolutions are led by people who are in the right place at the right time. I actually like Aaron’s parts slightly more than Alex’s. It felt like the writing was tighter, and we really dig into the psychology of winning over the people left in Quill. Plus the secrets and spies added intrigue, as your left guessing with Aaron’s point of view who is truly loyal to him.

Playing off those differences, I was also struck by how different the brothers’ actions and ambitions played out. Alex has absolutely no desire to take over for Mr. Today, which I thought was unique to the genre. We always hear about the reluctant hero, but they all typically step up to the plate, no matter how reluctantly, and do what needs to be done. Alex on the other hand shows his cluelessness, relying on others to help him make decisions and maintaining till the end that he has no idea what he’s doing and is not cut out for this job. There is no false bravado there, only scared struggles to be what people need him and expect him to be. And what they need him to be is a figurehead, although Artimeans know that if Mr. Today wanted him to be trained, there must be something special about him, even if they don’t know and Alex certainly doesn’t realize why he was chosen either.

The reason I didn’t LOVE this book as much as the other one is because it didn’t have the same (pardon the pun) magic of discovery. We spend most of the first book learning about Artime and seeing everything it had to offer. (J.K. Rowling did a very good job of introducing new magical things in each book, where we could go “OOOOOH!” and the shiny thing would distract us and pull us in a little more.) In this book, we kind of know how things work already, and very little new things are introduced, so our attention has to be held by the tension of the impending battle. The one very strange thing, the Island of Silence the book is named after, is nonexistent for the first two-thirds of the book, and then it is flung in like a “Hail Mary” football pass before the game ends. When we finally arrive at the battle scene, there’s very little description of it, which is a let down of sorts. We hear about the battle second-hand, since neither Aaron or Alex really see much of it themselves (due to various reasons which I won’t elaborate here).

It will be interesting to see how the author pulls everything together. I honestly don’t know how many books are going to be in the series, but I’m hoping we get more answers in part three instead of a lot of unanswered questions. I think fans of the first one might be disappointed, but I’ll wait to pass judgement until the third book comes out. I might be waiting a while though, as I see two other books for 2013 (a new series and a contribution to the multi-author Infinity Ring series) on Goodreads, but not a third Unwanteds book listed yet.

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