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Book Review: The Floating Island by Elizabeth Haydon

The Floating Island by Elizabeth Haydon

Title: The Floating Island

Author: Elizabeth Haydon

Series: The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme #1

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Long ago, in the Second Age of history, a young Nain explorer by the name of Ven Polypheme traveled much of the known and unknown world, recording his adventures. Recently discovered by archaeologists, a few fragments of his original journals are reproduced in this book. Great care has been taken to reconstruct the parts of the journal that did not survive, so that a whole story can be told… Charles Magnus Ven Polypheme–known as Ven–is the youngest son of a long line of famous shipwrights. He dreams not of building ships, but of sailing them to far-off lands where magic thrives. Ven gets his chance when he is chosen to direct the Inspection of his family’s latest ship–and sets sail on the journey of a lifetime. Attacked by fire pirates, lost at sea and near death, Ven is rescued by a passing ship on its way to the Island of Serendair. Thankful to be alive, little does Ven know that the pirate attack–and his subsequent rescue–may not have been an accident. Shadowy figures are hunting for the famed Floating Island, the only source of the mystical Water of Life. They think Ven can lead them to this treasure, and will stop at nothing to get it–even murder. In a narrative that alternates entries from his journals and drawings from his sketchbooks, Ven begins the famous chronicles of his exciting and exotic adventures–adventures that would later earn him renown as the author of The Book of All Human Knowledge and All the World’s Magic. –Goodreads

The Review:

Middle grade books have a special place in my heart, but I’ll admit that it’s difficult to find titles that give me the same overall satisfaction as adult novels (for obvious reasons). So when one comes along with substance and depth, I geek out. Aside from Harry Potter, Fablehaven, and a handful of others, my list of MG favorites is a short one… and now Floating Island is among them!

Not that I’m terribly surprised. As a longtime fan of Haydon’s Symphony of Ages series, I’d hoped the quality of writing and storytelling would be on par with her adult fantasy, and it was. What’s more, this series takes place in the same world as SoA, which solidified my interest in it even more because I have the mechanisms and histories of the world as a solid baseline. That said, it does stand really well on its own for those new to Haydon’s works.

What I liked most was the sense of adventure and discovery the pages offered. And the concept: a young boy traveling to new places and documenting his findings along the way. Granted there wasn’t a ton of discovery in this first book, but it set the stage nicely for what I hope will be a wild ride in future books.

The writing was anything but simplistic. Told in an almost lyrical fashion, the tale is spun with a distinctive elegant voice that somehow elevates the fantastical nature of the story. It’s a lot more sophisticated than I’ve seen from the genre, but not in a way that makes it any less accessible to kids. It’s a true testament to quality that it can appeal to a wide range of ages. I loved the delivery – which included a bunch of passages from Ven’s Journal, the art, and also loved that the plot had enough twists to keep me guessing.

I’ve only one gripe, and it’s a marketing critique: there aren’t any dragons in this first book. I mean, I’ve read the adult series, so I still felt their presence to a small degree, but for anyone who’s only read this series I imagine the cover art doesn’t seem relevant at all. But dragons sell books. Just look at me. I’m pretty sure I bought these before knowing what they were, solely on the cover art. But misrepresentation for sake of sales is a new personal gripe of mine.

Recommendations: Floating Island was a great little adventure and one of the best I’ve read from the genre in a long while. It has great writing, interesting world building, and fun characters, all adding up to a story that will appeal to both kids and adults alike. It’s set in the same world as Haydon’s Symphony of Ages series but can be read independently. I enjoyed it so much, it is now among my personal favorites for the middle grade genre.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Anya and the Dragon by Sofiya Pasternack

Title: Anya and the Dragon

Author: Sofiya Pasternack

Series: Anya #1

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Anya and the Dragon is the story of fantasy and mayhem in tenth century Eastern Europe, where headstrong eleven-year-old Anya is a daughter of the only Jewish family in her village. When her family’s livelihood is threatened by a bigoted magistrate, Anya is lured in by a friendly family of fools, who promise her money in exchange for helping them capture the last dragon in Kievan Rus. This seems easy enough, until she finds out that the scary old dragon isn’t as old—or as scary—as everyone thought. Now Anya is faced with a choice: save the dragon, or save her family. -Goodreads

The Review:

Anya and the Dragon was a lovely middle grade story with enough interesting elements to make it a great pick for kids to read with their parents.

I haven’t had a lot of patience for middle grade novels lately, but considering the premise and the fact that it got recognized at the ALA Media Awards, I decided to accept a review copy…

And I liked it. ^_^

It’s always fun to see different cultures represented in fantasy books, and I thought the author did an especially good job at immersing the reader in the “Tenth century Eastern Europe” lifestyle (insofar as is appropriate for a middle grade book). It also covered a few more serious topics dealing with prejudice and oppression of Jewish families at that time, which was nice to see. Both of these factors are why I think the book has so much hype.

Anya was a great main character. Faced with a moral dilemma, she showcased her ability to make hard decisions, and I appreciate that she was so humble even when she was being most brave. A lot of MG heroes seem to have to put on over-dramatic airs and make a lot of stupid decisions to prove they’re worthy, but Anya’s demeanor was subtle and lovely. The positive takeaway was that actions driven by kindness can be powerful too.

Here’s the caveat: there weren’t a lot of fantasy elements through most of the novel (well, that’s not strictly true – they were there in the background, but never really felt like the focus). The selling point was the relatable main character and the cultural immersion. The dragon doesn’t come into play until much later in the book, and when it does, it’s vastly different than I think most fantasy readers will expect. Mostly because it’s geared to be more accessible to kids. It’s friendlier storytelling, if that makes sense. I didn’t dislike it – it was actually kind of fun to be surprised a bit, but when I became apparent that the fantasy elements were secondary, I felt my enthusiasm and attention waning. That aside, it was still a fun story.

Recommendations: this is a lovely, culturally-infused middle grade book that would be fun to read with a child (or to have them read on their own). I think it may be a tad too accessible for adult fantasy enthusiasts, but it’s entertaining nonetheless if you’re in the mood for something light. It’s definitely better than most middle grade novels I’ve tried lately, so we’ll give it big kudos for that. :)

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Dragonwatch: Master of the Phantom Isle by Brandon Mull

Dragonwatch: Master of Phantom Isle by Brandon Mull

Title: Dragonwatch: Master of the Phantom Isle

Author: Brandon Mull

Series: Dragonwatch #3 [Fablehaven #8]

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: Cursed by the Key of Forgetting, Seth has lost all memory of his past—his relationships, his experiences, and who he really is. For now he will align with his new mentor, Ronodin, the dark unicorn, who takes him to the Phantom Isle, the secret gateway to the Under Realm. Though Seth is not formally a prisoner, Ronodin wants to use him and his shadow charmer powers for his own dark ends. Kendra is frantic to find her missing brother, but the quest will take her and her companions, including Warren, Tanu, and Vanessa, far from Wyrmroost to Crescent Lagoon—a recently fallen dragon sanctuary made up of many islands and underwater domains. Its caretaker has regained a foothold on one of the islands. If Kendra and her friends can save that sanctuary, they might uncover the answers they need to rescue Seth. With each sanctuary the dragons overthrow, Celebrant, the Dragon King, comes closer to the dawn of a new Age of Dragons. With the forces of darkness on the march, can Kendra and her allies gather enough power to win the epic dragon war? -Goodreads

The Review:

… I think I’m becoming disenchanted with this series.

Something has changed. I can’t put my finger on precisely what that is (or can I?) but the exciting, evoking sense of wonder this author dazzled me with in his first five books has diminished.

I have a few theories.

1. Plot. Or rather, a lack thereof. It seems to me like there isn’t enough meaningful forward-progression of story to sustain the page count so far. It’s an endless stream of practically identical encounters and hollow “choose your own adventure” formulas that just isn’t giving me enough to sink my teeth into.

