Beast & Crown by Joel Ross. HarperCollins, 2017.
This most recent book by the author of the 2015 Cybils Middle Grade Speculative Fiction winner, The Fog Diver, features a similarly diverse cast, this time in a historical fantasy world. (I was very tickled to see that Cybils award mentioned in the author bio here.) Ji is a boot boy, his friend Sally a stable girl for a large noble household. They’re also friends with Roz, the governess, who is trying to rescue her younger sister from a factory. Ji’s almost friends with noble Brace, who’s fostered into the household, but shares interests with Ji and is bullied by his family.
In this world, the Summer Queen reigns for centuries and protects humans from ogres and from rebellion by the enslaved goblins. The new ruler is selected by the mystical Diadem Rite, about which rumors abound and facts are scarce. When a stranger comes to Ji’s estate to prepare Brace to possibly take part in the Diadem Rite, Ji and his friends suddenly find themselves wrapped up in something bigger than they’d expected.
Like Holly Webb’s Rose, Beast & Crown centers its story around the servant class. But unlike Rose, Ji feels the injustice of the differences in station keenly and is working hard to escape.
This is on the longer side for a middle grade book, with 369 page. But the plot stays interesting with lots of action as well as witty dialogue and a lot social commentary. The thoughts on sacrifice – who makes it, who decides who makes it – reminded me of the (much sadder) Irish ballad “There were Roses” by Tommy Sands:
I wonder just how many wars are fought between good friends
And those who give the orders are not the ones to die
It’s Scott and McDonald and the likes of you and I
There’s definitely room for a sequel, but unlike the ballad above, it’s shaping to be one in which our determined young people are going to make a difference in the world, despite the obstacles in their way. I’ll be on the lookout for more!