Wild Born, Spirit Animals Book 1, by Brandon Mull (September 2013), is the first book of a new multi-authored series from Scholastic. When this book arrived in the mail, it's kid-appeal was just bursting out of its cover image--brave, multicultural kids with cool spirit animal companions--and my ten-year-old pounced on it.
In a fantasy world modeled loosely on our own, with equivalents of Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa, some children form mystical bonds with spirit animals, who become their companions for life. These children become Greencloaks, traveling the world to help others safely bond with spirit animals. But this year, four children summon spirit animals that no child before them ever has. They are four of the twelve Great Beasts--mythical beings of legend--the Wolf, the Leopard, the Panda, and the Falcon, who died long ago in battle against two of their kind who had turned rogue.
Now Connor, a shepherd boy from the European equivalent, Abeke, from the African, Meilin, from the Chinese, and Rollan, from the colonial North American, must learn to trust their spirit animals so that they can tap into their powers. The two defeated Great Beasts from long ago are rising again, and war is engulfing the world...
This is primarily an introductory book---we meet the kids and their spirit animals, we get a bit of back story on the past conflict, and we share the protagonists frustration as the Greencloaks withhold information (for no good reason that I can see). Some tension comes from the fact that Abeke has been co-opted by a group that opposes the dominion of the Greencloaks, and the reader, like Abeke, is not sure what side is Right (clue--people with "nice" spirit animals are good, people with snakes and bats and crocodiles, not so much).
The story is propelled forward into a quest adventure when we learn, about halfway through, that each of the 12 Great Beasts has, or had, a talisman of power. Both sides want the talismans, and so the three young protagonists who were co-opted by the Greencloaks set off with their spirit animals, and their Greencloak mentor, to find the Great Ram and procure his talisman. The opposing side, along with Abeke, is (coincidentally) headed to the same place, and they meet and fight, and Abeke realizes that the folks she's with are the bad guys, abruptly the somewhat interesting ambiguity.
So there is indeed, as I had suspected, much kid appeal here. The gradual development of the bonds between the spirit animals and the kids they have chosen, and frustrations the kids experience as they try to make sense of what is going on makes for good reading. The larger plot, with its ancient evil and magical talismans, will seem much more fresh and inventive to the younger reader than to an experienced veteran of fantasy.
There's a pleasing diversity to the main characters, which goes beyond window dressing--the cultural backgrounds of the protagonists have contributed to who they are. My son, who I have trained to approach book covers critically, was happy to see that the African girl not only has the coolest, most actively being used, weapon, but also the most powerful and appealing spirit animal, and this pleased me too. I was a bit disappointed that Brandon Mull fell into the trap of stereotype, though, when describing his alternate North America, as "untamed land controlled mostly be beasts and the Amayan tribes" (page 68), as not only is it wrong to describe pre-contact North America as "untamed" (a lot of New England, for instance, was pretty carefully managed and rather park-like), but lumping together "beasts" and "tribes" is distressing.
Short answer: not one for adult readers, but 8-10 year olds embarking on their exploration of fantasy worlds and quests and companion animals will quite probably enjoy it.
The next book in the series (Hunted, coming January 2014) is written by Maggie Stiefvater...I prefere her writing to Brandon Mulls, so I will await it with interested optimism; my son will await it with unbridled eagerness.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher