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Tempests and Slaughter

Author: Tamora Pierce

The Numair Chronicles, vol. 1

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Arram Draper is one of the youngest students at the Imperial University of Carthak, sent there by his family to hone his Gift–before he accidentally burns up everything they own! It swiftly becomes clear that his Gift is special, powerful, enough so that he rises quickly through his classes to get special training with advanced teachers, along with his best friends Varice and Prince Ozorne. As if being friends with a prince didn’t come with enough complications on its own. Not to mention the problems Arram gets into once he gains the attention of various gods and other supernatural beings. It’s pretty clear that he will never really fit in, not that he really wants to, but as Arram experiences more of the troubles facing Carthak–the threats to the Imperial succession, the horrific place that slavery and gladiatorial entertainment play in the nation–he finds himself more convinced than ever that he can’t stay in this country, even if it means leaving the people who mean the most to him.

I love Tamora Pierce’s writing, always. And Numair has been a favorite character of mine in her books for quite a while now, so it’s pretty cool getting to go back and get his backstory. Having said that, in the past, I’ve always watched characters grow up into legends in her books, so it’s a bit weird to know the legend first and then go back to that character’s childhood. (He even has a different name as a kid, although we’re already introduced to that fact in some of Pierce’s other Tortall books.) It works though, and I feel like his character is consistent while allowing room for his growth into the adult Numair that we know and love. It’s neat to get a look closer look at Carthak, and at this time period in this world’s history, too, since most of the stories we get are set in Tortall and are a bit later chronologically. As far as the general storytelling, if you like Pierce’s writing, you’ll like this. It’s solid, engaging, character-driven fantasy writing with an easy, gradual pacing, lots of character development, and a unified plot. Lots of room for development in future volumes, too. At its core, Tempests and Slaughter is a school story, so a lot of it revolves around Arram’s classes, teachers, and friendships, as well as a bit throughout about the physical and emotional changes he goes through during this time and the complications of handling that without a real father figure around to talk about it with. So, warnings that there may be some content that’s a bit old for elementary/middle-grade kids . . . okay, considering the exposure Arram has to the gladiator’s ring in later parts, I’d make that a definitely. Recommended for high-school and up, but definitely recommended.

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Octopus Alone (Picture Book)

Author/Illustrator: Divya Srinivasan

My rating: 5 of 5

Octopus enjoys watching life in the ocean unfold around her, other sea creatures having fun. But sometimes it all just gets to be too much, and she needs to be alone. One day, she swims away until she finds somewhere quiet and alone where she can play by herself in the quiet . . . but after a while, she’s ready to return to her friends back home.

As in her Little Owl books, in Octopus Alone, Srinivasan does a delightful job of blending story with education about nature. We are shown a charming variety of sea creatures doing what sea creatures do, all drawn in the author’s usual gorgeous and distinguished style. And this would be a good children’s book just for that. But we get something more, as well–we get a main character with an established, distinct personality. One that tends to go against a lot of social expectations, no less. In point of fact, we get a picture book with an introverted main character, one that wrestles with that fine balance between needing relationships and needing to be alone sometimes. As an introvert myself, reading this in a children’s book is just brilliant. Whether it’s helping introverted kids understand themselves or helping extroverted kids understand that some people need more space and quiet than they do, this book is something that is just helpful and timely. Highly recommended, for the art, for the animals, for the story, and for the social aid that this book clearly is.

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The Kissing Hand (Picture Book)

Author: Audrey Penn

Illustrators:  Ruth E. Harper & Nancy M. Leak 

My rating: 4 of 5

A young raccoon faces his first day of school with trepidation. That is, until his mother shows him a secret trick to help him be brave and remember that she loves him.

I found myself reading this adorable picture book with my niece, and I must say that it’s charming. The pictures are a delightful watercolor with a nice color blend, and the use of anthropomorphism is nicely balanced, if a bit weird to read as an adult. Don’t think about the details too much. I also liked that the writing is accessible to young readers but is also a bit more complex than the typical “see spot run” sort of thing that we see so much of. Most of all, I liked how the story presents children with a real, workable idea to help them handle difficult situations with courage rather than hiding the fact that tough things are a part of life. All in all, definitely recommended, especially for kids ages 4-6 or thereabouts.

