by Philip Pullman
The final book in the trilogy follows Will as he tries to find Lyra, who is being kept in a permanent state of sleep by Mrs Coulter. In her dream state, Lyra communicates with her dead friend Roger, and she forms a plan to travel with Will into the afterlife to help him. Meanwhile, Mary Malone has stumbled upon an opening into a fantastical world with strange creatures who take her in as their friend and maybe saviour. Lord Asriel continues his plot to undermine the Authority, and Mrs Coulter struggles with her newfound emotional attachment to her daughter. A lot happens.
You may have noticed that I stopped reviewing books for a while. That is because of this book. Even though I am a fast reader, it took me ages to finish this book. As much as I loved it, it was almost too creative to read. I would start reading it and then get distracted and have to go create something of my own or just stare into space contemplating love or the universe or something. In the His Dark Materials series, I felt the momentum stall in the second book with the introduction of Will, who I couldn’t bring myself to care about. Everything picked up in this book, though, and I became really invested in his character and his relationship with Lyra. I loved all of the characters, even if I felt nothing for them in the previous books. I can’t say enough about how wonderful the writing is. The descriptions of the action, the different worlds, and the different peoples are so vivid I felt like I was watching this book instead of reading it. This series is definitely going on my re-read shelf, even though I think it will take me forever to get through it all again.
Obviously recommended to people who have already read the first two books. To anyone who may have given up over the course of the series like I did, I urge you to read on because it’s definitely worth it.
by R.L. LaFevers, ill. Kelly Murphy
When Nathaniel Fludd is told that his parents are lost at sea, he is thrown into an uncertain world. Miss Lumpton, his caretaker, obviously doesn’t care for him and is all too happy to take the Tidy Sum the Fludds left for her and leave Nathaniel behind. Nathaniel now has to take his suitcase and go live with a distant relative, named Phil. Upon arriving at Phil’s house, Nathaniel discovers that Phil is a lady and that she is, like his parents were, a beastologist. Beastologists study and care for beasts that are either unknown to exist or that are thought to be extinct. It’s a dangerous trade, and one the timid and inexperienced Nathaniel is not sure he is suited for. Despite his doubts, he joins Aunt Phil on a beastologist errand. When Aunt Phil is detained, Nathaniel must learn to do an important beastologist task on his own. The book is illustrated with maps and drawings, as well as Nathaniel’s own sketches of the different beasts he comes across.
A promising enough orphan fantasy premise, but a pretty boring read despite its many plot developments. The writing style just gives this book such a slow pace. Parts of Nate’s adventures that seem like they should be thrilling have zero tension. I wanted to like it because it seems like a promising series and the covers look really nice. The amount of information held back–what happened to Nate’s parents, why didn’t he receive their letters, what was Miss Lumpton’s role in everything, who is working against Aunt Phil–makes the series somewhat compelling, but I can’t be bothered to continue.
The illustrations throughout make this book an approachable read for younger elementary kids, but I wouldn’t recommend it for kids looking for an action-packed adventure or those who are easily distracted from reading. More patient readers or kids who like their adventures gentle will enjoy this book, especially as a bedtime story.
by Seán Cullen
Brendan is your typical awkward teen. He gets pimples and has to wear braces… and he hears animals speaking to each other. That last detail is the newest one to cloud his life, and he believes it is a sign that he is going crazy. Until he learns that he is of course a faerie prince with immense power. The spell that has been protecting him all his life is starting to fade, and some evil faeries are trying to hunt him down so that they can recruit him to the dark side.
The book flows well enough and is a pretty good supernatural adventure. Some funny stuff about faeries vs fairies, plus a lot of Toronto-ness (if you’re into that sort of thing). I read it because the cover is cool, and I won’t be reading the second one because the cover isn’t cool and the story isn’t as addictive as other supernatural orphan stories.
Despite my faint praise, this book would still be a really good read for those who liked Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. It’s missing something I can’t put my finger on, but it’s still a good adventure fantasy. The Canadian setting might make it more interesting for Canadian kids as well.
by Thomas Wharton
The first book of the trilogy follows a boy named Will Lightfoot, whose father has packed his family up to move them across the country. Will is unhappy about moving away from the house he lived in when his mother was still alive, and as an act of defiance steals his father’s motorcycle to go to The Perilous Realm, a circus he sees from the highway. On his way, he crashes the motorcycle and is hurtled into a tumultuous alternate reality where the stories from our world originate. He teams up with a motley crew and sets out to find the gate through which he may return home.
