Tag Archives: Fantasy literature

The Silver Arrow, by Lev Grossman

Kate’s life was boring. It was nice enough; she had nice-enough parents who both worked and a nice-enough younger brother, and they all lived in a nice-enough house. When her parents were home, though, they talked to each other about work things or stared at their phones, and Tom was, after all, a little brother. She never had the kinds of adventures that she read about in her beloved books. In an effort to shake up her world a bit, she wrote a letter to her infamous Uncle Herbert, whom she had never met. Apparently, he did nothing but was incredibly wealthy. She let him know that it was her birthday, and the least he could do would be to buy her present. So, he did.

Kate and her family awoke the next morning to the delivery of a steam engine, the Silver Arrow, placed on brand-new tracks in the backyard. Uncle Herbert himself, in a banana yellow suit, presented her with this full-sized train engine and coal car, and while her parents argued with him, Kate and Tom climbed aboard—still in their pajamas—and the train rolled onto the long-abandoned tracks in the woods behind their house. At the next stop, they added passenger cars, dining cars, a library car for Kate, and a candy car for Tom, and the kids were off on a magical adventure, picking up animals at each stop and dropping them off at destinations around the world and beyond.

The Silver Arrow is Lev Grossman’s first foray into middle-grade fiction. He is the author of the very popular grown-up series that begins with The Magicians, a Potteresque story of a group of recent graduates from magic school who drag their powers into a dissolute adulthood. The Silver Arrow is more of a Willy Wonka goes to Narnia story with a smidgen of preaching.

The fantastical elements of this novel are charming, hitting that lovely sweet spot between cozy and chilling. It’s all very well to pick up talking animals at each stop, but there are wild creatures curled up in the library car, and this could end very badly indeed. The animals introduce themselves with a quick, Wikipedia-like summary, such as the fishing cat: “I’m not surprised you haven’t heard of us. There aren’t many of us, and we don’t get as much attention as the big cats. We are related to the rusty-spotted cats and the flat-headed cats—unfortunate name that, although it’s true, they have very flat heads. And they eat fruit, if you can believe it. A cat that eats fruit! Also the leopard cats.” (pp. 89-90) Although informative and sometimes amusing, this device wears thin after a while. Grossman’s main objective seems to be to recruit children to save endangered species, fight climate change, and stop staring at their phones. All noble causes, to be sure, especially ending device slavery, but the didactic passages feel awkward and uncomfortable at times.

On the other hand, this is an exciting adventure story, written in an appealing, somewhat British style. Grossman builds a world where anything could happen, and his characters grow in knowledge and confidence as they handle dangerous situations, from flying a train into the sky to confronting freeloading warthogs. Quiet, studious children will relate to Kate, who loves to eat breakfast alone with a book, and everyone will approve of Tom’s fabulous candy car, which contains every confection a child could imagine. Young people who love animals will devour this title and may move on to effect change in the real world.

A fun fantasy with teeth, this novel would make a great family read-aloud.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

Queen of the TearlingKelsea grew up in a cottage in the woods with her foster parents, but she always knew that when she turned nineteen, the queen’s guard would come to take her to the Keep to become the new queen of the Tearling. What she didn’t know was how devastated and corrupt the country had become, and Barty and Carlin had certainly never given her a clue.

Now her nineteenth birthday has passed, and Kelsea’s uncle is perfectly happy reigning as regent. Furthermore, the Mort witch queen in the next kingdom is ready to use all her evil powers to keep the true queen from reaching the capital city. Even the guards sent to protect her on the trip are not too sure of their loyalties. It will be a miracle if she makes it alive. Fortunately, Kelsea has friends she’s never known.

At first, I was surprised that this novel was even published because of the striking similarities to Rae Carson’s “Girl of Fire and Thorns” trilogy, although Queen of the Tearling is an adult novel. They both portray a plain, hefty heroine, a strong young woman who becomes queen at an early age, a gruff, older guard to protect her, and even a jewel that glows. Not that I’m complaining, of course. I really loved them both, and the “Fire and Thorns” trilogy is, sadly, finished. However, as the novel continues, Kelsea’s story grows beyond “Fire and Thorns” in terms of politics and government. Johansen does have a political agenda that gets a bit heavy at times, but the reader can overlook it for all of the intrigue, adventure, and even a hint of a romance. There are clues in this medieval-sounding setting that there once was a country called the United States. Fortunately, this debut is the first of a series, so eventually we will all get to find out who her father is. Oh, I hope it’s not who I think it may be.

This one is not for the kiddos. Some of the descriptions of twisted evil are disturbing. The movie rights have already been sold—even before publication!—and Emma Watson is slated to play Kelsea, because she’s so plain and chubby, I suppose. Highly recommended for those of you who, like me, are epic fantasy fans. Available July 8th.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Girl Who Has Books with Really Long Names

I just finished Catherynne Valente’s exquisite second YA  novel, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, which is the sequel to the also breathtaking (in more than one way) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. As far as I can tell, Valente is not British, just plain ol’ American, but she puts me in mind of all sorts of quintessentially British authors, such as E. Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, Douglass Adams, and Jasper Fforde. Her use of language is what makes her work so distinctive, and when combined with her brilliant wit, reading is a joy.

In both of the novels, our heroine, September, is swept into Fairyland, where she uses her pluck and good sense to save entire civilizations of creatures she’s never met before and still gets home in time for dinner. As usual. However, it is not as usual at all. Valente’s creatures are original and her world-building is convincing. We love September and are proud of her courage. Although September is twelve in the first novel and thirteen in the second, Valente’s humor will please adults at age, well, fifty-four, as well.

I can highly recommend these two books to fantasy-lovers from a precocious ten to a young-at-heart one hundred.

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