Armchair Cybils Round-Up: Middle Grade and YA Speculative Fiction

It’s the first Day of Reckoning for the Armchair Cybils. armchaircybils

I am way behind in my reviewing. So for my first post of the day, I have reviews of four books that were nominated in the Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Category, followed by a list of the nominated books that I reviewed previously. Hopefully I’ll post reviews of the other dozen books nominated for other categories that I’ve read later today.

I did not hear about the More Diverse Universe event that’s happening this weekend in time to participate, but it sounds like a really wonderful event. I do plan to visit, and hopefully I’ll hear about it early enough to plan to read for it next year.

Iris Brave was kindly sent to me by the author; I checked out all the other books from the library.

Iris BraveIris Brave. Soul Jumpers Book 1. by Ali B. Dewey Larson Publishing, 2013
Iris has a tearful parting with her mother, Catalina, in order to spend the summer at her grandfather’s farm. While there, she learns that her beloved father, who died in a car crash when she was just a baby, was charged with drunk driving. A senator’s son also died in that crash, and the senator is now publishing a book about the whole event, laying all of the blame on Iris’s father. Iris is extremely upset by this news, which her mother and grandfather had managed to keep from her until now. When she notices a man in a gray hoodie stalking her, a man who looks exactly like the supposedly dead senator’s son, she agrees to take the journey he proposes to learn her father’s secret.

This book felt more like thriller than fantasy, as the fantasy element – the soul jumping of the series title – wasn’t explained until the very end (apologies for the spoiler!). I had some pretty severe problems with the logic of the soul jumping, too, which involved a soul jumping from one dead person to another, thus reanimating the formerly dead person who then doesn’t age. There’s neither explanation of what happens to the soul of the person whose body gets taken over, nor any reason that I could see that this would cause the body to stop aging. It didn’t really work for me as a fantasy for that reason, but I think it does work well as a thriller. Except for an early and unfortunate swimsuit shopping session at the beginning of the book which I think could turn off middle-grade boy readers, it would work well for both genders, and the cover does a good job of expressing this – my son thought it looked very exciting.

Song of the QuarkbeastThe Song of the Quarkbeast. by Jasper Fforde. Harcourt, Houghton Mifflin, 2013.
What a happy return! Faithful Jennifer Strange, the Last Dragonslayer, is back, along with fellow foundling Tiger Prawns. The Great Zambini, official owner of Kazam, is still missing, leaving his business to be run by the foundlings. Now Kazam is involved in a struggle with the only other large magic agency in the kingdom, iMagic, for the future of magic. Can it be preserved to do actual good in the world, or should the still very limited stocks of magic in the world be used to fund the selfish desires of those who can pay? The story involves such characters as the Once Magnificent Boo, the King’s Useless Brother, the “All-Powerful” Blix and magician-in-training Perkins, who keeps trying to ask Jennifer out and botching it so badly that she has to refuse. Magic is represented as programming, with old spells written in archaic RUNIX. And, despite the sad demise of Jennifer’s faithful Quarkbeast in the first book, we now learn more about Quarkbeasts and their odd reproduction and self-destruction habits.

This is pure delight, exciting and witty with a lot of heart. Jennifer is a hero who puts kindness first and wins by quick thinking rather than violence, in a series I can’t wait to share with my son.

A Box of GargoylesA Box of Gargoyles by Anne Nesbet. Harper Collins Childrens, 2013.
Maya is still in Paris. She’d thought things were under control: her evil uncle turned to dust, her mother’s health recovered, a best friend found. Now everything is falling apart again. Her mother is seeming weak and tired again; her best friend Valko is in danger of being sent back to Bulgaria, and Henri Fourcroy has bound her to bring him back again. We see him put his mind into a stone wall, so that it develops gargoyles that search for Maya. Ever-larger waves of strange happenings spread across Paris, things like old ladies bursting out into song in Bulgarian and the Eiffel Tower bursting out into iron flowers. The gargoyles give Maya a present, a large stone egg covered with beautiful pictures. Everything will come to a head right around Maya’s 13th birthday, and she must find for herself the delicate balance between doing what must be done herself and getting help from her friends as well as finding the loopholes for making choices when she has been set on a path that she must follow to completion.

This is a simply gorgeous book, creepy, atmospheric and tense, while still maintaining strong characters and a whole lot of deep thought that’s applicable to anyone, not just young teens with latent magical powers.

