Saturday, May 22, 2010

Cashore, Croggon, Law

by Kristin Cashore
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the fantasy world where this tale takes place, it's easy to tell when someone is "Graced" with a special ability. It's their eyes that give them away: the left eye a different color from the right. One such graceling is Katsa, niece of one of the seven kings who rule the seven kingdoms. Her grace was first revealed when, at the age of eight, she killed a man with a flick of her hand. Since then, her uncle has used her as his personal enforcer. He sends her to break arms, cut off fingers, and sometimes do worse things to those who have fallen from favor. But secretly, Katsa has started a Council of good-doers, dedicated to holding the line against the madness of the kings.

One of Katsa's missions for the Council takes her to the dungeons of a neighboring kingdom, where she rescues the kidnapped father of yet another king. The question of why this sickly, powerless prince should be kidnapped, and by whom, draws Katsa into an adventure that will test her will and her heart. For she will find friendship and even love in unexpected places, discover surprising things about herself and her grace, brave unbelievable hardships, and face an enemy more dangerous than you can probably imagine.

First, Katsa meets another graced fighter, a Prince named Greening Grandemalion, otherwise known as Po. They both learn that their grace was not what they thought it was. Po challenges Katsa to change her mind about what matters most deeply. Then she is joined by a vulnerable girl named Bitterblue in a desperate chase across alpine heights and billowing seas. Their adventure comes to a gripping, scary-fairy-tale climax, then continues with an unexpectedly long and rich resolution of more intimate issues between Katsa and Po.

From what I have already said, you may already perceive that this story is not structured like a typical fairy tale. The story continues surprisingly long after the main crisis has passed. Yet it doesn't give a reader the urge to sniff: "Will this flipping book never end?" Perhaps that's because it's more of a case of the story having two crises to get over, rather than one crisis followed by an awful lot of wrapping-up. The second crisis--the more personal, character-driven one--is just as compelling as the one with the gosh-wow fantasy concept tied into it. On the other hand, it doesn't come to a predictable resolution.

And here we come to the point where this book really veers out of the folklore template. It's hard to explain what I mean without spoiling the story for you. To put it in very general terms, the romantic tension between the two lead characters doesn't find quite the release you would expect. Some readers will probably think it's mindblowingly original and ahead of its time. Many will enjoy it out of sheer titillation. But some readers, perhaps, may be challenged to think about the role traditional values of right and wrong play in making fairy stories meaningful. I, for one, was looking for a different outcome to the Katsa-Po storyline, and I personally feel the author erred in the choice she made. But apart from that, her book is a pleasure to read; and there are few, if any, perfect pleasures. We must bear with the imperfections gladly!

The Singing
by Alison Croggon
Recommended Ages: 13+

The Fourth Book of Pellinor concludes the series that purports to be a translation of the epic "Naraudh Lar-Chanë," left behind by the long-extinct civilization of the lost continent of Edil-Amarandh. If you haven't already heard of the previous books The Naming, The Riddle and The Crow, you might be surprised when I say this series could rival The Lord of the Rings as an achievement in language arts, mythic storytelling, and pure entertainment.

Young bards Maerad and her brother Hem have been separated both by geography and by the first tremors of a war that could shake their world to its foundations. But now that each of them possesses half of the Treesong--an artifact beyond the magic of all bards that could either heal or destroy all that they know--each of the siblings feels drawn to seek the other. Their meeting is bound to be eventful, for Maerad is the "chosen one," who alone can destroy the Nameless One and halt his spreading darkness. Plus, both siblings are touched by Elemental blood, a bond with beings whose power for good and ill is terrifying even to the magically gifted bards.

This, then, is what you need to know before you read how Hem attempts to save his friend Saliman from a plague called the White Sickness. This knowledge will prepare you to stand on the battlements of Innail with Maerad as she risks total obliteration to fight off a being so mighty that it can scarcely be distinguished from the mountain that shares its name. Maerad grows so powerful that she becomes a legend in her own lifetime. How strange it is when this slip of a girl hears her own heroic deeds being sung by the bards! And yet her power is frightening, even to those nearest and dearest to her, so that the final stretches of her long quest are an ordeal of painful loneliness.

The suspense does not stop building when brother and sister come together. For even then it is neither the time nor the place to heal the broken song. To do that, they must journey into the bleakest heart of a country that is now seized in the throes of a total, all-consuming war. And Maerad must figure out the mystery of her own heart in time to set it against the will of the Nameless One in a duel between good and evil to rival Frodo vs. the Ring.

This is a book full of love and sadness, friendship and betrayal, courage and danger, tension and thrills. It features an acting troupe, a clever bird, a city desperately besieged, a devastating flood, a bit of time travel, a pair of tender love stories, and a truly moving act of friendship. It has poetry and music, a bit of nature mysticism (occult-content advisory!), and some pretty grim carnage. It has an admirable young hero and an imperfect young heroine who will challenge the reader to think and to feel outside his or her comfort zone. And it has one of those lickety-split epilogues that leaves you rubbing your eyes and wondering how a novel in four thick volumes can feel like it's ending too soon!

by Ingrid Law
Recommended Ages: 12+

Mibs, short for Mississippi Beaumont, belongs to a rather queer family. As a trait inherited from her mother's side, Mibs can expect to develop some kind of super-power on her thirteenth birthday--which is right around the corner as this story opens. For example, her oldest brother Rocket has a way with electricity. He can't quite control, or scumble, his savvy yet. So, when Rocket gets upset, anything can happen from popping lightbulbs to widespread blackouts.

The next younger Beamont sibling is Mibs' brother Fish, who has a similar power over the weather. All it takes is a little slip, and Fish can cause a hurricane. This is why the family had to move from the Gulf Coast to the relatively waterless region between Kansas and Nebraska, which the Beaumonts call Kansaska at some times and Nebransas at others. They have their Grandpa to thank for that; his savvy is causing new land to come into existence. With gifts like these, it's no wonder the Beaumonts lead a private, secluded family life. The kids are all home-schooled from the age of 13.

And now it's about to be Mibs' turn. She can hardly wait. She hopes her savvy will be a real knock-out, maybe so she can show the mean girls at school a thing or two. Or maybe so she can come to the rescue of her Poppa, who has been in a coma since his car accident a few days before Mibs' birthday.

Mibs prays that her savvy will help Poppa wake up. But when her birthday comes, she starts--whoops! I almost spoiled it for you! But really, how is this savvy going to be any good for Mibs and her family? Before she finds out, Mibs will have an adventure on a pink bus full of Bibles, together with two of her brothers and the local minister's runaway brats. Together they go on an interstate spree of matchmaking, weather control, and freaky savvy-related happenings. Mibs will find out a secret about a boy who likes her, and make friends with a girl she never liked before. She will breeze through a wide spectrum of human experience, ranging from a drunk passed out behind a garbage dumpster to a trailer-park kidnapping caper. And finally, her love for her Poppa will do what not even the coolest savvy can.

This 2009 Newbery Honor Book is an engaging story about kids with the type of powers I find especially fun to read about, as (for example) in David Lubar's Hidden Talents. It is told in a perky, expressive, and highly original first-person voice. It is funny, fast-paced, and full of the warmth (sometimes resulting from friction) bewteen family and friends. The characters are so interesting that I was glad to learn that it's only the beginning of a series that will continue in Scumble, due to be released in August 2010.

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