This is an epic quest type of book, with references to Lord of the Rings, Little Red Riding Hood, and the King Arthur legends. The idea of a world where all of our stories originate is super interesting, as is the idea that malicious characters can wage wars within that world in order to make all stories their own. The ideas are what made this not a tedious read for me, but the characters are so stock it hurts. What? A boy who is secretly special? A feisty girl who is smarter than the boy but who has no character development? How about a wise old man who knows everything but says very little at a time? The reviews of this book all laud Wharton’s writing style, but the first 80 pages are brutally amateurish. Will looked into the shards of mirror and got that feeling–you know, the one where you know the person looking back at you isn’t you but some malevolent force that now knows your thoughts and memories and will try to find you to harm you? Get that one every morning! The book does pick up, though, and the twists and turns are compelling. I’d read the next one.
A good read for kids who are willing to pick up thick books and who love adventure, Arthurian legends, or creatively imagined worlds. And there’s a talking wolf!
by Malinda Lo
This story takes place long before the time period Ash is set in, and tells the story of the first King’s Huntress. Kaede is at the Academy, a place where many young people learn to be emotionless sages. She is not a good student. Not like Taisin, who shows incredible promise as a sage. When the king receives an invitation to visit the Queen of the Xi fairies, Taisin has a vision of a quest to the fairy land. But this vision is dark: Kaede is on a boat, heading toward an icy fortress where she is about to meet her death. Worse than the sight in the vision is the feeling Taisin has when she sees Kaede go. She doesn’t know Kaede at all, but in this vision of the future, she recognizes that she loves her. She does her best to stop the vision from happening, and to stop herself from feeling for Kaede. Kaede, meanwhile, knows she is along on the quest because Taisin saw her in it, but she has no idea that she is heading to her doom. And hey, Taisin’s pretty cute.
The story started out kind of slow, but I really got into it as it picked up. Although I was more into the concept behind Ash and I got into it right away, overall Huntress was a fuller, more sophisticated story. Ash is a good example of a familiar story where you substitute a queer character for a straight one, but I have never read another story like Huntress. I found it to be really realistic, perhaps a strange compliment for a fantasy but one I wish I could give to other books in the genre. It’s not like so many other quest-type stories where everyone learns to work together and they triumph over all the evil and maybe one person dies so that you feel sad; in this world, anyone can die and a happy outcome is not guaranteed. This book is some hardcore adventure stuff. I wish more quest-type books were like this. I also wish more books with queer characters were like this. No “coming out,” no labeling, no inner turmoil about liking someone of the same gender. The cultural blending was really appealing, too. Everyone’s descriptions made me picture them as Asian, but their names were mostly Irish Gaelic. I desperately want Malinda Lo to set a series of trends in YA fiction: imperfect questing outcomes, well-adjusted queers, and lead characters who aren’t necessarily white.
Huntress is a good pick for those who like any of the following (even if they don’t usually like all of these aspects): magical quests, cool fantasy worlds, queer romance, and/or strong female characters. It can be read before or after Ash because there are no character cross-overs and the time setting makes the worlds of the two books vastly different.
by Patrick Ness
Todd is about to become a man. He will be the last of the citizens of Prentisstown to cross over into adulthood, since he was the last to be born before all the women died. In the war before he was born, the native Spackle of New World attacked the settlers with a germ that killed all the women and made everyone’s thoughts heard and seen out loud. Even the animals talk, though Todd’s unwanted dog Manchee usually only has poo on his mind. Todd hates all the Noise men and animals make, but a quiet spot he senses in the swamp one day disturbs him even more. When he tells his guardians Ben and Cillian about the quiet spot, they start to panic and tell Todd that he has to leave Prentisstown. In fact, they have been planning for this day his whole life and already have a bag packed for him. Bewildered, Todd escapes with Manchee back into the swamp as Mayor Prentiss’s police force storms his house looking for him. Todd is unsure of what he’s supposed to do when he finds the quiet spot again, a confusion that is only made worse when he tracks it down and discovers that it is a girl. With the whole town on their tracks, Todd, Manchee, and this mysterious girl with no Noise must trek into the unknown world beyond Prentisstown.
