Saturday, August 27, 2011

Back to School with New Middle Grade Fantasy

Take a look at some great new fantasy reads! We've got one July book, three August books, and a September. (Though one of the August books is more of a December, actually—wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

The Wizard of Dark Street by Shawn Thomas Odyssey

In a departure from tradition, first I have to talk about Shawn Thomas Odyssey. This author, who is not the tiniest bit shy, has done a rap about his book. I mean, the guy can moonwalk!

Next STO "performs the prologue" to the book. And it is indeed a performance, with sepia tones, a great hat from the late 1800s, and a very fun British accent which I think STO is enjoying at least as much as viewers will.

And, finally, we can experience "Welcome All to Dark Street/Calling Oona," another musical number (or two) by STO about the book, in yet another style.

Then there's the man's website, which has a blog, trading cards, the aforementioned videos, quizzes, and a whole lot more.

I haven't seen this kind of stuff since James Kennedy hit the scene! So perhaps it won't surprise you to learn that Odyssey worked in a theater as an actor and stagehand for several years, then as a composer for video games, TV shows, and films. To top it all off, he is an author.

And—on to the book. Twelve-year-old Oona lives with her uncle, the Wizard of Dark Street, in a magical slice of land between Fairy and old New York. (The year is 1876, to be precise.) The gate to New York opens briefly every night at midnight; the gate to Fairy is never open, and opening it would invite an invasion.

Now everything is shaken up because Oona, even after years of training, refuses to become her uncle's apprentice. She has her reasons, sad ones, but she also simply has other plans. Oona wants to become a detective.

She gets her chance all too soon when a motley crew of potential apprentices arrives and her uncle disappears right before her eyes. Oona races to recover her uncle, finger the culprit, and keep her highly magical home from being stolen by an ambitious resort builder.

Odyssey, besides having the world's coolest last name, has written a rollicking combination of of detective story (a classic locked-room mystery, no less) and fantasy (just a whiff of Potter) that will appeal to a lot of readers. His world building is a kick, from Oona's pompous encyclopedia in the shape of a crow to the lawyers with tattooed faces and the witches living under the hill. His characters in particular stand out: the blind actor with the magically powerful sense of smell, the mean girl who is the daughter of a famous designer of magical clothing, and the eerie servant who is a fairy in exile, for example. The whole thing has a theatrical feel, and now I know why! Here's an excerpt, about one of the rooms in Pendulum House:
The windows were all shaped into round ship's portholes, and on the wall hung various charting tools and spyglasses and a spoked steering wheel nearly twice Oona's size. But it was not the room's decor that made it so peculiar. The smell of salt water clung to the dampened air, while the floor rocked beneath their feet like a ship adrift on calm waters. After Oona's baby sister, Flora, had been born, her mother would often visit the Captain's Cabin, and the rocking motion would lull the baby to sleep.

You don't have to watch all of Odyssey's video fare, but you might want to read this book!

Oh, and take a look at this print interview with STO by T. Lynne Tolles at Paranormal Romance Everything. Which reminds me, there's even a hint of romance for our girl Oona in The Wizard of Dark Street.

The Ogre of Oglefort by Eva Ibbotson

Ms. Ibbotson passed away last fall, and she will be missed. Fortunately, we get another dose of her wry, funny, even giddy take on middle grade fantasy in this new book. Once again, Ibbotson turns fantasy tropes upside down in delightfully silly ways.

The story begins in London, where a little group of magical creatures have been teamed up for a sort of annual service project, the Holiday Task. Yep. You know how kids are assigned summer homework packets or summer reading? It seems magical beings are given summer quests! Everyone else is getting easy stuff like ridding a carnival of a plague of mice...

Then the three fates (Norns), who are grouchy old ladies wheeled around in a large hospital bed, give our little group their assignment:
"It is the Princess Mirella," said the First Norn in her sing-song voice.

"She must be rescued," said the Second Norn.

"Saved," said the Third.

"And the ogre must be slain," said Norn Number One.

