Two Cybils nominees star main characters who know when the truth is being told – and the danger this puts them in from those in power.
Last. Endling #1 by Katherine Applegate. HarperCollins, 2018.
Byx is one of the last of the dairnes, a dog-like people with a number of differences from actual dogs – they walk upright and have pouches, fingers, speech, glissaires that let them glide like flying squirrels, and most importantly, the ability to do magic. This makes them one of the seven governing species, including humans and several other types. But each of the other species has their own territory – only the dairnes are without their own home, supposed to be allowed free range of all the areas.
Then Byx’s family is slaughtered by royal soldiers, right in front of her. She runs away with the adorable but fierce wobbyk called Tobble (pictured on the cover), only to be kidnapped by human mercenary Khara, who hopes that the scholar’s island will both pay her handsomely for the last surviving dairne, and also provide Byx a place of safety.
Part of the dairne magic – and the reason they’ve been hunted to death – is that they know who is telling the truth and who isn’t. That makes them very unpopular with the cruel human ruler and his advisors. But Byx gathers a group of friends who try to convince her that life is still worth living, and to look for other dairnes. Some parts are very awkward, such as wobbyks being considered food by many other species, even though they can talk. But there are lots of reflections on personhood, and the importance and difficulty of learning about people who don’t look or think like you. This is the start of a series that despite the sad premise retains a sense of humor and the sweeping feeling of an epic.
Heartseeker by Melinda Beatty. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018.
Only Fallow’s family runs an orchard, though she’s been unable to make friends with anyone her age for two big reasons: the rest of the village thinks that her family is stuck-up since they have a contract from the king for their cider. Plus, she can see lies around other people like multi-colored fireworks, and gets physically ill if she tries to tell even the smallest white lie. Magic is uncommon and feared among her people, so that her grandmother tells Only that she must never tell anyone of her cunning.
Then, Only meets two children of the migrant Ordish, who come in river boats to help pick their apples. Then all of them are kidnapped – the Ordish children by a mercenary continuing a policy of kidnapping and selling Ordish children as servants in the palace, while Only’s secret is discovered and she is taken by the inquisitor to serve the king directly as his truth-teller, or Mayquin.
Although the king and the inquisitor are quite unsympathetic, other characters here are nicely shaded, from Only’s father who hires the Ordish and tries to pay them fair wages despite the rampant prejudice against them, but still doesn’t consider them social equals, to the sympathetic guard captain Bethan who’s nonetheless very loyal to the king. There are many chases and narrow escapes, necessary plotting, and Only, a young country girl, trying to learn her way around the razor-sharp politics of court.
Although in general this is a solid historical fantasy, it does have some issues. Only makes some decisions near the end that seemed so bad as to be out of character. And, throughout, the word “whelp” is used to refer to children. Much of the dialogue is written in a made-up country dialect, so that I think the author was trying to come up with a new but analogous word for “kid”. But I have only ever seen “whelp” used for people as an insult, even if only in older literature, and it felt jarring and very, very uncomfortable, especially as it was at first only used for the children of the oppressed minority group. Still, there’s enough good stuff going on here that I’m curious to find out what adventures Only will have next.
These books have been nominated for the Cybils award. This review reflects my opinion, not that of the Cybils committee.