Here are two new contemporary fantasy adventures, both with enough action and introspection to satisfy an array of readers.
Girl Giant and the
by Van Hoang.
Roaring Brook Press, 2020.
Read from library copy.
Ebook available on Libby.
Eleven-year-old Thom Ngo’s mother has recently moved them from California, where Thom had friends and was a key player on the soccer team, to Georgia, where she has no friends, can’t play well, and there aren’t even any bubble tea shops close to their house. She’s recently become strong, so strong that she’s always breaking things like doorknobs accidentally. When she actually tries to play soccer well, instead of avoiding the ball, she knocks out the rival goalie. On top of that, she’s gone from being one of many students of color to being one of two Asian-American kids in her class. So when her mother spots the Culture Day flyer Thom had hidden in her backpack, Thom is horrified at her mother’s suggestion that she dress in traditional Vietnamese clothing for it. Thom has learned never to ask questions about the father she never knew, and is used to being a team with her mother – but this seems so potentially humiliating that it’s worth disappointing her mother.
When her mother takes her to a local temple to reinforce her cultural pride, she winds up with – the Monkey King of Vietnamese legend? He is very impressed with her strength, and soon has her skipping class and sneaking out at night to practice her skills. Then, a new and effortlessly cool Vietnamese boy, Kha, appears at her school wanting to be friends with her. He tells her that the Monkey King is a trickster and can’t be trusted. Can Thom really trust either of them? And will she have the time to make a thoughtful decision when she’s being whisked away to adventures in multiple magical realms? This story of modern-day kids interacting with gods will appeal to both Percy Jackson fans and those looking for stories of the struggles of finding a place in middle school, an aspect of the story that made it feel much more fleshed-out to me than many similar stories.
City of the
by Sarwat Chadda
Rick Riordan Presents, 2021.
Listened to the audiobook on Libby. Ebook also available.
Sikander Aziz has never been to Iraq. All he knows are the stories his parents told him of their life there before war forced them to emigrate to New York City. His brother, Mo, traveled there doing charity work and botany before his death a few years earlier, though he told Sik stories both of modern-day Iraq and the legends of Mesopotamia, most especially the epic of Gilgamesh. Now that Mo is gone, though, Sik spends all his free time helping to run his family’s deli. That is, until the deli is invaded by two horrible, pestilent demons, who demand that he give “it” to them, because Nergal wants it. Sik knows that Nergal is the Mesopotamian god of war and plague – but he has no idea what “it” is. A mysterious person rescues him from the demons… but unless he can figure out what the MacGuffin is and get to it before Nergal, plague will keep spreading through New York.
The rescuer turns out to be Belet, the prickly and super-competent adopted daughter of Ishtar, goddess of love, war, and cats. Soon Sik is hanging with Ishtar and Belet – and somehow Daoud, Mo’s best friend, whom Sik sees as mostly nothing but hopelessly narcissistic, committed to his acting career even though he’s only being cast as a terrorist over and over again. And then the adventure is off for real… one that mixes a hefty dose of reality, like anti-Arab sentiment and the horror of hospitals overflowing with plague victims, with magical cats, flying chariots, and a snarky and bloodthirsty talking sword, as well as Nergal, Ishtar, and of course Gilgamesh (now a gardener in Central Park, refusing to fight but baking excellent cookies.)
The plague hits very close to home (even though it was written before Covid-19), but the fantasy aspect could be just the angle to make the pandemic more bearable for you or the young reader in your life. I was very amused that all through the book, Sik finds himself in the presence of lots of weapons and people who know how to use them, but when he asks for a weapon for himself, he is consistently – realistically, but very atypically for the genre – told that he hasn’t had time to train properly and is more likely to hurt himself or a companion than to help. That means that he has to use what he already has to win the day: his wit, the stories from Mo, and the skills he’s learned from working with cranky NYC customers. Can I say how much I love having an adventure story where violence isn’t the answer? I also really appreciated seeing him volunteer at the charity meals his Islamic center put on, sharing the delicious food from multiple cultures. Also, characters like Belet and Daoud that initially appeared one-note develop into much more rounded characters over the course of the book.
When I first put together a list of Rick Riordan read-alikes back in 2014, there were just not a lot out there, and it was especially difficult to find them about non-European cultures. Now the category is joyfully exploding, with many excellent books coming from lots of different publishers and authors, as well as the Rick Riordan imprint. Here are a few recent ones:
- Charlie Hernández and the League of Shadows by Ryan Calejo
- Tristan Strong Destroys the World by Kwame Mbalia
- Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia
- Muse Squad: the Cassandra Curse by Chantel Acevedo
- Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
- Maya and the Rising Dark by Rena Barron
- Momotaro: Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters by Margaret Dilloway