The Twelve, Cindy Lin

I am still stubbornly refusing to say good-bye to the middle grade sci-fi/fantasy books of 2019.  Though I did read around 200 of them, when I went through the Goodreads list of 2019 MG fiction, I found some that I had overlooked.   If I'd started focusing on 2020 back when it started, I don't know when I'd have gotten around to reading those books, and I'm very glad to have read them, so here I am.

I'm really surprised that The Twelve, by Cindy Lin (HarperCollins, July 2019), didn't get more buzz (or at least, more buzz that trickled down to me).  This is a debut East Asian zodiac fantasy that is a really fun adventure, with tons of kid appeal and fascinating magical powers!

Usagi's island home was supposed to be kept safe from invasion by the powers of the 12 zodiac warriors, trained in the use of the magical gifts of their signs on Jade Mountain, home to not just the warriors and their heirs, but to 12 wonderfully magical treasures.  But the Dragon warrior betrayed them, allowing invaders to sweep in, and conquer her home.  Orphaned, and with her little sister to look after, Usagi lives a hand to mouth existence, keeping her Rabbit powers and her sister's Horse powers as secret as she can manage. When her sister publicly uses her powers, and is captured to be sent with other zodiac gifted children to the Dragon's training ground, Usagi doesn't know what to do to save her.

But fortunately, there are those who can help her.  Usagi is taken in by a small group of surviving zodiac heirs, travelling back to Jade Mountain with the treasure they'd set off to find.  If Usagi can master her Rabbit magic, maybe she too can become an heir, and eventually a Warrior....But the one surviving warrior, a woman who is the Tiger, doesn't seem to think much of her, and when an expedition to confront the renegade Dragon, recover lost treasures, and save the captive children, is planned it's touch and go if Usagi will be allowed to join it...

The fist part of the book sets the stage, and primarily tells of Usagi's journey with the two young heirs to Monkey and Rat toward Jade Mountain, with dangers and unlikely friendships along the way.  The second tells of Usagi's training on Jade Mountain, and her progress discovering her full potential, with the Tiger Warrior as a formidable, but protective, teacher.  The third, most action packed, is the desperate struggle inside the Dragon's encampment, which ends with a cliffhanger and sets the stage for the sequel.   Since I have a fondness for "school" stories, the training part was my favorite, even though it sure wasn't Usagi's (patience being a hard lesson for her to learn, what with her sister in danger...), but the whole ensemble was gripping and very entertaining reading!

We stick pretty close to Usagi's perspective on what's happening, which is somewhat limiting; I would have liked more backstory and character development for the other heirs, and a bit more detail about the larger world.  I was never quite sure about the relationship between the Blue Dragon and the invading enemies, for instance, but that's quite possibly because I was racing along with the magical adventures!

If you love middle grade stories of magical powers being not only discovered, but taking work to get good at, found families and betrayals, check it out.  Bonus points, of course, if you're a Chinese mythology geek.

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