First, I have to say that I loved Manchee from the moment he said “poo.” Second, I loved almost everything else about this book. The world is described well enough to start, and its backstory is continuously revealed in a natural way. The characters are all individuals–even the ones you only meet once–and their relationships are realistic. The dialogue is natural–even the thought dialogue, which the first person narration is cleverly a part of. I get frustrated at reveals that should come earlier, like Todd not reading the note or the journal Ben packed for him, but this one was a little bit understandable and there are at least consequences (outside of reader frustration) for Todd waiting so long to get Viola to read them. I also get irritated when characters who are being hunted won’t kill to protect themselves, but this book dealt with the brutal reality of killing someone really well, and has some good morality twists. If Patrick Ness isn’t a fan of Joss Whedon’s work I would be very surprised. He absolutely refuses to give his readers more than a fleeting moment of triumph before plunging his characters into an even more desperate situation. Plus, Aaron the preacher is basically Caleb from season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, indestructibility and all. I loved the ending of this book. Definitely a cliff-hanger, but one I actually respect. All I really love in this world is a story that promises me happiness then yanks it away in the cruelest manner possible. Can’t wait to read the rest of this series!
Definitely dark stuff. Recommended for older teens and adults who like dystopian settings and/or the work of Joss Whedon.
by Moira Young
Saba is devoted to nothing more than her twin brother, Lugh. They live with their little sister Emmi and their pa out in the middle of nowhere with only one distant neighbour. Living conditions are getting worse and worse, and Pa can’t seem to read the stars right anymore so he doesn’t know when the next rain will come. Lugh says Pa could never read the stars, that there’s nothing to read, they’re just stars. But it seems the stars have told their pa something, because he knows before it happens that Lugh is going to being carried off by Tonton soldiers, that Saba will search for Lugh, and that he himself is going to die trying to stop the Tonton from leaving. After she sees the Tonton kill her father and ride off with her brother, Saba fuels her quest for Lugh with red hot hatred, letting her anger take control and guide her through each trial she encounters. Her singleminded pursuit of her brother becomes complicated when others want to get involved, and Saba must learn to feel more than anger and hatred in order to achieve her true heart’s desire.
This book is nearly 500 pages, but I blew through it in four days because I just couldn’t put it down. Saba is a very strong, stubborn character with a loud personality. She reminded me of Katsa from Graceling, because she was physically strong but had problems allowing herself to feel positive emotions. I love strong female characters, and any character that has a crow as a free pet gets bonus points for awesomeness. I wasn’t sure if I would like the writing style, since many words are written in a phonetic way, but it was consistent and definitely more intelligible than Trainspotting. First person narration can get awkward with action sequences, but Saba is a gripping narrator and the action reads like you’re watching it yourself. As always, I was frustrated when the focus shifted from action to romance, and I found it hard to believe that Saba’s real heart’s desire was not saving the life of her twin brother, but starting a romance with some annoyingly cocky dude she just met. I guess either way she lives entirely to be with one man or another, which is less feminist than I thought this book would be (not to mention less entertaining). Still, I really enjoyed the adventure in the story–if not the characters and their relationships–and I would read the next one to see how it goes and how Saba’s character continues to develop. I sincerely hope the Amazon-like Free Hawks get more page time in the next one–especially Maev–and I pray to Moira Young that it won’t involve anyone getting together with Lugh.
Of course a good read for anyone who loved The Hunger Games or other dystopian books with romance thrown in. The romance part is a bit of a dealbreaker for readers who just want a straight-up action adventure, though.
Question for other dystopia-loving readers: can you think of any physically strong female protagonists who do not get romantic with another character? I’d love to find something like that.
by Scott Westerfeld
Alek is the prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His parents have been murdered, his country is in turmoil, and his life is in danger. He has had a few lessons on how to operate a Stormwalker, a biology-inspired war machine, but he has to learn most of it while he is on the run from rebel forces who do not want him to ascend to the throne.