2. Telling vs Showing. This book was a strong example of explaining to a reader why this magical island is so cool… why that plant over there is dangerous. Instead of taking a moment to actually explore the island… and letting someone get eaten by that plant, lol. Everything seemed more a means to an end rather than something to be enjoyed for itself.

3. Am I too old? Does this repetitive, surface-level formula appeal to middle grade readers, and I simply cannot appreciate it anymore? I had the same exact issues with Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus series. And yet, I didn’t with the original Percy Jackson books. Which is interesting because both series I’m questioning are continuations. Like the authors needed to keep producing because of demand, but the initial spark and creative vision had already been exhausted, so they’re relying on storytelling formulas instead of passion…

4. Too much explanation!! This goes along with #2. My assessment of this story was that it was about 75% one character explaining how things work to another character, 15% one character negotiating and making specific deals with every monster they come across, and only 10% of exciting plot-advancement. And I’m not even trying to be dramatic with those figures – it’s really how the story read to me.

I’m torn! I love the whole concept of the dragon sanctuary! It was my favorite setting from the original five books. However, the drama between the sanctuary masters and the dragons is losing steam with each encounter and narrow escape. I want to be into this series so much, but I have to admit that something just isn’t clicking for me anymore. I will probably still finish the series because I want to see how it resolves, but I’m not as excited to.

Recommendations: um… okay, so I can’t recommend these at this point. I haven’t found any real sustainable value in continuing on from the original five books. The plot has become too drawn out and formulaic for my tastes. I’d say if you haven’t read the author – read books 1-5 (amazing!), but if you’ve been wondering whether to continue… I can’t recommend these with confidence other than for nostalgia purposes.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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The Heroes of Olympus by Rick Riordan – Series Discussion [No Spoilers]

Series Review (and some musings):
Heroes of Olympus
by Rick Riordan
2.5/5 stars

Let’s talk about Heroes of Olympus for a minute. I Buddy Read this series with some lovely ladies over at Fantasy Buddy Reads, and I have to say… I think I enjoyed talking to them about the books a lot more than I enjoyed actually reading them.

This is a shame, because I loved the Percy Jackson series, so why did I have such a hard time getting into this one? Especially considering it’s a continuation to the tale with more large-scale dynamics? It comes down to one thought:

These books me feel like I’m getting too old to appreciate middle grade.

…or am I?

Last week I started an ARC of Brandon Mull’s Dragonwatch: Wrath of the Dragon King (a comparable middle grade book) and am loving every second of it. So that made me wonder if perhaps my issues with Heroes of Olympus might have more to do with the story itself rather than my not being the target audience.

For one thing, the books take a lot of time introducing new characters and building up your enthusiasm for them. The first book felt more like a set-up novel, which meant I had a hard time getting into it.

For two things, I found the actual plot in all the books to be way too drawn out, filled with so many tangents that you couldn’t possibly get any sort of momentum from it. It followed a formula: meet “x” mythical creature, have a conflict with it, then move on to the next one. Over and over and over again. It was tedious.

In some ways, I can appreciate the educational appeal of learning about so many mythical beings, but from a purely plot-progressing standpoint, I think it was the biggest reasons why the series wasn’t as good as PJ. If all of those tangents had been cut down to just the events that furthered the end-goal for our characters, the books could have been amazing.

Basically, they were too long and too drawn out.

Granted, a younger reader might have relished in all of the additional details and creature conflicts. I certainly wouldn’t have been so dissatisfied had I read it when I was a kid, but there are so many amazing middle grade books out there enjoyable to all audiences that I don’t feel as generous about blaming my age for lack of enjoyment.

