Beast & Crown by Joel Ross
I really enjoyed the two-book Fog Diver series, and was on the panel that awarded the Cybil to The Fog Diver. So I was excited to get Mr Ross’s lively new middle grade fantasy in which he continues to use alternative worlds to look at life for those who are on the bottom rung, or not even part of society. While it is not quite as thrillingly imaginative or as smart as his previous novels, it is still very readable and is bound to please middle grade fantasy fans.
13 year-old Ji is a boot boy for an aristocratic family and is friends with Sally, a stable girl and Roz, a young lady without means who is tolerated by the family. The three are planning to escape to the city to rescue Sally’s brother Chibo. Fate seems to be on their side when they are taken to the city as part of the young master’s entourage where he is to be trained to take part in a competition that will decide who is heir to the throne.
The ruler of the world is the Summer Queen who uses magic to suppress the ogres, goblins, and other non humans who threaten the humans. However, Ji and friends find that these so-called monsters are a lot more civilized than the humans.
The characters are as well-crafted as those of the Fog Diver and have a similar range of skin tones. Just like the previous book, they are appealing but perhaps a little one dimensional: Ji is cunning and wants to be self-centered but is too moral; Sally is brave and wants to be a knight; Roz is a “lady” and is full of book-smarts. There is a lot of fun to be had with Nin the ogre who conflates words to produce pleasing new ones.
The created world is straightforward and has less depth than The Fog Diver, and is a curious appropriation of Asian and Latinx cultures for no apparent reason. Pet peeve – to show that this is not our world, there are two moons which is straight out of the Secrets of Droon playbook.
The plot feels a little derivative – I noticed a resemblance to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, though without the edge and sharpness. Nonetheless it moves along at a good clip with some interesting twists. There are some curious diversions which seem like they are going to lead to something but then don’t, making the book rather longer than it needs be, though maybe setting something up for the next book.It was clear fairly early on that this would be a series (or maybe just a duology) but a resolution is reached and I don’t really feel the need to read more.
Release by Patrick Ness
Over the course of one “eternal pivotal day” Ness’s masterful YA speculative novel tracks both gay white rising senior Adam Thorn and the destiny of the world. As in The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015), the author intersperses a wrenching realistic novel with snippets of an apparently unrelated fantasy story, and their coming together at the end, a mere brief kiss of two worlds, completes both stories.
Adam is having the worst day of his life: His former lover Enzo, who he is still not over, is leaving town, his boss fires him after Adam turns down his advances, and there is tension with his repressive evangelical family. Adam reels through all of this wanting only a release to let him live his life as he wants.
Meanwhile the spirit of a girl who was murdered has bound itself to a Queen, and seeking her own release walks the town. And if the Queen doesn’t get back to the lake before the sun sets, then the world will end.
Adam is a vibrantly alive teen who has felt unloved by his blood family so has created his own family. Angela, who is Korean, is everything a person might want in a best friend – supportive, funny, wise and always on his side. Her liberal and loving adoptive family provide a stark contrast to Adam’s. And he has a new boyfriend, Linus, who Adam knows intellectually is so much better for him than Enzo but his heart has yet to accept it. (Note: there is some fairly explicit but sensually written sex).
As I found with The Rest of Us, I chafed at the fantasy element initially but loved the realistic sections. Towards the middle I was appreciating the way they echoed and resonated with each other, and by the end, the closure made sense, though the two stories are nowhere near as integrated as in the previous novel. Could it work without? Yes, probably, but it would be a lesser novel.
That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston
This quirkily appealing alternate history imagines that the sun never set on the British Empire because Queen Victoria’s descendants married into the colonies, ensuring a “cosmopolitan, multiracial mosaic.” Now, two centuries on, a debut ball in Toronto brings together quiet and pragmatic white Helena, her Irish-Hong Kong Chinese unspoken intended August, and Margaret, with “brown skin, epicanthal folds” and a “curly dark mass” of hair.
Each of the three has a secret that will shape their futures: Margaret is actually the heir to the throne; August has got himself into legal and financial trouble; Helena learns that she has an XY chromosome and is intersex. How these three learn each other’s secrets and what they do with them makes for an entertaining and charming novel. However, I thought that Helena’s Big Reveal was somewhat muffled and its significance isn’t explained till much later.
The world the author has created is an intriguingly odd mash up of Victorian era dress and manners, present day technology, and scifi genetic matching and it is explicated through snippets of history at the start of chapters. I found the role of genetics, which is somehow under the purview of the Church, to be a little confusing and it was never entirely clear to me what connection Helena’s mother had with all of this.
Nonetheless, the author’s three lead characters are very well-crafted and it is their story and the unexpected ways in which their relationships develop that form the beating heart of the novel and while the setting is smart it takes a backseat to that. While I spent most of the novel assuming it was going to be a series because of the leisurely pace, a surprisingly quick and complete wrap-up suggests otherwise though I actually wouldn’t mind a sequel.
They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
This magnificent and haunting YA novel is set in an alternate present day New York in which Death-Cast alerts you on the day you are to die.
Two teen Latinx boys who have received this call spend their last day together ensuring that they live before they die. Puerto Rican Mateo has been living his life vicariously through video games and online updates of other Deckers, as those who are on their End Day are called, and Cuban American Rufus has felt lost and out of control since he saw the rest of his family die.
They meet through the Last Friend app and movingly support each other as they tie up ends and make peace with themselves. Silvera (More Happy than Not, 2015) has created two wonderful and wonderfully distinct characters and their dual narration is punctuated with short accounts of other people whose lives are, however briefly, touched by these young men.
As the plot drives towards the inevitable end, signaled by the book’s title, this reader for one was hoping for a miracle, and the potent theme of living without fear and regrets shines through. Tears were shed.
Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye
First Second, July, 2017.
In this exuberant middle grade graphic adventure novel Lily Leanchops, a teenaged pig, makes an airplane that can fly without the use of magic and uses it when the Warthogs threaten to invade Pigdom Plains.
With a mix of science, magic, and myth, Abadzis’s (Laika, 2007) plot is a little long-winded as Lily finds out what is really motivating the Warthogs and attempts to prevent the attack on her homeland, but witty porcine wordplay, from place names including the Bay of Pigs and Piggadilly Circus to expressions like “Hogforsaken,” keeps the story entertaining.
With an Edwardian setting and character types, Dye’s illustrations, placed in a mostly conventional comic book layout, are colorful, energetic, and expressive and the lively near-human anthropomorphic pigs have a variety of skintones from pink to tan to dark brown.
Lily’s story arc, from being disbelieved by her father, the famous inventor Hercules Fatchops, to being the “Aerial Honker” that fights off the invaders, is somewhat conventional but gives the reader a determined and plucky protagonist to root for.
An unexpected last page twist sets up a sequel and leaves room for further exploration of this world.