"Killed," said the Second Norn.

"Pulverized. Absolutely," said the Third.

If the team does not get the job done, the Norns will punish them with horrible ghosts from the depths of the British train tunnels. And the Norns are not interested in excuses.
"You are the Chosen Ones," said the First Norn.

"You are the monster-slayers," quavered the Second.

"The rescuers," said the Third.

"But—" began the Hag.

She had infuriated the ancient creatures.

"There is no BUT," screeched the First Norn.

"No BUT whatsoever," yelled the Second.

"Not anywhere is there a BUT," cackled the Third.

The bed shook with their rage.

Our heroes consist of a Hag in a "long Dribble-colored dress" whose familiar has gone on strike, a wizard whose banshee mother bullies him (Dr. Brian Brainsweller, AKA Bri-Bri), a troll named Ulf who has been displaced from his ancestral home by loggers, and a small boy named Ivo.

The vengeful ghosts are eventually unleashed, and a terrible crew they are (okay, and really, really funny)! Read more about them in my post memorializing the author last fall, "Lessons from Eva Ibbotson."

Because the thing is, while it's true that the hideous ogre has been transforming people into animals, he turns out to be a hypochondriac with giant problems. And the princess has troubles of her own—she may remind you a bit of Cimorene in Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.

Ibbotson's little team of magical beings (and one boy) must use their dubious talents, not to mention their kindness, loyalty, and persistence, to solve any number of complications, including those ghosts.

If there's a message in this book, it's "Don't judge by appearances." And maybe, "You don't have to be wildly talented to help; just do your best." But these themes are delivered in the midst of plenty of action and magic and humor, so no didacticism here.

So many children's fantasy books today seem dark and grim that I find it refreshing to read Ibbotson again, with her sad sack-yet successful, off-the-wall characters and her cheerful tongue-in-cheek tone. (In fact, some of Ibbotson's characters have a wistful hopefulness reminiscent of Stan Laurel or Charlie Chaplin's Tramp.) The Ogre of Oglefort is a delightful farewell offering from one of the most gleefully outrageous fantasy writers of the past half century. Thank you, Eva!

Note: Check out this transcript of Just One More Book's podcast interview with Eva Ibbotson.

Also: The cover shown is the British one. I ordered my copy early from the UK!

The Dragon's Tooth by N.D. Wilson

I fell hard for N.D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards trilogy a year or so ago, and then I read Leepike Ridge, which was, perhaps, even better. So I was eager to get my hands on the first book in his new series.

If Rick Riordan's series were as dark as the later Harry Potter books, they would be something like N.D. Wilson's books, especially this series launch. In other words, boys who are into action movies and video games will like this stuff. However, the books aren't just for reluctant readers: they're for any major fantasy fan, and probably for you dystopian fans, too. The Dragon's Tooth is Harry Potter meets film noir—a little edgy, kind of gritty. And fast paced, to boot!
The Lady is an archer, pale and posing twenty feet in the air above a potholed parking lot. Her frozen bow is drawn with an arrow ready to fly, and her long, muscular legs glint in the late-afternoon sun. Behind her, dark clouds jostle on the horizon, and she quivers slightly in the warm breeze pushed ahead of the coming storm. She has been hanging in the air with her bow drawn since the summer of 1962, when the parking lot was black and fresh, and the Archer Motel had guests....

To a traveler's eyes, the motel is dead and useless, a roadside tragedy, like the remains of some unfortunate animal in a ditch—glimpsed, mourned, and forgotten before the next bend in the road. But to the lean boy with the dark skin and the black hair struggling in the thick brush behind the pool, the motel is alive, and it is home.

Soon Cyrus Smith has an encounter with a strange old man named William Skelton, or Billy Bones, who lights up the long-dark archer, nearly zapping the boy as he apparently calls down lightning. The one-and-only guest in the hotel, Mrs. Eldredge, pitches a fit when the Smiths let the old man stay—and Skelton insists on staying in Cyrus's very own room. After the visitor passes along a couple of his secrets to Cyrus and his sister Antigone everything really goes haywire, leaving Skelton dead, the Smiths' older brother Daniel missing, and an uber-creepy guy named Maxi determined to take the treasure Billy Skelton left in Cyrus's keeping.