So with that said, I’m curious – do any of you feel like you’re outgrowing certain genres? Do you think it’s you? The books? A little of both? I’d love to hear some thoughts. :)

by Niki Hawkes

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Coming Soon: Dragonwatch: Wrath of the Dragon King by Brandon Mull

[October 23, 2018] Dragonwatch #2 by Brandon Mull

Title: Dragonwatch: Wrath of the Dragon King

Author: Brandon Mull

Series: Dragonwatch #2 (Fablehaven #7)

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Release Date: October 23, 2018 <-Release dates are subject to change.

The Overview: War has come to the dragon sanctuaries of the world and nowhere is the danger more intense than at Wyrmroost. After a humiliating defeat at the hands of Kendra and Seth, Celebrant, King of Dragons, prepares to unleash his fury and take control of his native preserve. Armed with information from a new ally Ronodin, the dark unicorn Celebrant seeks a legendary talisman the dominion stone. However, the powerful stone is protected by a cursed castle. Upon entering the castle fortress, an unyielding power strips all magical beings of their power and forces Celebrant to take his human avatar form. Kendra and Seth must enter the cursed castle as well. The race is on. Will the two young caretakers rally enough support from the creatures of Wyrmroost against the greatest threat the magical community has faced in ages? Can they foil Celebrant’s plan and beat him to the mighty dominion stone? Or will all hope be shattered by the wrath of the Dragon King? -Goodreads

Nik’s Notes:

Fablehaven is my favorite series to hit the middle grade market since Harry Potter, so you can imagine how absolutely thrilled I am that the story continued in this new Dragonwatch series (which takes place in the Dragon Sanctuary – my favorite setting of the original series). I really enjoyed the first book, but thought the pacing struggled a little near the beginning as things got going. I’m hoping this sequel will start off with a bang and not let up until the end! (Here’s a book trailer for the first one)

Anyone else a Fablehaven nut?? ;)

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Wizard for Hire by Obert Skye

Wizard for Hire by Obert Skye

Title: Wizard for Hire

Author: Obert Skye

Series: Wizard for Hire #1 (BN.com has it listed as a series, but Goodreads doesn’t… we’ll see)

Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Fourteen-year-old Ozzy lives near Portland, Oregon, and is desperate for help. His scientist parents have been kidnapped after discovering a formula that enables mind control. Their work was so top secret Ozzy is afraid to go to the police, but without help, he fears he’ll never find his parents. Then he stumbles across a classified ad in the local newspaper that says “Wizard for Hire. Call 555-SPEL.” Ozzy has read about wizards in books like Harry Potter, but wizards couldn’t actually exist today, could they? After Ozzy meets the wizard Labyrinth–aka Rin–he’s even more skeptical... -Goodreads

The Review:

Even though Wizard for Hire wasn’t quite what I was expecting, it surprised me (in a good way).

I read middle grade books to recapture some of the magic I felt as a kid venturing into Harry Potter and many of the other amazing titles I was lucky enough to read. Wizard for Hire did an excellent job giving me the nostalgia I craved while providing some unexpected food for thought. Skye found the perfect balance between fun for kids and evoking for adults.

Honestly, this is going to be a relatively short review. I don’t want to get into specifics about what still has me reeling a few days after finishing the book because it’s an essential discovery component to the story and I don’t want to lessen the experience for anyone. Suffice to say that I really appreciate what I think the author was trying to do and I personally found a lot more to take away from the story than I ever expected to from a middle grade book. My only holdup was that the story didn’t take the shape I was expecting, and as odd as it sounds I kind of feel the loss of what could have been. Even so, I’m far from being disappointed with the end result.

Recommendations: I’d hand this to slightly older middle graders / young teens. It has a few somewhat bleak moments. As an adult reading it, I definitely think it’s a great pick if your in the mood for something light and maybe a little surprising. :)

Other books you might like:

Nik’s Notes: Y’all know I’ve been geeking out about the cover for months. Shadow Mountain is one of my favorite publishers because they always have quality writers, great stories, and killer covers (to name a few of the reasons I respect them so much). I’m just going to throw it out there that my ambition as a writer is to get a series accepted and published by them. It’s good to have goals. :)

by Niki Hawkes