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Cinnamon (Picture Book)

Author: Neil Gaiman

Illustrator: Divya Srinivasan

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Once upon a time, in a small, faraway kingdom, there was a young princess who was blind and who would not talk. Her parents offered (dubious) rewards to anyone who could get her to talk, but although many tried, none succeeded. . . . Until one day, a fierce, man-eating tiger came to the palace and offered to help the princess find her voice.

Cinnamon is a lovely picture book combining the talents of two of my favorite creative individuals–Neil Gaiman and Divya Srinivasan. I would have to say that it manages to highlight the things I love about both of their work. The tale itself is, in a sense, classic fairy tale material. The combination of the mundane and the fantastic, the inevitable flow of events, the underlying darkness at times, and the sometimes fable-like quality all contribute to this feeling of fairy tale that the story evokes. Yet at the same time, it manages to avoid the downfall of many fairy tales when they are told as such–being boring. This story certainly is not boring, and I contribute a lot of that to the author’s great talent and sense of humor. Quirky and realistic details like the stunted mango trees and the contrast between the Rani’s cranky old aunt and the picture of her in her youth give the whole story a much more vibrant and interesting flavor than it would otherwise have. Srinivasan’s art is also huge in transforming this story, giving it a vibrance and luminescence that is just stunning. If you’re familiar with her Little Owl books, the style is very similar and equally charming and lovely. Settings that are generally alluded to in the text are brought to life, again helping to make this story anything but boring. My favorite illustrations are the ones showing Cinnamon and the tiger together as the young princess experiences life afresh through the tiger’s influence. There’s just so much emotion and depth in those pictures that it’s quite moving. I think Cinnamon is a great picture book for younger readers (I’d say ages 5 or so and up, depending on the reader), but is also an enjoyable tale for older readers to share as well.

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Squire

Author: Tamora Pierce

Protector of the Small, vol. 3

My rating: 4 of 5

Kel has surpassed numerous challenges–including lots of people not accepting a girl in the role of knight-in-training–and has finally become a squire. Or at least, she will be if any knight will take The Girl on as his squire. To her surprise and delight, Lord Raoul sees her potential and breaks his usual habits, taking her on to train. His unconventionality, gruffness, and practicality promise to make her four years as his squire both interesting and challenging. . . . Who knows, they may even be fun at times. Not that there won’t be plenty of challenges for her to face before achieving her knighthood–an ornery baby griffin, any number of stuffy individuals who challenge her capability, a huge royal progress across the country complete with parties and social expectations, boys. But of course, Kel will face them all with the clear-headed determination that has stood her in good stead so far.

I adore Tamora Pierce’s books, and Squire is an excellent example of her writing. The characters are fabulous. Kel continues to grow as a person in this book, and I love the way her character builds with every small choice she faces. I have to applaud Pierce for writing someone so vastly different from most of her other Tortallan heroines as well; Kel’s really distinct from, say, Alanna or Daine. Which actually makes it really interesting to get to see them in the same story, interacting with each other. There are plenty of other excellent character here as well, the most developed and fun to read probably being Raoul (whom I already like from Alanna’s story, but we get a different perspective on him here, which is fun). And the animal characters are just soooo good! The writing style, as always, is very comfortable and easy to read, although I am again impressed by how unconventional Pierce’s writing seems at times in the way it homes in on small jewels of events then pans out for broad, sweeping passages of time. It’s different, but it works–brilliantly, even. I do feel the need to highlight that, while the earlier books in this quartet could easily be considered children’s fiction (First Test, in particular), Squire sits solidly in the YA genre, with Kel facing some pretty big, adult stuff like death and sex–not so much kids’ stuff. So fair warning that, while still quite clean and fairly discreet, this is probably not the ideal book to give to your ten-year-old. Still, for a YA and older audience, Squire is an incredible story, especially for those who love a good fantasy.