Following a strange meeting with Skelton's lawyer and a car chase in a limo, bullets flying, Cyrus and Antigone end up at Hogwarts.

Just kidding: the place they land is called Ashtown. It's a training academy and headquarters for a group of mysterious guardians, but most of them are decidedly unfriendly to the Smith siblings. In a politically charged meeting of the Order, Cyrus and Antigone are denied proper entrance. Then they are given into the keeping of a strange young-old man who lives among the poisonous spiders in the deepest dripping-pipe basements. Not quite the dorm room they expected!

Now the games begin—Cyrus and Antigone must try to pass a set of outdated entrance requirements while figuring out which members of the Order are traitors. And all the while, Maxi is after Cyrus and the secret he carries....

You can practically feel the spider venom in this great new series starter from N.D. Wilson!

Note for Worried Parents: The Dragon's Tooth has a fairly high level of violence and suspense. I recommend it for kids (especially boys) 10 and up, or younger kids who are comfortable with teen-level video and movie violence.

By the way, this is another book where the publisher tries not to show the main character on the cover with skin as dark as it should be. The book trailer also depicts the Smith sibling as white. But they aren't!

Wildwood by Colin Meloy

And you thought Shawn Thomas Odyssey was intriguing! This book was written by the lead singer and songwriter of the indie folk rock band, the Decemberists, with illustrations by the author's wife, Carson Ellis.

To get you in the mood, I'll just quote Ellis, who comments of her and Meloy's childhoods: "We had such overactive imaginations that the normal world did not suffice."

This becomes readily apparent when you enter the I.W. (Impassable Wilderness), a vast off-limits and magical forest realm in the middle of Portland, Oregon. Of course, the residents of Portland don't realize there's a spell set to keep them out, or that anything unusual exists within the region.

So why, after her baby brother is abducted by a murder of crows, is Prue McKeel able to enter the forest, known to insiders as the Wildwood? And why can she take her not-exactly-friend Curtis with her?

The first shock for Prue and Curtis is the talking animals, but there's more to follow as they find themselves smack in the middle of a buildup to war between the acting authorities and a witch in exile—with her coyote army.

Unlike most fantasy villains, this one has sympathetic motives, yet her ultimate goals are still horribly ruthless.

Various parties gradually come together to join the fray: in addition to the townspeople and the witch, we get a group of bandits, the Avian Principality (birds), and a peaceful farming community of animals. Meloy creates the characters from each faction with a fine hand, among them the regal owl who leads the Avians, coyote soldiers with varying degrees of cowardice and loyalty, a sort of nature priestess who is supposed to be a pacifist, the powerful leader of the bandits, and a postal carrier who agrees to carry more than just the mail.

As for the villainous Dowager Governess, she has a bit of a White Witch thing going, though it doesn't take Turkish Delight to entrance Curtis, just some flattery. I am reminded that it's a lot harder to tell who the good guys are when you're down in the trenches of a story rather than reading it.

Prue is a bit prickly, but then, she has to be if she's going to save her baby brother. (Shades of Maurice Sendak's Outside Over There!) Curtis starts out as a pleasant wimp, manipulated by the bad guys, but shows unexpected strength and cleverness before the book is over.

The author surprises us with a couple of plot twists along the way. His tale wraps up the major conflict with a bang, though it does leave a few questions unanswered about political machinations in the South Wood and the Governor-Regent's mansion.

One of the nicest things about this book is that Meloy's voice is so beautifully ordinary that he makes the story feel very real. Here's an excerpt, from a scene where Prue is trying to get past a large and noisy crowd of supplicants to speak to the Governor-Regent:
Prue looked down and saw a field mouse, calmly chewing on a split filbert. He appeared to be on his lunch break. He was sitting against the base of one of the room's columns, and a kerchief laid out in front of him displayed a tidy selection of foods: a chunk of carrot, a tiny wedge of cheese, and a thimble of beer. He washed down a mouthful of the filbert with a swig of beer, cleared his throat, and said, "Are you on the list?"