Princess of CortovaThe Princess of Cortova by Diane Stanley. Harper Collins Childrens, 2013.
This is the last book of the trilogy that started with The Silver Bowl, which I think I nominated for a Cybils award when it was first published. In the last book, The Cup and the Crown, Molly worked very hard to make and bring to King Alaric a Loving Cup that would ensure him a marriage to a princess, thus helping to stabilize his kingdom and of course providing uncontested heirs. Now, it’s time to deliver the cup to the princess of Cortova. The story actually opens with Elizabetta, with her remembering the lesson beauty as more of a weapon than as a gift that her mother gave her before her death. Elizabetta is the same princess who was trying to marry Alaric’s older brother when all of the royal family but Alaric was killed, and her first husband also died. She’s really not keen to be used as a marriage pawn again, but her father, King Gonzalo, tells her that it is her duty to charm both of the royal suitors who will soon be at their door. In exchange for her cooperation, she makes him sign a document that would make her heir to the kingdom, instead of her sociopathic younger brother Caspar. (He’s never called sociopathic, and Gonzalo doesn’t see anything wrong with him at all, but it’s quite clear.)

Meanwhile, Alaric orders Molly and Tobias to pretend to be betrothed, apparently unaware that Tobias would much prefer to be betrothed to Molly for real, so that he can bring Molly with him to Cortova to court Elizabetta without arousing suspicions. Once there, he is shocked to discover that King Reynard – the king who tried to take over Alaric’s kingdom in the first book – has also been summoned to Cortova to court Elizabetta on behalf of his son, Rupert, who is so uninterested in the whole affair that he almost doesn’t count as a character. But only almost.

On the way there, Molly has dreams of a large cat telling her key rules of chess, as well as a huge but unspecific sense of Doom. She is both surprised and not when Elizabetta summons her for a private audience and teaches her to play chess, in the company of her cat Leondas, the very one from Molly’s dreams. The chess is highly relevant, and the book is divided into sections named after the parts of a chess game, with definitions of relevant chess terms.

The focus is mostly on Molly and Betta, with both Tobias and Alaric falling somewhat into the background. Still, I’d like to note (especially after Charlotte’s excellent post on gender expectations in youth and teen fantasy) that Alaric is a king of books and thinking rather than athletic knighthood.

There are politics, reversals, assassination attempts, and wrenching surprises. Molly will have to draw on everything she has to figure out what is going on and how to save Alaric, and Betta too must use all of her wits and wiles to make a future that is good for both her kingdom and herself. It’s a really, really good book, and my biggest complaint is that the beautiful dresses on the cover are likely to turn off any chess- and fantasy-loving boys who would otherwise very much enjoy it.

Other Middle Grade Speculative Fiction Books I read:
Handbook for Dragon Slayers
Return to Cardamom
The Cats of Tanglewood Forest
The Last Enchanter
The Rithmatist
The Runaway King
Wednesdays in the Tower
What We Found in the Sofa and How It Changed the World

Young Adult Speculative Fiction
A Corner of White
Clockwork Princess
Dark Triumph
Etiquette and Espionage
Golden Girl
The Dream Thieves

About Katy K.

I'm a librarian and book worm who believes that children and adults deserve great books to read.
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4 Responses to Armchair Cybils Round-Up: Middle Grade and YA Speculative Fiction

  1. Sorry I’m just now getting to comment on your posts! I’m SO GLAD you’re participating in the Armchair Cybils!

    That Jasper Fforde novel sounds like one my 9 year old daughter might enjoy. It somehow reminds me a bit of the Andrew Peterson novels, which my daughter adores.

    That Diane Stanley title sounds fabulous, too. What age do you think it’s suited for?

    I confess that I’m not much of a fantasy reader myself, though when I do read a fantasy, I almost always enjoy it. I should branch out more. 🙂

    • Thank you so much for visiting! And though I did read your round-up, I’m sorry I didn’t comment – I was too busy writing that day. I should go back!

      Yes – your 9-year-old might very well enjoy the Jasper Fforde (though I’d start with the first book, The Last Dragonslayer) – I think it’s just about right for my own nine-year-old.

      I would say the Diane Stanley book is better for the older end of middle grade – maybe fifth grade and up. A major character dies in it, and there are several assassination attempts on the sympathetic king, even though it feels more contemplative than action-oriented to me.

      I love fantasy, and decided a year or so ago to give up reading stuff that wasn’t fantasy unless a particular book was really tempting. 🙂

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