Meanwhile, in England, a tomboy named Deryn disguises herself as a boy in order to be allowed to serve in the air forces. She earns a spot aboard the Leviathan, a whale-like airship woven from strands of animal DNA. As Deryn and the Leviathan make their way toward the Ottoman Empire to deliver a top-secret package, Alek and his Stormtrooper head toward neutral Switzerland for safety. Their meeting complicates everything.
This book is fantastic, even if it ends without resolving much (paving the way for a sequel). The narration switches perspectives depending on whether the focus of the chapter is on Alek or Deryn, which gets pretty neat when they meet and Alek believes Deryn to be a boy named Dylan and refers to her with male pronouns. Even though the characters were unoriginal (rebellious rich boy who has to learn about real life the hard way, daring common girl whose unexpected romantic feelings undermine her ‘masculine’ ambitions), it was overall an original read, and the characters develop a lot more in the sequels. Definitely one of the most imaginative steampunk stories I’ve read so far, and with beautiful illustrations.
A good read for anyone who is interested in steampunk, alternate history, books with a World War I setting, or plucky cross-dressers. Very similar story elements to Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, with a more complicated setting.
by Greg van Eekhout
Fisher becomes born by accident. His body was in a pod, already aged to about 12 or so, equipped with basic information about the world and a full vocabulary. His first word is a profanity and is used when the Ark where he became born starts to crash down around him as he hurriedly tries to sever his plastic umbilical cord. He is the only survivor. Along with Click, a humanity-helping robot, and a woolly mammoth Fisher names Protein (just in case he gets hungry), he journeys across a post-apocalyptic America in search of other surviving humans. When he finds another ark with its own helper robot, it seems almost too good to be true….
Like post-apocalyptic Hatchet, but with darker implications about humanity as a species. It’s also really funny. I love that Fisher names the mammoth “Protein”, and Click’s bossiness allows for a lot of comedy. The way things are phrased is quirky, like how Fisher “became born” and wants to avoid “failing to survive”.
This is a really thoughtful, funny, action-packed book for fans of survival books, dystopian settings, and sci-fi robot stuff. The thickness and font size of this book made me think it was for much younger kids, but it’s actually pretty dark and disturbing, so I’d reserve it for older kids who like thin books with lots of action.
by Robert Muchamore
James Choke is an ordinary 11-year-old with a few problems. His mum is an obese swindler who sells stolen electronics to the local soccer moms, and the other kids won’t stop hassling James about how fat his mum is. When James violently snaps at one of his schoolmates, causing her to get stitches, he lands himself in court. But his court visit isn’t until after he comes home one day and finds his mum dead in her favourite chair.
James gets put into a children’s home, and his sister Lauren has to live with her no-good dad. He falls into a rough crowd, and ends up attempting a liquor store robbery hours after his court visit. Shortly thereafter, he is recruited by CHERUB, an organization of child spies that finds crafty orphans like James and offers them an alternative to a life of crime. The training is hard, but James knows that if he quits, his life will continue to spiral out of control until he lands himself in jail.
This series is so much better than Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series. James is a more realistic character than Alex, and the other characters and all the plot twists are a little more grounded in reality. I’ve read nearly all the books in the series, and it seems to be far less problematic than other spy books I’ve tried. Where Alex Rider books come across as xenophobic and at times outright racist (Horowitz uses the term “Chinaman” in Snakehead), the CHERUB series actually includes gay people, women, and people of colour who contribute to the plot and are on the good guys’ side. I like that James isn’t perfect, and he isn’t just born with secret spy skills like Alex Rider is. I think the teens in this series are more realistic, and while the series includes progressive values the teens do not necessarily reflect them like characters in an after school special would. James gets pretty sleazy with the ladies and exhibits problematic behavior, but as in real life there are consequences. The worst cliché I see in CHERUB is the “environmental terrorists” trope that crops up a lot, but at least the main characters are sympathetic to environmental concerns, with one character even making a commitment to vegetarianism after a run-in with a PETA-like terrorist group.
These books are action-packed, gritty, and easy to read. Even though the main character is 11 when it starts, it is definitely more of a teen read because of the subject matter. They are perfect for older readers who just want something fast and fun and not too challenging, but at a teen level of maturity. Girls read these too and I don’t like gender stereotyping, but this is the ideal series for teen boys who aren’t usually into reading.