Villain Keeper, the first book of Laurie McKay's Last Dragon Charmer series, quite a bit (here's my review), and so I was very happy to curl up with the second book, Quest Maker (HarperCollins, Feb. 2016), this past week. If you haven't read the first book, go and do that before reading my thoughts on the second, because I had to include some spoilers....
The basic gist of the set up is that a boy from a fantasy realm, a prince and Elite Paladin in training named Caden, fell into our world (specifically, Ashville, NC), and there he found that the local public school is in fact a prison of sorts for villains from his world who have been banished there by magic, run by a powerful dragon principal, Ms. Primrose, of very uncertain temper. In the second book, it becomes clear that someone is trying (successfully) to sabotage the school. Ms. Primrose calls on Caden to find out what is going on (he's more familiar with magical villains than other students are, and has a magical talent for using language to charm and cajole). So Caden, assisted by Brynne, a magic using girl who fell through to Ashville with him, Jane, who's mother was an elf, and Tito, Caden's good hearted foster brother, who provides ballast for the group, do their best to find out what exactly is going on.
And in the meantime, one of Caden's many older brothers, Jasan, arrives in Ashville, banished after been found guilty of killing another brother (he is hired by Ms. Primrose as a gym teacher). This adds another (related) mystery that needs solving--if Jasan isn't the murderer, who is?
It's an interesting story that moves along briskly with lots of villain-ness from the villains. Caden gets stuck a bit in his Elite Paladin persona, but gets some depth of character through his efforts to salvage a relationship with Jasan, which means confronting his own, not very happy, childhood as the youngest half-brother of the seven older princes, and his three friends provide a good counterweight to heroic virtue. Though Caden has now been in our world for a while, there's still humor to be found in his reactions to mundane reality. Here's a bit that made me chuckle:
"In the middle [of the flowers] stood a strange smiling figurine with a tall pointed hat.
It made Caden uncomfortable. It seemed to be looking at him. "What is that?"
"A garden gnome," Tito said.
"That isn't a gnome" He turned to his friend. Gnomes were small creatures with bad breath and pointed teeth "Gnomes are smaller. And meaner. And they don't wear hats, because they wouldn't fit over the horns," he said. "And they only smile before they attack."
Tito shrugged. "Asheville-type gnomes are happy, ceramic, and have tall pointed hats"
Caden glanced at the garden gnome again. "I don't like it."
Tito sighed and pulled him toward the door. Caden kept the gnome in his sight, though. He didn't trust it. Why did it have such a tall hat?" (p 199)
My only slight disappointment was that Ms. Primrose didn't go into full dragon mode, and just solve her school's problems with fire and teeth. I think that she is under some magical restrictions...we will probably find out more in the next book!
Tito and Jane (surnamed Chan) add diversity to the cast, which is good.
In short, if you have a young fantasy reader who might have grown tired of fantasy clichés, this is an excellent series.
And Kirkus agrees with me! (that's two in one week!):
"Caden is a true individual and hero. Dedicated to the Paladin Code, he is honest, noble, and brave. Thankfully Brynne and the rest of his friends are willing to be flexible: sometimes it takes a little subterfuge to battle evil. As in series opener Villain Keeper (2015), McKay juxtaposes hoary fantasy tropes against 21st-century reality with verve."