Here are two recent middle grade fantasies that both feature thoughtful main characters involved in epic adventures. I’m reviewing them together because of that similarity, but hey, it’s Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, so if you’re still looking for a book to read to celebrate, both of these are excellent choices. They’re also both from my #CybilsReadDown pile.
Mulan: Before the Sword by Grace Lin. Disney, 2020. 978-1368020336.
This is Grace Lin writing a prequel novel for the new live action Mulan movie, which I still hope to see someday. When we meet Hua Mulan, she’s riding her horse, Black Wind, to get a healer for her beloved little sister Xiu, who’s been bitten by a strange white spider. The healer she meets wears the robes of a lord and has strange amber eyes. It doesn’t take long for Mulan to learn that the healer is the famed Rabbit of the Moon, wandering about earth in human male form for convenience. Her sister is in grave danger, and the only way to save her is to get ingredients from the ends of the earth. But that initial spider bite was no accident, and the powers that sent the spider will also do everything they can to prevent Mulan and the Jade Rabbit from reaching their goal…
Mulan believes that her beautiful, proper sister is a Chosen One of prophecy who will one day save the emperor – certainly, clumsy, overly bold and active Mulan couldn’t be anything special. But she will push herself to her limits to help her sister.
As in Grace Lin’s other historical fantasy books Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Starry River of the Sky, and When the Sea Turns to Silver, this book is woven through with stories whose characters also appear in the main narrative. Among these are a greedy white fox, the Unwanted Girl, and the Waiting Wife. I did miss the beautiful illustrations of her other books, but the stories here are just as satisfying.
I’d initially been nervous about Grace Lin writing for Disney – I wouldn’t normally describe myself as a Disney fan. But I liked it enough to purchase it after reading my library copy. You can also see her reading an excerpt from the book on her YouTube channel.
A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat. Candlewick, 2020. 978-1536204940 Read from ARC. Ebook on Libby.
A generation ago, a fire swept through the whole city of Chattana in this Thai-inspired fantasy. Since then, all light has been regulated by the Governor, with the color and brightness also limited according to importance, so that only the rich can afford bright golden light, while the poor make do with red and violet. Our first hero, Pong, was born in a women’s prison on the poor side of the city, where he’ll be raised, even though his mother is dead, until his 13th birthday. Meanwhile, he’s an expert at listening to mangos ripen in the tree next to the yard, knowing just when one will fall. He also spends a lot of time defending his best friend, Somkit, from the bullies who like to steal those mangos or any other food.
When Pong gets scolded by the celebrated Governor for just such an incident, when Pong had been sure that the Governor would recognize the justice of his actions, Pong loses faith in the system. He hides in a trash bin of extra-stinky durian fruit rinds to escape and find a better life for himself. But he’s still feeling horribly guilty for not being able to take Somkit with him, and because all prisoners, even the children, are tattooed, he is in constant fear of being found and returned to prison. Though the fear doesn’t leave, he eventually finds refuge in a monastery outside the city, where he studies with the wise Father Cham.
Meanwhile, the prison warden has a daughter, Nok, who believes firmly in the rightness of the law and that everyone who follows it will be properly rewarded. When her family fortunes start to fall, she decides it’s all the fault of that boy who escaped, and sets out to find him. But the farther away she gets from her sheltered life, the less clear-cut the rules she’s been taught are…
This says on the cover that it’s a reimagining of Les Miserables. It’s not a blow-by-blow recreation, but we do have the two central characters, one who has broken the law for understandable reasons, and one who believes that there is no good reason for breaking the law, as well as the look at inequality and the way that law can uphold it. And seeing as how that is unfortunately still the case in the world today, this is a perfect example of how fantasy can address important real-world issues. We like Pong from the start, and Nok’s transformation from know-it-all to rebel is great. Chattana itself sounds fascinating to visit. Because I have a deep discomfort with books that have only male wisdom figures, I’ll note that when Pong does leave the monastery, he finds that Somkit has found his own inspirational leader in Ampai, a woman who is a community organizer for the poor of Chattana. And though I focus on the character growth, there are still enough chases and narrow escapes to keep this interesting for more plot-focused readers as well. Here’s the official book trailer.