"List?" asked Prue, nonplussed. "What list?"

Ellis's artwork is fresh and unique, a great complement to the story.

All I can say is: How soon till the sequel comes out?

Note for Worried Parents: There is some scary violence and peril here, most of it associated with war. In one scene, the witch gets a child drunk in order to discover his secrets. And Prue's parents are weak, if not negligent.

a sample of the Decemberists' music, try this YouTube link. Or you can watch the book trailer, featuring some of Carson Ellis's artwork. Or take in this lovely interview with Colin and Carson. And don't miss Colin Meloy's Wildwood playlist: scroll down the Amazon book page to find it.

Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham

Try not to be too put off by the main character's voice, okay? It helps to compare Max (the Wolf) to Jasper Dash from M.T. Anderson's Pals in Peril books; he's a tad pompous and old-fashioned. But his amnesia-based adventure in a strange forest won't be at all what you're expecting, and I think you just might like it.

After Max finds himself in the forest, he draws on his Boy Scout skills to get his bearings, but he's further mystified to run into a talking badger named Banderbrock, then a monster of a barnyard cat named McTavish who talks quite a lot, and finally a talking bear named Walden. Max thinks maybe he's dreaming, but Banderbrock, who also has no memory of how he got there, wonders if perhaps he is dead.

And there's more to this forest than talking animals. Max and Banderbrock are sitting peacefully around their campfire when McTavish first appears, bringing a hunter and his dogs down on their heads. You would think that the human hunter wouldn't go after Max, but he does—why?

It turns out he is no ordinary hunter, but one of a group called the Cutters, wielding his Blue Sword to transform the creatures he is tracking down.

Max and his new friends must go on the run, avoiding the Cutters while trying to find some answers.

Keep in mind that Bill Willingham is best known for his Fables, a series of adult (PG-13 and occasionally R-rated) graphic novels about fairy tale characters.

In terms of pacing and action, Willingham's new story for children works, but there are certain aspects of the world building that seem a little less child-like in tone. The bad guys in this book are motivated, ultimately, by rather grown-up concerns (with tongue-in-cheek connotations for the publishing world), and I'm not sure the creation myths are convincing, either. We also get an occasional "adorable" moment; um, no.

But if you simply take Down the Mysterly River as storytelling—which is what young readers will do, after all—Max's adventures are compelling, and the plot twists are surprising.

I will mention that most of the humor has to do with McTavish as an over-the-top, vain and brutal king-of-the-world type; you will no doubt find Walden's food obsession and Barney Fife backstory amusing, as well. You mustn't mock Banderbrock, though: he's a warrior!

In addition to following our small band of heroes, Willingham gives us the Cutters' point of view every so often, which adds dimension to his narrative and makes the Cutters seem slightly more human.

I'm not sure how I feel about the ending—it's a little like the way the Wizard of Oz movie finishes off.

This book still has a lot to recommend it, however. Take a look and see what you think!

Note: There's not much out there in the way of video material, but you can watch the author auctioning off a copy of the book in support of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Auction.


Anonymous said...

WOW, what a line-up. I see a lot of things I need to order for the library here-- and then read myself (and Wizard of Dark Street looks like a pretty big contender for this year's Books I Would Have LOOOOVVVED When I Was An Actual Child award...)

storyqueen said...

How did The Wizard of Dark Street slip under my radar?? Going to have to check that one out. I adore the prologue trailer.

I read an ARC of Ogre and loved it. I will miss Eva Ibottson very much.

Adding all to my list...which keeps growing. Wish I had more time to read!!


KateCoombs said...

Amy and Shelley--Yes, Wizard of Dark Street is a lot of fun! And Eva Ibottson is such a loss; in the past year, we've lost her AND Diana Wynne Jones.