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Page

Author: Tamora Pierce

Protector of the Small Quartet, vol. 2

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Kel has survived her first probationary year as the first female page in the Tortallan court. Now she only has three more years to make it through as an officially recognized page before she can become a squire–and those three years promise to be grueling, full of hard physical work, intense study, and opposition of her choice to remain coming from all sides it sometimes seems. Not to mention a young maid who’s come under Kel’s protection and a collection of first-years demanding her time and assistance. But Kel is nothing if not stubborn and determined.  And the truth is that she does have friends to support her, from those among the other pages to her growing collection of animal friends to her secret benefactor who keeps on sending her far-too-expensive but always practical gifts. Somehow or another, Kel is determined to stick with it and make it through these three years.

As always, in Page, Tamora Pierce delivers an incredible story full of great characters–including a strong, relatable female lead–moving plot challenges, fantastic animal characters, and a simple, flowing, enjoyable writing style. I basically just love her writing, period. Page is kind of different from some stories in that it doesn’t so much have a huge, overarching plot path–other than the passage of time over the three remaining years of Kel’s page training. Which isn’t to say there isn’t plot; there is, quite a lot in fact. It’s just set up with a more episodic feel, and also in places with the passage of time simply flowing away without much note. I know that doesn’t sound so exciting, but I actually quite enjoyed the way in which it’s written. It explores how much Kel grows up in the course of those years, discovering her own womanhood, exploring how her gender plays a part in who she is and how she lives, her changing feelings over time, her growing as a person and a leader, her developing friendships, and the growth in her character. Page is a different sort of story, but highly recommended still, perhaps even because of that very reason. Plus, you know, Tamora Pierce, always recommended, period.

 

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First Test

Author: Tamora Pierce

Protector of the Small Quartet, vol. 1

My rating: 5 of 5

A decade after the kingdom of Tortall decided to accept girls to train as knights instead of just boys, ten-year-old Kel becomes the first girl to actually apply. Inspired by tales of the Lioness’s valor and already skilled through her training in the Yamani court, Kel is determined to succeed and become a knight of Tortall. But she is shocked when Lord Wyldon, the training master, puts an extra requirement on her that the boys don’t have to fulfill: her first year is a probationary period, and only if she satisfies him at the end of it will she be allowed to stay on as a knight-in-training. Hurt and frustration are barely the beginning of what Kel feels, but her time with the Yamanis has also trained her to hide her emotions and press on through unrealistic expectations, deep-seated prejudice, bullying, and social rejection until she proves herself.

First Test is such a great reminder of just why I love Tamora Pierce’s books so much. It’s this fabulous mix of fantasy and slice-of-life, encompassing bits of school story (the majority of the tale), culture and history, exciting battles, amusing relationships with various animals, and growing friendships among many other things. Plus it’s an excellent look into changing perspectives on what women are capable of and that whole dynamic. Kel is a powerhouse, incredible character–the perfect individual for this particular story. Her story is so similar to and yet so different from Alanna’s in the Song of the Lioness Quartet that it’s quite interesting to compare the two. And knowing that Kel has Alanna’s secret backing is fabulous. But seriously, I love Kel’s stubbornness and determination, the way she works so hard to get where she wants to be. And the way that she’s quiet and feminine–which is partly stubbornness in the face of opposition itself–but is also ready to get into fistfights when necessary also contributes to a richness of character. Plus her friendships with all the various animals and her  intentionality in standing up for those who are weaker and afraid. She’s just a very well-realized and fascinating character, and I love that about her. I also really love her opinionated and chatty mentor Neal as well–also a richly developed and complex character who is quite likeable. It’s been entirely too long since I’ve read these books, and I’m greatly anticipating re-reading the rest of this quartet. I would highly recommend both First Test and the rest of the quartet to . . . well, basically anybody who likes a solid fantasy. As far as appropriate age recommendations, this quartet (like the Song of the Lioness books) is difficult to place, but I would say that First Test at least is appropriate for middle-grade and up (possibly even older elementary). Just be warned that the later books in the quartet grow up as Kel grows up, so there may be some more mature content there.

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